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Adapting for an uncertain future: farmer behaviour in water-stressed basins (Future Fellow project)

This project investigates transformational adaptation (that is, changes to location, livelihood or identity) by irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin and California.

Drought and policy reform has inflicted significant economic, social and personal stress on rural communities in the form of falling commodity prices, increased input costs, continuing declining rural population, decreasing rural services (such as education and health) and increasing environmental issues. The reduction in water allocations during the drought led a large number of farmers to exit irrigation. There is also evidence to suggest that increased climate stress may result in adverse mental health outcomes for community members, particularly depressive and anxiety disorders and, in extreme cases, suicide. A large amount of credible evidence reveals that rural future climate change is likely to require that they endure the issues mentioned above, along with periods of extensive drought, further exacerbating the potential for stressors linked with farming lifestyles to culminate in suicide.

Water managers and policy makers will need to understand what drives farmer adaptation in order to plan for the economic, social and health impacts of future water scarcity from climate change and water reform related policies. Investigation will need build on the work that has already been conducted so far on irrigators’ incremental adaptation (e.g. water markets, infrastructure, crop/land choice), and also focus on the areas where there have been relatively little work conduced in comparison, namely transformational adaptation (such as farm exit choices, permanent water sale, farm relocation or complete farm restructure); and non-adaptation. This will involve gaining a greater understanding of adaptive capacity as well as the consequences of non-adaptation, in particular, mental depression and farmer suicide. A fuller understanding of such behaviour will allow new policies to incorporate such social issues and thereby improve policy outcomes.

The project (2014-18) is funded by the Australian Research Council under their Future Fellowship program. The main focus will be irrigation farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin in south-eastern Australia, rural communities more generally, and international comparisons.

Project support includes researchers from:

  • The University of California, Riverside (USA)
  • University of Alberta (Canada)
  • McMaster University (Canada)
  • Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)
  • University of Lethbridge (Canada)
  • University of Arizona, and
  • University of South Australia Centre for Rural Health
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