Adapting for an uncertain future: farmer behaviour in water-stressed basins

Dry Creek


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. Credible evidence reveals that future climate change may force rural communities to continue to endure these issues, exacerbating the potential for stressors linked with farming lifestyles to culminate in an increasing suicide rate.

Project objectives

This project aimed to develop a greater understanding of farm behaviour and adaptation to water stress, to allow a new approach to water policy in a range of water catchments by:

  • establishing the relationship between climate change beliefs and adaptation, and identifying the most effective  incremental adaptation strategies irrigators can employ in the face of climate change and water scarcity, and identifying the differences in influences associated with incremental adaptation across various water stressed regions;
  • developing a greater understanding transformational adaptation strategies, in particular studying the drivers of farm exit across water stressed regions;
  • identifying some of the consequences of non-adaptation for farmers, in particular, understanding the drivers associated with farmer suicide.

Selected key project outputs

Seidl C., Wheeler S, Zuo A. (2020) Treating water markets like stock markets: Key water market reform lessons in the Murray-Darling Basin, Journal of Hydrology, 581, pp. 124399, ERA A*

Yazd, S., Wheeler S, Zuo A. (2020) Understanding the impacts of water scarcity and socio-economic demographics on farmer mental health in the Murray-Darling Basin, Ecological Economics, 169, 106564. ERA A.

Seidl C., Wheeler S, Zuo A. (2019) High turbidity: Water valuation and accounting in the Murray-Darling Basin, Agricultural Water Management, ERA A/ABDC A

Wheeler S, Xu Y, Zuo A (2019) Modelling the climate, water and socio-economic drivers of farmer exit in the Murray-Darling Basin, Climatic Change,

Yazd, S., Wheeler S, Zuo A. (2019) Exploring the Drivers of Irrigator Mental Health in the Murray–Darling Basin, Australia, Sustainability, 11(21), 6097.

Yazd, S., Wheeler S, Zuo A. (2019) Key Risk Factors Affecting Farmers’ Mental Health: A Systematic Review, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16.

Settre, C, Connor J, Wheeler S (2019) Emerging water and carbon market opportunities for environmental water and climate regulation ecosystem service provision Journal of Hydrology, 528, 124077. ERA A*

Zuo A., Qiu F., Wheeler S (2019) “Examining volatility dynamics, spillovers and government water recovery in water markets in the Murray-Darling Basin”, accepted for publication 1/7/2019 in Resource and Energy Economics, ERA A.

Grafton, R., Doyen, L., Béné, C., Borgomeo, E., Brooks, K., Chu, L., . . . Wheeler S,Williams J., Wyrwoll, P. (2019). Realizing resilience for decision-making. Nature Sustainability, 2(10), 907-913

Haensch, J., Wheeler, S., & Zuo, A. (2019) “Do neighbors influence irrigators’ permanent water selling decisions in Australia?” Journal of Hydrology, 572, 732-744. ERA A*.

de Bonviller, S., Wheeler S, Zuo A. (2019) "Is there evidence of insider trading in Australian water markets?" Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 63(2), 307-327, ERA/ABDC A.

Wheeler S, Marning A (2019) “Turning water into wine: exploring water security perceptions and adaptation behaviour amongst conventional, organic and biodynamic grape growers”, Land Use Policy, 82, 528-537. ABDC A.

Grafton RQ, J. Williams, C.J. Perry, F. Molle, C. Ringler, P. Steduto, B. Udall, S.A. Wheeler, Y. Wang, D. Garrick, R. G. Allen (2018) “The paradox of irrigation efficiency”. Science, 361, 748-750. ERA A*.

Wheeler, S., Zuo, A., & Loch, A. (2018). “Water torture: Unravelling the psychological distress of irrigators in Australia”. Journal of Rural Studies, 62, 183-194. ERA A*.

Grafton Q, Wheeler S (2018) “The economics of water recovery in the Murray-Darling Basin”, Annual Review of Resource Economics, 10, 487-510, ERA B.

Loch, A., Wheeler S., Settre C. (2018) “Private Transaction Costs of Water Trade in the Murray–Darling Basin”, Ecological Economics, 146, 560-573. ERA/ABDC A.

Wheeler, S., Haensch, J., Edwards, J., Schirmer, J., & Zuo, A. (2018). Quantifying an integral ecology framework: a case study of the Riverina, Australia. Earth’s Future, 6(2), 192-212.

Wheeler S., Loch A., Crase L., Young M., Grafton Q. (2017) “Developing a Water Market Readiness Assessment Framework”, Journal of Hydrology, 552, 807-820. ERA A*.

Wheeler S., Zuo A. (2017) “The impact of drought and water scarcity on irrigator farm exit intentions in the Murray-Darling Basin", Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 61, 1-20. ERA/ABDC A.

Settre C., Connor J., Wheeler S. (2017) “Reviewing the treatment of uncertainty in hydro-economic modelling of the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia”, Water Economics and Policy, 3 (3).

Wheeler S., Hatton-MacDonald H., Boxall P. (2017) “Water Policy Debate in Australia: Understanding the Tenets of Stakeholders’ Social Trust”, Land Use Policy, 63, 246-254. ABDC A

Haensch J., Wheeler S., Zuo A. (2016) “The Contribution of spatial analysis to water management: a case study of the MDB, Australia”, Daniels J.A (ed) Advances in Environmental Research, 51, 77-102.  Nova, New York.

Wheeler S., Schoengold K., Bjornlund H. (2016) “Lessons to be learned from groundwater trading in Australia and the United States”, in (Eds) Jakeman, A.J., Barreteau, O., Hunt, R.J., Rinaudo, J.-D., Ross, A. Integrated Groundwater Management: Concepts, Approaches and Challenges. Springer.

Haensch J., Wheeler S., Zuo A., Bjornlund H. (2016) “The impact of water and soil salinity on water market trading in the southern Murray-Darling Basin”, Water Economics and Policy, 2, 1-26.

Douglas E., Wheeler S., Smith D., Overton I., Gray S., Crossman N., Doody T. (2016) “The role of stakeholders in MDB water management: How do irrigators make water use decisions and how can this influence water policy?” Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies, 6, 1-12.

Loch A., Boxall P., Wheeler S. (2016) “Using proportional modelling to evaluate irrigator preferences for water buybacks for reallocation purposes”, Agricultural Economics, 47, 387-398. ERA A

Nauges C., Wheeler S., Zuo A. (2016) “Elicitation of MDB irrigators’ risk preferences from observed behaviour”, Australian Journal of Agricultural & Resource Economics, 59, 1-17.

Grafton R.Q, Horne J., Wheeler S. (2016) "On the Marketisation of Water: Evidence from the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia", Water Resources Management, 30, 913-926. ERA A

Zuo A., Wheeler S., Adamowicz V., Boxall P, Hatton-MacDonald D. (2015) "Identifying water prices at which Australian farmers will exit irrigation: results of a stated preference survey", Economic Record, 91, 109–123. ERA A

Wheeler S., Zuo A., Loch A. (2015) “Watering the farm: Comparing irrigated organic and conventional farm water use in the MDB, Australia”, Ecological Economics, 112, 78-85. ERA A

Zuo A. Nauges C. Wheeler S. (2015) “Farmers’ exposure to risk and their temporary water trading”, European Review of Agricultural Economics, 42 (1), 1-24. ERA A

Project partners

Collaborating institutions:


The project (2014-18) was funded by the Australian Research Council under their Future Fellowship program.

Tagged in Projects:Water policy, Projects:Resilient landscapes, Projects:Healthy societies, Completed projects