Local Climate Adaptation (2023)


THINK TANK - Are We Drought Ready?

Exploring local drought adaptation

The issue of climate adaptation and the impacts of changing agricultural landscapes was identified as a high priority from the Victoria Drought and Innovation Hub’s Node consultations with farming, rural and regional communities. Specifically, the role and capacity of local government to address climate adaptation was also raised as an area of especially significant importance.

The Vic Hub has begun investigating this issue by undertaking a review of current research on climate adaptation and hosting a collaborative think tank event (held at Latrobe University’s Bendigo campus in March 2023) to identify community-led outcomes and/or projects to be developed over time. See our overview below:

Climate Adaptation and Key Research

Victoria’s climate has warmed by 1.2C since records began in 1910 (Currie-Alder et al. 2021). The state is likely to become hotter and drier and may experience more frequent extremes such as heatwaves, bushfires and drought (DEWLP 2022). The availability of fresh water is likely to become a critical issue and if emissions continue to grow at the rate seen in recent decades and no adaptation action is taken, then the estimated costs of damage would be $150 billion by 2050 (DELWP 2022)

What is climate adaptation?

Adaptation is the process of adjustment to the effects or expected effects of climate change (Currie-Alder et al 2021). It is also a dynamic and continuous process, involving learning and experimentation (DEWLP 2022). Decades of dealing with extreme weather events and disasters have shown how detrimental climate change can be to economic and social development (Schipper 2020). Thus, there is acknowledgement that strategic and deliberate measures are needed to protect individuals and societies the adverse effects (Schipper 2020). It must be noted however, that climate adaptation is a relatively new field of study, with adaptation projects only being implemented within the past 15 years (Kaufman and Roston 2022).

Regardless of how quickly societies decarbonise, global temperatures have already risen by more than 1C and will continue to rise through mid-century and likely beyond (Currie-Alder et al. 2021). Indeed, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found some of the changes due to climate change are already in motion, such as sea level rises, are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years (IPCC 2022). Alarmingly the report also found that unless there are rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting global warming to 1.5C or even 2C will beyond reach (IPCC 2022). Averaged over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5C of warming (IPCC 2022).

In Australia, the potential for large scale change to environments, will have profound consequences for societies and economies (CSIRO 2022). Therefore, responding to climate change involves both mitigation (lowering greenhouse gases) and adaptation (adjusting to the effects of climate change). Mitigation has clearly defined targets, however adaptation does not have an end point, rather it is a continuous process of change that all governments must take into consideration when designing and implementing policy (DEWLP 2022). Adaptation is also highly context-specific, therefore problems and solutions will vary between places (DEWLP 2022). Critically, the effectiveness of an adaptation approach will depend not just on the condition of the natural assets and how they are likely to be impacted by climate change, but also the values and interest of the community, their view of risks and preferences for different actions (DEWLP 2022).

Adaptation can be planned or autonomous (such as a farmer planting more drought resilient crops). Other distinctions include temporal and spatial dimensions, such as whether a strategy is considered long or short term, proactive or reactive, localised, or widespread (Schipper 2020). There are multiple adaptation typologies to assess the effectiveness of a strategy. A recent study by Biagini et al. (2022) examined 92 adaptation projects across multiple countries, to create a generalised typology of adaptation activities. They classified more than 150 adaptation activities into 10 overarching classifications (see the table below??). The most frequently coded adaptation actions related to capacity building, management and planning and policy.

What is climate ‘maladaptation’?

While adapting to climate change is necessary, planning in adaptation is an exercise in uncertainty (Schipper 2020). Maladaptation is when planning for the effects of climate change on ecosystems or communities, actually makes the situation worse; where people become even more vulnerable to climate change (Schipper 2020). Poor planning is widely considered to be the primary cause of maladaptation, however causes are often complex, multifaceted and identifying maladaptation in advance is difficult (Schipper 2020). Historically, there has not been enough empirical ‘on the ground’ evidence to understand why certain approaches or strategies have led to maladaptation, however scholars contend there is now sufficient experience of how maladaptation can take place (Schipper 2020: Biagini et al. 2022).

An example of maladaptation could be a company planting trees to sequester carbon, however doing so in area that is prone to bushfires (Beddow 2022). Maladaptation was raised as a concern in the UN’s landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report last year. It found that while adaptation is becoming increasingly necessary, there had been cases where it had terribly gone wrong; such as sea walls meant to protect against rising oceans, making other areas more prone to flooding; or irrigation to grow vital food resulting in the depletion of groundwater and even tree planting in ecosystems which are not suited to being forested (Kaufman and Roston 2022).

Ultimately adaptation can fail and become maladaptive for multiple reasons. However it has been noted that failed adaptive policies commonly also fail to alter the social and political dynamics that have produced different levels of vulnerability across society in the first place (Schipper et al. 2021). Indeed, researchers and practitioners contend understanding power imbalances, vulnerability and social norms is critical to ensuring ‘just adaptation’ and in preventing maladaptation (Schipper 2020; Schipper et al. 2021; Australian Academies of Science 2022).

Research in climate adaptation

An important note on climate adaptation research, is the concern that the current approach of research-to-publication-to-recommendations is too slow to meet the needs of a rapidly changing climate (Currie-Alder et.al 2021). Therefore, to more actively unite, research, policy and practice, some are advocating for a new paradigm of solution and action-oriented research in order to pursue scaled up climate action. Indeed, the Adaptation Research Alliance (ARA) has been recently developed specifically for this purpose. Of course, with the need for more rapid research-to-recommendations, the risk of maladaptation can potentially increase.

