Northland drought: Locals plea for aid amidst water crisis

Northlanders say the current drought crippling the region is having a dramatic impact on farms, businesses and residents being able to access clean water.

Many estimate the big dry will cost the local economy tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars this year, and may even see some farms forced to shut down.

It hasn't rained on John Blackwell’s Kaipara sheep and beef farm for months, and he might not see any rain for months to come.

"What really concerns me is the water levels. They have never been so low," he told Newshub Nation.

Northland is currently almost two months behind normal rainfall levels. That means it would take two months of rain to get the soil back to normal.

On the farm, that means less feed for the animals, so stock is sold off, saturating the market, forcing prices down and costing farmers like Blackwell.

Blackwell helps run Federated Farmers in Kaipara. He knows the region and its farmers well. He has stored plenty of feed away for a "rainy day", or a dry summer like this. But not everyone around here has that luxury.

Federated Farmers estimates farmers in this region will have about five or six weeks left of feed for their stock. After that, things will become extremely tough. And, there's still no rain in sight.

The conditions are threatening to have a bigger impact than just on animals.

"One of the things we're always frightened about is depression," says Blackwell. "And when you get a drought it puts a huge emphasis on your credit or your debit. And you know some farmers will probably have to sell up because of this."

Down the road, Michael Roberts is also making cutbacks on his family farm. He hasn't done the maths yet, but like many, this farm will lose tens of thousands. He's having to dry off cows, meaning they stop milking, so they don't need as much food.

"We have dried off a third of our herd. Six hundred and fifty cows is our peak figure and we're down to 400 now, so that's a lot of milk out of our vat."

It's not just traditional farmers sweltering under the heat - 95 percent of New Zealand's kumara supply comes from here. This year production is estimated to be down 30 percent, another cost in the tens of millions. 

A map showing the extent of the drought.
A map showing the extent of the drought. Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

The Government is offering 'some' assistance to the Kaipara District. Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor allocated $80,000 to the Northland Rural Support Trust.

The money was set aside to provide events for rural families to make sure they don't become isolated. But it's not a handout to farmers, and it doesn't pay for shipping in any extra water.

Kaipara Mayor Jason Smith says the central Government needs to be doing more.

"The $80,000 for the rural support trust, for all of Northland is simply inadequate, in the situation we're in, with the levels of distress the communities have."

Smith told Newshub Nation that in the last two weeks, more than a million litres of water has been carried from outside the region to fill water tanks belonging to residents who don't take the town supply. That's an extra cost in the hundreds of dollars for locals, on top of their rates. 

He has a stark warning if there's still no rain in the next few months.

"The trees will be dying, the water pipes that currently connect the towns will be breaking open at joints as the cracks in our soil become wider, they'll literally be wrenching apart the water pipes."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says the $80,000 of Government support, allocated to the Northland Rural Support Trust, is an initial amount which can be topped up if needed.

"Meantime, the Defence Force has helped deliver water to towns and the Government has also committed $2 million to set up temporary water supplies in Kaikohe and Kaitaia," he told Newshub.

"That's the start of our support for the region. I am, along with the Ministry for Primary Industries, continuing to closely assess needs as the situation develops.

"I will visit Northland again this week and convene a meeting with local farming leaders. These are difficult conditions and the Government is committed to helping our farmers and their families."

Crunch time for water supply

Further north in Kaikohe, it's also crunch time for water supply. Civil Defence has water tanks in the town centre in case it runs dry. In Kaitaia, the Defence Force was called in this week to take water out to isolated towns. It's feared water tanks used at marae and community facilities will soon be empty.

On the ground, there's a sense of helplessness from locals who say it should have never come to this. The Government has allocated $2million to help source water supplies to the towns.

That will take time and are not long term solutions. When allocating the funding, Minister Shane Jones said: "The council has dropped the ball". It's a criticism Far North Mayor John Carter admits is fair.

"We did see it coming but we didn't realise it would be as fierce as it is right now."

Carter says the council is planning long-term solutions but at the moment, he's focused on the immediate crisis.

"It's close to running out. In another 10 or so days if we keep taking at the rate we are we could run out of water in the stream, so it's quite significant."

Rivers and streams are drying up, farms are becoming dust bowls.

Northland can't look to the skies for help, so it's asking those in charge to offer some relief before this region runs dry.

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