Rain brings relief to drought-stricken Australia farmers

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Meteorologists say weather patterns over the Indian and Pacific oceans have contributed to recent higher temperatures, but that long-term climate change trends are also involved

Widespread rain fell across drought-affected parts of eastern Australia over the weekend, bringing relief to farmers struggling to cope with the driest conditions in more than half a century.

Graziers have had to hand-feed sheep and cattle, sell down stock -- and in some cases even shoot them to end their suffering -- as they run out of hay and grain in the severe conditions affecting Queensland and New South Wales states.

The wet weather was the first farmers in some areas had seen for more than a year, and even included hail.

But locals cautioned the ground had become so dry in recent months that more downpours over the next few weeks and months would be needed to make a difference.

"Those rains will be far from drought breaking," National Farmers' Federation president Fiona Simson told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Sunday.

"What we need is 20 (millimetres, 0.79 inches) next week on 20 the next week, 20 the next week, and... (in the) next few months... to aptly build up those depleted soil and moisture reserves in the soil."

The respite came as new Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would make addressing the drought the top priority of his government.

"It was pleasing to see the report on the rain yesterday in the last 24 hours," Morrison, who will visit stricken areas with the deputy PM this week, told ABC radio early Sunday.

"That is encouraging, but we know that is nowhere near what is obviously needed."

The government under previous PM Malcolm Turnbull, who was ousted in a party coup Friday, had pledged Aus$1.8 billion (US$1.3 billion) in financial aid for graziers and local communities.

The Labor opposition called on Morrison to factor the battle against climate change into his drought policies, amid a push by the right wing of his Liberal Party to ditch an emissions mitigation policy which contributed to Turnbull's ousting.

"If he is not prepared to stand up and say 'this is a consequence of climate change and I am going to commit to both mitigation and adaptation', then he will fail farmers," shadow agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon told Fairfax Media.

While droughts are not uncommon in Australia, the length and severity of the dry conditions have strained farmers' efforts to stay afloat.

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