Farmers enduring Australia's worst drought in a century will get extra government handouts worth at least A$350 million (US$263 million), as forecasters downgrade crop expectations and predict a long, dry summer.
Much of Australia's farming and ranching belt in the south and southeast has been in the grip of a severe drought for up to five years, with rainfall levels far below average, causing problems especially for grain crops such as wheat and barley.
Officials say global warming may be partly to blame for the drought, and some warn that land that has been fertile for hundreds of years may have an uncertain future.
"It's a case of creeks that haven't run for months, sometimes years, bores that are going dry," government lawmaker Barnaby Joyce, whose constituency is in the Outback, said yesterday. "There is a real concern ... that maybe there is a final change in the climate."
Prime Minister John Howard yesterday announced a comprehensive A$350 million drought relief package for farmers in 18 designated areas in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.
The government would also extend interest rate subsidies granted to eligible farmers to the end of March, 2008, from an earlier deadline of the end of this year.
"If ever a country in a strong financial position owed something to some of its citizens, this nation owes it to the farmers of Australia to give them the support they need to successfully get through this terrible drought," Howard said at a news conference.
The measures come on top of A$1.2 billion the government has already spent since 2001 to help drought-stricken farmers, and Howard said there would be more to come.
Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran said about one in four farmers were receiving government assistance.
In recent weeks, the government's Australia Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economic and other forecasters have slashed their expectations for crops this year and next because of the drought, including a 4.5 million tonne reduction in the expected wheat crop for the season, to 11.5 million tonnes.
Meteorologists say Australia can expect a hot summer because of the same conditions that have contributed to the drought, and officials are warning that the country faces an extremely dangerous wildfire season.
Hundreds of fires scorched at least three states last week -- about two months before the annual fire season usually starts.
Environmentalists say some of the aid for farmers should be spent on moving them off marginally productive land so that it can regenerate.
"What we seem to be doing by drip-feeding these people with drought relief is keeping them there, maximizing the misery and maximizing the land degradation," said Peter Cullen, of the Wentworth Group of scientists that is aligned with the World Wildlife Fund.
"There must be a smarter way for our society to handle the way that we're going to have to readjust some of these marginal farm lands," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp.