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Drought in the Murray–Darling Basin

Farmers and communities across many locations in the Murray–Darling Basin are currently experiencing severe drought conditions.

The Murray–Darling Basin cannot be ‘drought-proofed’. Sadly, drought is a natural part of Australia’s climate, and climate change is predicted to increase drought frequency and severity in the Basin.

When it’s dry, the whole river system suffers—including the animals, fish and birds that rely on the Basin for survival. The health and sustainability of the rivers, wetlands and floodplains is important to the sustainability of the whole Basin.

Fish deaths and drought

With rivers running dry and water storages across the northern Murray–Darling Basin at 20 per cent, drought conditions are affecting communities, businesses, animals and the environment.

Low rainfall across the Basin can have a severe impact on water quality. Water managers can manage flows to help mitigate water quality issues, such as fluctuating water temperature and dissolved oxygen shortages. But when there are limited flows water quality can be difficult to manage in this way. This means fish can suffer and die, due to reduced dissolved oxygen.

Dry conditions can provide prime conditions for blue green algae to thrive. When previously high water temperatures drop quickly, as they did recently, algae dies and as it decomposes oxygen levels fall below critical levels, causing the fish to die. Without more water available to flow through the system, it is possible more fish will die during summer.

Read more on fish deaths, why they occur and how Basin governments are responding

Drought and the Basin Plan

The Basin Plan prepares for drought by ensuring water is managed for all users—the environment, farmers, and communities. All water entitlement holders are treated equally, and in times of drought all allocations will be reduced, regardless of whether the water is for farming or for the environment.

The Water Act established the notion of critical human water needs (CHWN). CHWN refers to the minimum amount of water required to meet basic human needs such as for drinking and hygiene. It also includes non-human needs, where a failure to meet these needs would cause too much damage to social, economic or national security ─ for example, water for significant local industries or community use such as firefighting.  

The Basin Plan ensures that in times of significant drought, water is prioritised for critical human needs across the Basin. 

The Basin Plan and the Murray‑Darling Basin Agreement work together to prioritise water for critical human needs in the River Murray System.  There are three water sharing tiers in this system – normal, very low and extremely low – and the Basin Plan sets triggers for moving between water sharing tiers.

Read more about critical human water needs and water sharing tiers

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 a number of assistance measures to support farm families, farm businesses and rural communities to prepare for, manage through and recover from drought and other hardship.

The Australian Government has announced significant changes to the Farm Household Allowance program – with two lump sum supplementary payments worth up to $12,000 for eligible households, and changing the assets threshold to allow thousands more farmers to access support.

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

Assistance in Queensland

The Queensland Government is offering programs to help farm families, farm businesses and farm communities affected by drought.

Assistance in New South Wales

NSW 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 Victoria

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

Assistance in South Australia

The South Australian Government provides a number of services and avenues for assistance to support farm families, farm businesses and rural communities prepare for and manage the drought conditions.

More information

Updated: 18 Dec 2019