Mon, Jul 02, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Australia's worst drought in years could end soon

AFP , SYDNEY

As severe water restrictions take effect in Australia's major agricultural area, experts say there are signs the country's worst drought in a century may finally be coming to an end.

Torrential rain last week flooded parts of Victoria State, just weeks after a deluge hit New South Wales and left nine people dead.

The rains helped replenish dwindling dam levels in some of Australia's major cities but were not widespread enough to prevent the government proceeding with a plan to cut water supplies to irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin.

The restrictions, which took effect yesterday, are expected to have a major impact on a region that grows 40 percent of Australia's agricultural produce and is regarded as the country's food basket.

"We must recognize that there are still many parts of the country that are still suffering from drought that haven't received enough rain yet," Australian Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile said.

Vaile welcomed predictions from meteorologists that the "El Nino" weather cycle blamed for the drought was coming to an end, saying he hoped the recent rains were a harbinger of things to come.

"Now all we can do is hope and pray that that continues," he said.

"It's certainly a significant change from what we've had over the last four or five years."

The official rural forecaster, the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE), this month predicted the winter crop would increase more than 130 percent after timely rains in agricultural areas.

"Widespread autumn rainfall across the majority of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia has provided an ideal start to the 2007 [to 2008] winter cropping season," it said.

However, ABARE has declined to say whether the drought was over after declaring a premature end to the Big Dry in 2003 -- only for it to continue for another four years.

A key rainfall indicator, the Southern Oscillation Index, hit a 13-month high last week after the rains in the southeast.

While it needs to stay high for at least another few months before the drought can be declared over, forecasters said it was a promising sign.

A separate Bureau of Meteorology report also released last week said that international models showed there was a good chance of that a drought-breaking La Nina weather pattern could soon form.

"After stalling for around a month, there are renewed signs from the Pacific Basin which are consistent with the early stages of a La Nina event," the report said.

"Furthermore, computer models have been unwavering in their predictions of a La Nina forming during winter," it said.

The bureau said all major meteorological models was showing the same signs.

"The fact that all major international coupled models show further cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean over the coming months suggests there is a distinct likelihood of a La Nina event occurring in 2007," the bureau said.

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