Publication Details

Askew, L. E., Sherval, M. & McGuirk, P. (2014). 'Not just drought.' Drought, rural change and more: perspectives from rural farming communities. In R. Dufty-Jones & J. Connell (Eds.), Rural Change in Australia: Population, Economy, Environment (pp. 235-253). Farnham, United Kindom: Ashgate.


The 'Big Dry', a prolonged dry period in Australia from 1997 to 2009, seared much of the Murray-Darling Basin region and resulted in large agricultural losses, degraded river systems and increased uncertainty in rural communities although climate change in the form of drought is not new to rural Australia (Wei et al . 2012). For many years, generations of Australian farmers and farming communities have battled such climatic extremes. However, the most recent drought event competed with a myriad of changes to their lives and as such, the façade of stoicism has slowly begun to crack. This chapter examines the changes exacerbated by drought occurring in rural Victoria and considers the challenges facing both rural towns and farming families, whose economic future and social well-being are predominantly associated with agriculture. By drawing on locally situated knowledge from case studies of the rural towns of Mildura and Donald, this chapter shows how issues such as reduced water supply, increasing agricultural costs, farm succession and cumulative uncertainty are affecting the ongoing viability of people living off the land in these drought-affected rural areas. Like many other rural towns in Australia where agriculture is a mainstay, Mildura and Donald are experiencing a combination of strains on their communities, townships, farms, and farming families. These pressures arise not only from drought but also from extensive changes to local communities and farming enterprises that include: a rapidly evolving water market, the increasing competition of commodity markets, wide-ranging rural demographic shifts, and changing rural service provision and investment. Drought and the effects of longterm drying of these agricultural regions represent just one challenge amongst a melee of change. In the oft-repeated words of residents from these rural communities, the problems they are confronting are 'not just drought', they are a combination of 'drought and more' which make successful adaptation all the more difficult, particularly when current policy regimes remain inadequate and local experiences little understood (Sherval and Askew 2012). This chapter seeks to extend our understanding of the issues facing both these drought-sensitive regions and those like them throughout Australia today by exploring the diverse, changing and sometimes strained contexts of rural towns and communities. It suggests that any future provision of support to communities throughout ongoing and future changes will require a holistic approach, rather than one that visualises drought as a once off, crisis-ridden event as government support schemes traditionally have done. Overall, this chapter seeks to develop the discussion surrounding drought impacts, and their embeddedness within a myriad of other rural changes and challenges, by drawing on locally situated knowledge to inform future decision-making nationally in this evolving, yet vital arena.