Connected communities are more capable of enduring future droughts

Insights: 17 July 2023

By Nina O’Brien, Disaster Resilience and Recovery Lead

If agriculture-dependent communities are to be sustainable in the long-term, we must also ensure local people are ready to withstand the pressures that come with extended dry periods. At the core, this requires strong social connections and community networks.

Often when drought preparedness is discussed, the narrative centres around caring for the land and the kinds of infrastructure that needs to be in place in areas to mitigate risks related to extended periods of drought or unseasonably dry conditions. While these are crucial factors to consider when preparing for drought, investing in initiatives that bring local people and strengthen these networks is vital for disaster preparedness and the long-term vitality of remote, rural and regional Australia.

In 2021, the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) was awarded $3.75 million to deliver the Australian Government’s Future Drought Fund Networks to Build Drought Resilience program. The aim of the program was to build community capacity by strengthening social and community networking, support, engagement and wellbeing. With additional funding from several donor partners, a total of $4,199,157 in grants was awarded. In total, the 87 community groups that completed their projects undertook 791 activities and reached 37,841 participants.

The final reports from grant recipients clearly demonstrate the positive impact that this dedicated focus on providing agriculture-dependent communities with opportunities and resources to strengthen social and community networking, engagement and wellbeing has had. Through the funded projects, communities report increased resilience and preparedness for the impacts of climate change, including drought. They have also seen a significant increase in community members’ knowledge and understanding of drought, increased skill development, and an increased understanding of technology and how it can support drought preparedness. This investment in the Networks to Build Drought Resilience program provided opportunities for communities to come together and put the conversation about ‘managing and mitigating future droughts’ squarely on the table. There is also now strong evidence showing the practical benefits of investing in local people and facilitating environments where they can learn to adapt to a drying, and unpredictable climatic future.

Social networks promote a sense of belonging

The final reports make evident the program’s effectiveness in increasing social capital in these communities and providing both formal and informal avenues for community organisations and grassroots groups to expand social networks.

As a result of these efforts by community groups in providing opportunities for people to connect, there was increased diversity in participation in community networking events and conferences, which has, vitally, led to locals feeling a greater sense of belonging.

Preparedness includes proactive mental health support

A particularly strong theme that emerged, was recognition of the importance of proactive mental health and wellbeing strategies, both for both individuals and communities as a whole.

One group, Active Farmers, located in the Riverina region of NSW, reflected on the long-term positive impact that their project, 100 Mental Health Champions, will have, writing: “Upskilling people across our network in mental health first aid will only have a positive flow on effect into the future – no matter what our communities are faced with. Becoming skilled in mental health first aid will help us on our mission of building more resilient and stronger rural communities.”

One size doesn’t fit all

The program saw a hugely diverse range of applicants, projects and participants. This highlighted the variety of ways in which drought-impacted communities are capable of, and can, benefit from strengthening their networks. One grant recipient, Outback Academy Australia, used their grant to run four in-person events and a national online event that saw community members connect with Aboriginal farming communities to learn local Aboriginal methods and techniques best used in a changing climate. Not only did participants increase their technical knowledge, but they were also able to build a shared sense of community and purpose.

The group reflected on the experience, saying: “Workshops addressed the perception that agriculture is separate from cultural and natural resource management, and that First Nations people are not engaged in farming or have an interest in agriculture to the same level as cultural heritage, and cultural and natural resource management. Another achievement was the respectful exchange between Western scientific-based knowledge and systems and Aboriginal knowledge, also referred to as traditional ecological knowledge, to improve farming systems and address the impacts of drought, extreme weather events and climate change.”

This the Networks to Build Drought Resilience program also proved that strong networks don’t always have to built in the traditional way. Mallee Sustainable Farming in Mildura VIC, was awarded a grant to build an online learning community that helps educate farmers on how to protect, manage and repair soils before, during and after drought. Their program is built around a schedule that provides information to farmers at the time of year when it’s most relevant.

They said, “The approach has been so successful that Mallee Sustainable Farming will continue to manage the group and use it as a way of both disseminating information and understanding audience needs concerning soil management for the foreseeable future.”

Success in the face of future drought

The success of the Networks to Build Drought Resilience program demonstrates the value in funding diverse approaches that allow communities to come together and put the conversation about ‘managing and mitigating future droughts’ squarely on the table.

The program also provides strong evidence showing the practical benefits of investing in local people and facilitating environments to strengthen community capacity to both increase drought preparedness efforts, and to support one another through future droughts and an ever-changing climate.

Read more about the impact of the Networks to Build Drought Resilience program in the Program Implementation and Learnings Report.

The Networks to Build Drought Resilience program was a precursor for the Future Drought Fund’s Helping Regional Communities Prepare for Drought Initiative. FRRR is proud to be delivering this Initiative, alongside Australian Rural Leadership Foundation (ARLF), through a community-driven, multi-pronged approach. Through this initiative, with the Australian Government’s support, we’re continuing to invest in the future, enabling agriculture-dependent communities to identify and act on their drought preparedness priorities at a grassroots level.