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1. Introduction

The aim of this publication is to provide a contemporary reference to Australia's research, development, education and extension activities in climate variability in relation to agriculture. This is to increase the awareness of scientific groups, and the general public, to work in this area, enabling a better appreciation of what is being done, and to improve the prioritisation, targeting and integration of the various research, development and service activities.

1.1 National overview - climate and agriculture

Australia is an island continent with ancient, fragile soils and a predominantly arid climate. Rainfall above 600 mm per annum is confined to the northern, eastern and south-eastern coastal regions and the south-western tip. The south is characterised by a Mediterranean-type climate with cold, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Annual pastures in the south usually germinate between March and May in response to autumn rains, growth being most active in spring before senescence in October-November. The north experiences a monsoonal climate, most of the rainfall occurring in late summer-autumn.

There is substantial variability in the rainfall between years, this variability increasing in general with distance inland from the coast. With climate variability there is inevitably drought. Australia therefore has the reputation of being a land of droughts and flooding rains.

Agriculture in Australia is predominantly extensive. In the limited area where high rainfall occurs, above 800 mm a year, agriculture in southern and eastern Australia is characterised by dairy and beef cattle, horticulture, and prime lamb production. Most wheat production, in association with sheep, is located in the south-east and south-west, between the 300 and 600 mm annual rainfall isohyets, though wheat production further north moves to higher rainfall areas. The balance of Australia's wool and beef production takes place in the pastoral zone, most of which has considerably less than 600 mm rainfall a year. A large part of the centre of Australia is desert or very arid rangelands that in most years are able to support relatively few grazing animals.

The Climate Variability in Agriculture Research and Development (R&D) Program (CVAP), funded primarily by the Commonwealth Government, together with contributions from several R&D Corporations and managed by the Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation (LWRRDC), has its basis in the National Drought Policy (NDP). CVAP evolved from the former National Climate Variability R&D Program (NCVP). The NDP was developed to encourage primary producers and other sections of rural Australia to adopt self-reliant approaches to managing for climatic variability, to maintain and protect Australia's agricultural and environmental resource base during periods of extreme climate stress, and to ensure early recovery of agricultural and rural industries, consistent with long-term sustainable industries (White et al. 1993; O'Meagher et al. 1998, in press).

The National Drought Policy therefore sees climate variability and drought as part of the Australian environment. The policy recognises that drought is only one of several sources of uncertainty affecting farm businesses and is part of a farmer's normal operating environment. However, its effects can be minimised through good management practices. The main focus is on farm management that takes into account the risks associated with a variable climate and adheres to the principles of sustainable agriculture. Commonwealth and State initiatives to encourage Property Management Planning are consistent with this approach.

White, D.H., Collins, D. and Howden, S.M. (1993). Drought in Australia: prediction, monitoring, management, and policy. In Drought assessment, management and planning: Theory and case studies, edited by D.A. Wilhite, Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 213-236.

O'Meagher, B., du Pisani, L and White, D.H. (1998). Evolution of drought policy and related science in Australia and South Africa. Agricultural Systems 57, 231-258.

O'Meagher, B., Stafford Smith, M. and White, D.H. (in press). Approaches to integrated drought risk management: Australia's National Drought Policy. In Hazards and disasters: a series of definitive major works: Drought, edited by D.A. Wilhite, Routledge, London (in press).

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