Community based adaptation to climate change: the Arabunna, South Australia

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Melissa Nursey-Bray
University of Adelaide
Year Started: 

Executive summary from final report:

Climate change is an international problem and Indigenous people will be affected by it (Macchi 2008) with many case studies being documented in the literature (eg., Huntingdon and Fox 2005, Weladji and Holland 2003). In Australia, studies highlight many Indigenous peoples and communities will be particularly vulnerable to climate change (Green et al. 2009, Beer et al. 2012). This is a report presenting the combined results of two major studies (one examining risk, environmental change and adaptation and another focussing on social sustainability) that looked at climate change, adaptation and the Arabana people. It is the final reporting on a grant funded by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

To support the study, we commissioned a peer reviewed science report to identify the key predictions for climate change across all places where Arabana people live including the traditional country for Arabana which is in the Lake Eyre, Marree, Darwin, Alice Springs, Port Augusta and Adelaide. This report finds that the regions will get hotter, in some places wetter, and in others much dryer and that in Arabana Country, water availability overall will decrease. The report shows that flora, fauna, cultural sites and the liveability in the regions will be affected by climate change. 

Findings from the risk and adaptation study show that Arabana people consider climate change to be a risk and that they have a number of specific concerns. In particular, Arabana are worried about availability, access, quality and drying up of water, especially in relation to their culturally significant mound springs. They are concerned about the destruction of and eroding away of cultural sites via wind, erosion or flooding. The maintenance of livelihoods is another major issue as is how to build family and cultural networks across the nation. Arabana people across Australia also identified and described a number of changes (mainly environmental) that they had observed over time (a 90 year period). These include observed changes to flora, fauna, settlements, sea level, and the frequency of climatic factors including heat, cold, ice, dust, wind and cyclones.

However, results from the social sustainability study reveal a people highly resilience to change and who have been adapting to change for millennia. This resilience today is manifest in the way in which Arabana people have moved around the country, withstood the pressures of colonisation and remained culturally strong with a resilient sense of identity, no matter where they live. This highlights that the Arabana people are potentially less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as they have adaptive capacity to respond to this change. Part of this strength is evidenced by the fact that Arabana people from all across Australia came together in Port Augusta for an adaptation workshop, and collectively agreed on an adaptation program.

In sum, this research found that Arabana country is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but that the Arabana people are highly resilient. These findings are based on fieldwork, the relative certainty of the science predictions  and a literature review. Potentially, this presents a priority for adaptation planning for Country rather than for Arabana people in places where they live.  

Results from the adaptation workshop were collated with the research results to produce a community based adaptation strategy, endorsed by the Arabana Board of Directors in December 2012. Suggested adaptation programs included establishing cultural centres in every place and city where Arabana people live, setting up economic businesses in tourism and pastoralism, moving back to country, developing a program of regular cultural camps, revitalisation programs, the building of partnerships and the establishment of ranger, land management and monitoring and research programs.

View the final report