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When parts of the Murray–Darling Basin are in drought, there is limited water available. This affects the whole river system, including plants and animals, the communities of the Basin, and farming and food production.

Droughts are long periods of time when there is a shortage of water, often because of lower than usual rainfall.

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The effects of drought in the Murray–Darling Basin

The impact a drought will have depends on how long it lasts and whether there have been other droughts in recent years. A drought will also affect different elements of the river system differently.

For example, a dry year will mean farms that aren't irrigated (dryland farms) will produce less than in a normal year. The same conditions may not affect irrigated farms in the first year, as long as there was enough water in dams before the drought started.

If the previous year was good, a single year-long drought will not have much impact on overall water availability throughout the Basin, and town water supplies are unlikely to be affected. However, if a drought continues for more than a year, the amount of water in dams will drop, and communities and irrigators will start to be affected, along with dryland farmers.

Dams like the Hume Dam and Dartmouth Dam capture and store water when it rains and can provide water for the river system over many years. However when there are long periods with little or no rain, and there isn’t enough water flowing from the river sources, the amount of water stored will drop. When this happens, water shortages affect the whole river system.

When water levels drop the health of the entire Basin system can be damaged. This can mean:

  • safe drinking water might not be available
  • farmers can't produce crops
  • communities will suffer economically
  • populations of plants and animals will decline or die.

Why drought affects different places in different ways

The impacts of drought also depend on which part of the Basin the drought is affecting. The southern Basin (the River Murray and its tributaries) has higher and more regular rainfall than the northern Basin. It also has a number of large public dams that can store water that can be released when conditions are drier. This keeps the river flowing for the environment, communities and industries, which have adapted to the more regular flow.

In contrast, the northern Basin (the Barwon–Darling River and its tributaries) has drier and more variable weather patterns, with extreme dry times and floods. The public storages are generally smaller than in the southern Basin. River flow is more dependent on runoff after regular rainfall than releases from dams, and the ecosystems, communities and industries have adapted to the ‘boom and bust’ nature of the climate.

Areas of the Basin can be 'drought declared'. This is an official acknowledgement by the Australian Government or a state government that an area is in severe drought, and means people who are affected can access government drought assistance.

How a drought breaks

It takes more than a single burst of heavy rain to end a drought. Catchments – areas in the natural landscape that collect water before it flows through to rivers and creeks – only fill when there have been long periods of regular rainfall. Consistent rainfall is required for soil moisture to increase, for groundwater to recharge, and for run-off to make it into our creeks and rivers. Even when the catchments are soaked it can take many months or even years to generate enough runoff from catchments to refill major dams. For example, Dartmouth Dam can hold the water from almost 5 years of average rainfall. Normal amounts of rain at regular times are needed for a drought to truly end. Even after a drought ends, its effects are felt for a long time – the Basin's ecosystems, communities and industries take time to recover.

Different types of drought

Every drought is different in its type, location and effect. The Basin is so large and has varying climates, which means different parts of the Basin can experience different types of drought at different times. This is one reason it's hard to identify the beginning and end of a drought.

Droughts can be:

  • meteorological when there is less rain than usual
  • agricultural when there is not enough moisture in the soil for plants to grow
  • hydrological when there is not enough water in a river or in dams and storages
  • socio-economic when there is not enough water to meet human demand for it.

The Basin Plan was created in response to drought

During the Millennium Drought, the Australian Government committed to a national agreement so that the Basin would be managed as a whole, acknowledging that the Basin is a connected system. The result was the Basin Plan, which was created to help improve the health of the river system for the benefit of its users and the environment.

Over the years, the combination of natural droughts and the increasing use of water for agriculture, manufacturing and communities has harmed the health of Basin waterways. Climate change has brought new extremes in both drought and flood in many parts of the Basin. A combination of changes in rainfall patterns and increasing temperatures has resulted in more evaporation. This adds to the intensity and impacts of both floods and droughts. Managing water resources through the Basin Plan to improve the health of the river system is as important as ever.

The Basin Plan, allocations and how water is managed during a drought

While the Basin Plan can't prevent droughts, it helps prepare for them by ensuring water is managed fairly for all users: the environment, farmers, people across the Basin and First Nations.

It sets out rules to make sure enough water remains in the river system to improve its health and sets limits on how much water can be taken from the river. It also provides water for the environment.

During a drought, all allocations are reduced, whether the water is for farming or the environment. Everyone who holds water entitlements (the right to be allocated water from the river) is treated equally. Water allocations for farmers are based on recent rainfall and water in dams.

When there is a severe drought, water that is 'critical for human needs' is prioritised. This is the minimum amount of water required to meet basic human needs such as drinking and hygiene, as well as water for livestock. If social, economic or national security is at risk, water for 'non-human needs' might also be prioritised. For example, water might be used for significant local industries or uses which protect the community such as firefighting.

Water for the environment during a drought

Environmental water holders, including the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, are responsible for managing water for the benefit of the environment. During a drought environmental water holders are affected by the same reductions to allocations as everyone else.

Environmental water holders will consider how best to use their water allocation in a drought in the same way other water entitlement holders do, but will take the health of the whole river system into account as well. During extended dry periods, the priority for this water will be to avoid irreversible damage to the environment.

You can read more about how different groups decide where water for the environment goes.

Where to get help during a drought

Rural Financial Counselling Service

The Rural Financial Counselling Service (1800 686 175) provides financial counselling services to farmers, including assistance with financial and business options, developing a financial action plan, accessing government assistance schemes, and referring to other service providers.

Australian Government assistance

The Australian government provides drought and rural assistance to support farm families, farm businesses and rural communities to prepare for, manage through and recover from drought and other hardship.

The Farm Household Allowance program includes two lump sum supplementary payments worth up to $12,000 for eligible households.

The Regional Investment Corporation offers drought loans for farmers to help them prepare for, manage through or recover from drought.​

Assistance in New South Wales

DroughtHub provides a one-stop online destination for information on a vast range of services and support available to primary producers, their families and communities to prepare for and manage drought.

Assistance in Queensland

The Queensland Government provides drought assistance programs to help farm families, farm businesses and farm communities.

Assistance in South Australia

The South Australian Government provides drought support to farm families, farm businesses and rural communities to help them prepare for and manage the drought conditions.

Assistance in Victoria

The Victorian Government provides dry seasons support to farmers throughout Victoria to prepare and respond to drought through technical, financial and personal support.

Updated: 11 Nov 2021