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By Dr Yiheyis Maru Dr Tom Measham Dr Veronica Doerr 27 May 2020 6 min read

An economy and community reliant on an industry risks severe disruption if that industry - such as agriculture in drought - faces any kind of downturn.

More frequent, severe and prolonged droughts interacting with extreme climate events and other slow onset factors are threating the viability of many Australian rural communities. In its latest outlook, ABARES estimated the recent drought has reduced farm incomes by 8 per cent between 2018–19 and 2019–20. That’s an average of $150,000 per farm, with some farms having no income this year. 

Studies indicate that farming communities severely affected by drought experience 20 per cent higher cases of financial stress, 30 per cent higher mental illness, and 15 per cent increased risk of male-suicide. Besides the significant health, social-economic impacts, drought can also cause significant environmental degradation, biodiversity losses including from amplified feral animals, diseases, pests and the spread of weeds. 

While drought affects individual farming families differently, the impacts on regional centres that are dependent on agriculture extends beyond farming households and affects rural business, towns and communities at large. There is also evidence that when in drought, people who do not work in agriculture face widespread loss of services. 

Last year, there were several rural towns in drought affected regions across the New South Wales, Queensland and parts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory that either were about to run out of water (approaching day zero when the taps run dry). A recent report by UNICEF Australia noted young children in drought affected regions in Australia face the reality of having responsibilities beyond what is reasonable for their age and they fear for the future of their families and their own futures. 

Looking to the future, climate change projections show the likelihood of more frequent, intense and long duration droughts due to combined effects of reducing precipitation, increasing temperature and heatwaves in many parts of Australia. This interacting with other extreme events such as fires, flooding and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, threaten the rural sector vision of supporting a prosperous $100 billion agricultural industry by 2030. So, what can communities do to plan for a more resilient future? 

The impacts of events such as droughts extend beyond the farm gate and cause long-term harm to the wider community and economy.

Planning for change and resilience

Current practices and policy support to manage drought and related climate extremes may no longer be enough to sustain rural communities. Building drought-proof agriculture needs to be complemented with transition planning that enables resilience of the rural communities, business and industries that are supported by, provide service to, or generate alternative livelihood opportunities to farmers and other community members. 

Given multiple and interacting challenges, uncertainty and disruption in the future, communities in drought affected regions need new collaborative and innovative planning approaches. These must go beyond maintaining their current states, plan to transition ahead of the curve and build resilience. 

However, significant transitions are rare in practice. This is because in addition to farm-scale innovation, they require deliberate, collective planning, that address challenges and opportunities for resilience that often exist at scales above the farm and over a long timeframe. What is required for building resilience at these scales can be difficult to identify and address without research and evidence-based innovative planning that supports changes in capability, practices and new policies occurring at sufficient scales.

General resilience can be built to protect against drought and other extreme events like floods.

Approaches to building drought resilience

Unlike the conventional planning approaches that are often based on linear cause and effect assumptions, heavily rely on few experts, and are suited to times of stability, a new transition planning process is required in close partnership with communities to address disruptive changes and uncertainty. This planning approach promotes a systems perspective, co-learning and innovation to: 

  1. Understand the system structures and feedback loops that cause vulnerability to drought and other interacting extreme events and shocks. 
  2. Investigate current resilience conferring system properties and rural communities’ initiatives. 
  3. Explore plausible future scenarios, opportunities and risks. 
  4. Collectively investigate the nature and type of change required. This may include maintaining some aspects, modifying others and/or even completely changing or bringing new aspects to the rural system to build a resilient and prosperous future.  
  5. Work collectively and innovatively on multiple options and complementary transition pathways and programs to implement these changes required. 
  6. Given the uncertainty in the future, establishing adaptive governance and continuous monitoring, evaluation and learning to guide the development and implementation of transition pathways and enable revision and changes to pathways as more is known and conditions change. 

So what can these changes look like in practice? 

Transitions may involve farming differently, building greater economic diversification through industries such as tourism, development, trial and application of new digital technologies. It may also involve replacing a big part of farming altogether with other new and diversified livelihoods, businesses and industries through different land use or value-add options. Complementing existing initiatives, it also involves addressing root causes mental health and building resilient landscapes.  

The way forward

CSIRO is working with farming system and rural council partners to develop an approach to wellbeing and resilience that supports rural and regional communities to engage in a science-based transition planning process. 

The approach is specifically designed for building resilience in the face of drought, and other challenges facing regional communities including extreme events. It will be informed from experiences of a recent application of a resilience, adaptation pathways and transformation approach (RAPTA) in the development of living transition roadmaps for a resilient and prosperous future of regions in Queensland. 

Looking ahead, the approach will be implemented in partnership with regional communities to support them to identify and build upon existing resilience measures. This will enable evidence-based decisions about the type and extent of changes needed to build psychologically, socio-economically and environmentally resilient and sustainable rural livelihoods and landscapes. 

In the long term, resilient communities will not only withstand downturns more strongly, but they will also recover more quickly. 

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