Limits to Adaptation project: Drought and the future of small inland towns

View the project description and the final report or a two-page summary of key findings

Lead organisation: University of Newcastle

Principal investigator: Dr Anthony Kiem

Project summary:

This project is an extension of a NCCARF Phase 1 Synthesis and Integration project conducted by the University of Newcastle as part of a suite of Historical Case Studies on extreme events. Australia’s vulnerability to climate variability and change has been highlighted by the recent (and current) drought situation. For example, a persistent rainfall deficiency over the last seven to ten years has resulted in low inflows into the Murray-Darling system, with some active storages currently at less than 20% of capacity. Droughts are, and always will be, part of the Australian climate and it is impossible to prevent these natural disasters from occurring. There is also the possibility that the frequency, intensity and duration of droughts may increase due to anthropogenic climate change,  stressing the need for robust drought adaptation strategies. However, answers to the following questions remain highly uncertain:

1. what are the effects of long-term drought on small rural towns? 

2. what are the critical water security issues? 

3. what options do small rural towns have in terms of drought adaptation? 

4. do small rural towns actually have the capacity to implement adaptive strategies that are required to mitigate drought related impacts and remain viable into the future? 

Two case study sites (Mildura and Donald) have been chosen. Both towns are located in Victoria but each has differing water sources, rainfall/climatic patterns, economic bases, population sizes, and water resource management practices, and importantly both have been strongly impacted by the current drought. For each case study site, this project will:

• place water supply and drought into context; 

• identify where drought related problems lie, what the potential solutions are, what adaptation strategies are in place or have been trialled, what decision-making processes were/are in place to arrive at drought management solutions; 

• collate information on the experiences of people living with water shortages; 

• discuss the likely future under different water resource scenarios, including options for adaptation to drought in the future.


The objective is to provide, for the two case study sites, a whole-of-government (Federal, state and local), business and community perspective on the:

• context and impact of drought on water supply and availability 

• context and impact of drought on society, economy, and mental health; 

• adaptation measures being put in place as a result of the knowledge gained from previous drought experiences (e.g. use of alternate water supplies, water reuse, water savings projects, drought awareness programs, change in town focus from agricultural to tourism or mining etc); and 

• areas where future adaptation measures need to be developed following subsequent reflection on ways of better preparing for such events (e.g. additional/alternative water supplies, changes in agricultural practice, changes in industrial water use).