Strategies to survive the drought

While droughts have always been a part of this landscape, their frequency and intensity are rapidly leaving established coping strategies behind.

“If you want your community to survive in a drought-prone era, then you have to realise it’s not only the farms that will suffer,” resilience researcher Professor Roberta Crouch told Cosmos.

Water conservation, enhanced crops, soil conservation – all have received increased attention as the threat of climate change becomes a reality, but very little work has been done looking at the underlying resilience of rural communities.

Part of the problem is understanding what that is. And as another El Niño weather pattern unfolds over Australia, country towns and district centres again face rising rates of suicide, domestic violence and business closures.

“Local government has a way of looking at things that isn’t necessarily consistent with how their residents and businesses look at things,” says District Council of Loxton Waikerie’s Chief Executive Officer David Beaton. “Now that we’re doing some strategic planning, we need that depth and consistency of data to understand what the community needs.”

The Flinders University’s Torrens Resilience Initiative team is developing a Drought Resilience Mapping and Assessment Toolkit. It’s designed to identify the strengths and weaknesses of individual communities ahead of time.

A parched landscape extends into the horizon under a blue sky.
Australia’s Millennium drought lasted more than a decade, causing persistent shifts in the relationships between rainfall and runoff. Credit: kristianbell/Getty Images.

“For a community to survive, it must be able to hold up those members – such as farmers – who may be having a few bad years,” Crouch explains. “The focus of our project was to look at each community holistically and identify how it could build resilience to survive an adverse event.”

While fire, flood, hail and frost arrive and pass quickly, drought is a different thing.

“It creeps up. It stays God knows how long. And then maybe it will break – or maybe it won’t. So what we are looking to do is assess the impact of that from a community perspective” says Crouch.

Grassroots resilience

The resilience toolkit is being built to map and measure community social and business networks and resources as objectively as possible.

“Where does our community sit?” says Beaton. “What are the objective measures? We need this to decide what to invest in, to find out what our community actually needs help with.”

The Torrens Resilience Initiative has been working with several South Australian rural and regional centres to build this standardised resilience scorecard. Community focus groups and interviews have been combined with economic and social surveys for Crystal Brook, Orroroo and Loxton.

“All communities are different,” Crouch says. “So they each need to ask, ‘How resilient are we now? How vulnerable are we now? What are our pain points? Where are our strengths?’ Once armed with this line in the sand, community leaders can build an appropriate strategy for their town.

“We also looked at how people viewed their communities, where they had suffered, and what they thought was critically important to being able to survive and prosper,” says Crouch.

This produced a measure of how much “capital” a community has in 5 areas:

  • Social Capital – the extent and strength of community groups such as churches, football clubs, mothers’ networks.
  • Economic Capital the health and diversity of business activity and how independent these are from each other.
  • Location Capital what opportunities the community’s location offered in terms of tourism, events, transport and services.
  • Asset Capital – the availability and quality of basic health care, support services and education.
  • Preparedness Capital – the depth of planning and established procedures to cope with disaster.

Beaton says his council aims to prepare its new resilience strategy before the end of 2023.

“We’ve engaged with Flinders to check our data, to make sure there is consistency with the approach. We need the discipline that they can supply to get reliable analysis and identify the trends.”

It takes a village …

Crouch says some of the most valuable drought resilience assets may not be readily apparent or visible.

“Just one of the things that came out in all those regional communities was the critical nature of green spaces,” she explains. “A place to get away from the farm or business, and go and sit in someplace green, to be able to have a beer with friends and chat about something that wasn’t work-related.”

The economic capital needed to sustain such a park or oval may be high, but the social capital and well being these spaces generate is enormous.

“If a leader in a smaller council is worried that it costs them many thousands of dollars to keep watering the football oval, they need to understand what the actual value of that space is beyond staying green,” Crouch adds. “So instead of turning off the taps, they should be thinking of how to make more use of that restorative space to pay for the water and keep those crucial social networks going.”

Beaton agrees. “Instead of sharing the pain, you want to have something that makes people feel good and want to stay around for when things improve,” he explains.

It’s not just about supporting formal football and hockey clubs. Those aren’t for everybody. It’s important to also maintain less formal groups that may be less structured, like meetings of farmers who are going through tough financial times or need support for mental health issues.

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Harry Taylor, then 6, picks up a Lamb on his family’s farm in Coonabarabra, NSW, during 2018 droughts. Credit: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

But small businesses remain the plank upon which most regional towns are built.

“We’ve seen many amazing examples in these little towns, where there is a spirit of entrepreneurism and risk-taking. And when the agricultural sector takes a battering from drought, it’s these innovative ideas that can keep a community going.”

Survival strategies

“Entrepreneurism came out as something that’s undervalued in terms of community resilience. It needs to be promoted,” says Crouch.

“One of the things that I’ve noticed in reading through some of the drought resilience strategy documents is many communities say, ‘Oh, well, we’re just gonna ramp up tourism’. But it can all be a bit pie in the sky. Tourists go places because something is interesting to see and do. They don’t go otherwise.”

That’s where fostering a spirit of entrepreneurism comes back into play.

Crouch points to a community in Victoria that was on the brink of becoming a ghost town after its primary employer an abattoir closed.

“They’re now considered one of Australia’s spa capitals,” she says. “It worked because it is just the right distance from Melbourne for visitors to feel they are getting away from it all but not be put off. And the lure of a little pampering convinces them to stay the weekend.”

The initiative’s resilience toolkit aims to help communities identify their strengths to capitalise upon them.

It may be that one can optimise its position to become a retirement retreat. Another may enhance its communications and shared office facilities to support workers seeking a tree change. Others may invest in establishing or expanding unique arts, crafts, and sporting festivals.

“There’s risk involved. There’s investment involved. But just as farmers are being supported to try different crop types and forms of agriculture, communities must do the same for their businesses,” says Crouch.

The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

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