Since European settlement of Australia began in 1788, drought has been viewed as a major natural threat. Despite warnings by scientists (e.g., Ratcliffe, 1947) and many public inquiries, government policies have, in the past, encouraged closer land settlement and intensification of cropping and grazing during wetter periods. Not surprisingly, drought forms part of the Australian psyche and has been well described in poetry, literature (e.g., Ker Conway, 1993), art, and the contemporary media (newspapers and television). Droughts have resulted in social, economic, and environmental losses.
Attitudes toward drought in Australia are changing. Government policies now consider drought to be part of the natural variability of rainfall and acknowledge that drought should be better managed both by governments and by primary producers. Nonetheless, each drought serves as a reminder of the difficult challenges facing primary producers during such times.
We begin this chapter with a brief overview of drought in Australia and its impacts on agricultural production, the environment, rural communities, and the national economy. We outline some of the ways governments and primary producers plan for and respond to drought and describe in detail an operational national drought alert system.
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