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New Zealand parched as worst drought in 30 years takes toll

Nick Perry / AP

John Rose stands in a field on his dairy farm in New Zealand on Thursday. A drought on the country's North Island is costing farmers millions of dollars each day and is beginning to take a toll on the country's economy.

Authorities in Wellington, New Zealand, have issued an outright ban on outdoor water use as a worsening drought has siphoned the available supply to less than half of normal level and prompted the government to declare the worst water shortage in 30 years.

New Zealand's capital, home to more than 200,000 people, has just 19 days' supply of water left in its reservoirs, the APNZ news service reported.

"The water supply situation is now approaching extreme," the Greater Wellington Regional Council said in a statement on its website, adding that it is also asking residents to cut indoor water use "to help us avoid a crisis."

Wellington hasn't seen a significant rain since Feb. 4, and while a storm is forecast for this weekend, it will have no real impact on the water supply, authorities said. All of the North Island, which holds most of the country's population, has been declared a drought zone. Auckland on Thursday issued an outdoor fire ban.


The Wellington City Council said urgent action had to be taken to ensure that homes and businesses had sufficient water.

"Water levels in our local rivers -- the source of our water supply -- are extremely low and dropping," the council said in a statement. "A significant reduction in demand for water will extend the number of days that back-up storage will last, so it’s important to save water now."

The drought has had a major impact on farmers, who estimate that it has so far cost them $820 million in lost export earnings, The Associated Press reported, adding that the damage is rising daily as they reduce their herds, which in turn reduces milk production.

"We are beginning to see a decline in milk production -- in fact, a sharp decline in some areas -- and farmers are considering slaughtering capital stock, which will result in lower future production and reduced revenue," New Zealand Finance Minister Bill English said Tuesday during a Parliament meeting.

Brett Phibbs / AP

Fields are turning from their normal green to a dry and crunchy brown as the drought worsens.

"It's very hard to remember when the last rainfall was," dairy farmer John Rose told the AP, adding that he had sent more than 100 of his cows to slaughter in recent weeks as the drought turned pastures brown and dry. He said the move was necessary to make sure his remaining 550 cows had enough to eat -- a challenge even as he mixes in palm kernels with their feed to try to stretch it.

Like most farmers, he's concerned about the future, as are some government officials.

"We know the drought will peg back growth in the economy, but it is not yet clear by how much," English told Parliament.

Even if the current drought eases soon, the long-term picture isn't rosy, according to climate scientists.

The government's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research predicts that farmers in the southern part of the North Island, the area around Wellington, will spend up to 10 percent more time per year in drought by the middle of the century.

More NBC News coverage of New Zealand