Weather: New Zealand farmers brace for drought amid fears of most intense El Niño in history

Hang onto your hats New Zealand - it's going to be a wild few months of weather with what's shaping up to be the most intense El Niño in history.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) has declared the official arrival of El Niño, which could cause dryness in the east and more rain in the west.

Farmers in Hawke's Bay are already bracing for a possible drought, and Marcus Buddo from Poukawa said despite recent rain the situation can quickly change.

"I'm worried as we all know how fast the water comes out of ground and out of soil. The problem with a drought is it's insidious, it creeps up on you and every day is another day closer to rain but you have no idea how far away that is," he said.

A new report from NIWA shows that for the next three months, rainfall is likely to be below normal for the northeastern parts of the country. It's also expected to be above normal for the bottom of the South Island, while temperatures are expected to be above average for the whole East Coast.

The outlook also said there will be stronger than usual winds, especially more westerly winds that would likely lead to prolonged dry spells in the north and east of the country.

NIWA's climate outlook.
NIWA's climate outlook. Photo credit: NIWA / Supplied

NIWA meteorologist Chris Brandolino told Newshub this will increase the chance of drought.

"It is the upper and the eastern North Island where we are most concerned about for dryness," he said.

The El Niño climate pattern is shaping up to be the strongest in 80 years, increasing fire risk and causing dramatic temperature swings.

"Be prepared for springtime to be quite wild in terms of temperature," said Brandolino.

Hawke's Bay councillor Jock Macintosh is warning that his region might have its driest summer yet.

"There's a lot of chat, people are on edge. We know more extreme weather includes drought, for all we know the worst drought could be starting today," said Mackintosh.

Not ideal for a region that's estimated to be short of 25 million cubic metres of water by 2040, which is why he's keen to see a serious conversation about water storage.

"We've got to save water and the obvious solution is storing it so we can hang on to some of it, then release it when there's not enough," he said.

That's to try and avoid a similar devastating drought to 2020's, when many regions dried up. Buddo said mental health was a huge concern then, and still is now because Cyclone Garbrielle has damaged so many farms. 

Flooded farmland from February in Gisborne Region.
Flooded farmland from February in Gisborne Region. Photo credit: Newshub

The cyclone resulted in 11 locations over four regions recording their wettest six months ever.

However, Brandolino said now a climate driver, called the Indian Ocean Dipole, is turning off the tropical tap of moisture and increasing drought risk. When that combines with El Niño, it puts a 'wall' up to the north.

"That will really limit the tropical connections and is a big difference to what we've seen in previous years with La Niña," he said.

Buddo is part of the Rural Advisory Group, which is already discussing the potential for drought and wants farmers to be well prepared. They're urging people to do a stock take of feed supplies, animal numbers and water infrastructure, then keep monitoring their soil and growth conditions.

"You need to make decisions early, otherwise you get caught and can't move stock off farm because everyone is dry and there is no space at the works," he said.