In Australia, the CSIRO is part of the Transformative Adaptation Research Alliance, an international network of researchers dedicated to the development of novel approaches to climate change (CSIRO 2022). Locally, a partnership between the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, has developed action-based research projects including ACCESS (to provide more accurate weather forecasts, particularly in extreme situations, to notify emergency response teams) and enhanced planning and zoning for where houses are built in coastal areas (CSIRO 2022). Australian universities are also realising the importance of climate adaption. La Trobe University has recently established Australia’s first Climate Adaptation Lab, based in Bendigo, to help drive interdisciplinary research in this field.

Policy approaches to adaptation

To bring this back to a local context, it is worthwhile briefly examining how various levels of government are currently approaching adaptation.

Australian Government Approach

The Australian Government is responsible for national leadership on adaptation, with the states and territories as well as local governments also playing a key, frontline role (DAWE 2021). The private sector also has a critical role to play. The Federal Government released its National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy in October 2021. The strategy acknowledges that adaptation is a shared responsibility that requires sustained and ongoing action. It operates across four domains, with a cross-sectoral approach: natural, built, social and economic (DAWE 2021). Its three main objectives are:

1) Drive investment and action through collaboration.
2) Improve climate information and services.
3) Assess progress and improve over time.

It states that building adaptive capacity requires a systems-based approach, with the ability for individual businesses or communities to adapt dependent on the systems in which they operate, such as supply chains and health and emergency services (DAWE 2021). The national approach also aims to supporte locally led and tailored approaches to adaptation. These place-based approaches consider different approaches to climate risk alongside other community needs – this requires coordination between different levels of government and local agencies (DAWE 2021).

Victorian Government Approach

The Victorian Government has a Climate Change strategy (underpinned by the Climate Act 2017) and in 2022, it released specific climate Adaptation Action Plans (AAP) for seven systems. These are the Natural Environment AAP, Transport AAP, Primary Production AAP, Water Cycle AAP, Education and Training AAP, Built Environment AAP and the Health and Human Services AAP. These systems do not operate in isolation, but rather interact and influence each other, with the natural environment in particular, having multiple connections to the other six systems (DEWLP 2022:9)

A key objective of the Natural Environment AAP, is that by 2031, the community (including traditional owners) will be engaged in finding ways to manage risks to the natural environment system arising from climate change, so they can navigate trade-offs and make informed decisions in relation to their landscapes (DEWLP 2022). This will help people to make decisions about their businesses, tourism, local community and the environment. The Victorian Government has also outlined four triggers for when transformational adaptation should be investigated 1) If significant changes have already occurred 2) There are high signs of vulnerability 3) Current approaches are failing 3) Decisions have long term consequence (DEWLP 2022).

Specifically for agriculture, outlined in the Primary Production AAP, the Victorian Government acknowledges the sector has already changed some practices and started the process of adaptation but indicates more action is needed. In a submission to the adaptation action plans, the Victorian Farmers Federation recommended tax and stamp duty barriers to be removed to allow for greater mobility as farmers seek to alter their geographical distribution due to seasonal and landscape changes (VFF 2021). The VFF (2021:2) is also advocating for improved access to existing and emerging technologies as well as removing red and ‘green’ tape, “that does not recognise the biodiversity and carbon sink value of farmland”.

Local Approaches:

Six local Climate Adaptation Strategies have been created across Victoria. They have each approached the strategy differently and come up with their own recommendations.

The Barwon South West Regional Climate strategy 2020 – 25, for instance, has specified identified maladaptation as one of its key focus areas (DEWLP 2020). As part of the plan, this region intends to identify “potential counterproductive actions which could undermine future capacity to prepare and respond to climate change, eg. Monitor competing demands between agriculture, urban development, natural systems and water” (DEWLP 2020:6). This could include ensuring councils have the necessary resources and expertise to assess key projects in relation to the social and economic impacts of climate change.

At a local government level, some councils are assessing land use using future climate projections. For example, the Southern Grampians Shire Council (2022) recently completed a research project relating to climate adaptation, mapping and modelling 24 agricultural commodities deemed suitable for growing in the region based on soil, water, topography and the projected climatic conditions of 2050. This study was conducted to encourage greater diversification and to better understand the long-term capabilities of land in the region. It was funded through the Victorian Adaptation and Sustainability Partnership and completed by researchers at Deakin University.

Water authorities also have a key role in climate adaptation and are working with councils on various initiatives. An example of this is the Beaufort Close Loop Recycled Water Scheme, which is a developing project to manage all of the Beaufort community’s wastewater within the urban environment, through irrigation of the local golf course, school, recreation reserve and several sporting facilities (Pyrenees Shire Council 2023).The scheme is a partnership between the Pyrenees Shire and Central Highlands Water. To date, a feasibility study has been completed, with further funding required to complete the project design in detail (Pyrenees Shire Council 2023).


Key Think Tank Themes

Below are summaries of the key points made by each speaker at the Vic Hub’s Think Tank event: “Are We Drought Ready’” – exploring adaptation to drought at the local government level in rural and regional Victoria. The full talks are also available on the videos below. Highlights of the event can also be listened to on the Innovation Ag podcast.

Keynote: What is climate adaptation and how are local governments addressing it?

Rob Faggian, Associate Professor, Climate Change Adaptation, Centre for Regional and Rural Futures, Deakin University.

Listen to the talk on the Innovation Ag podcast

Dr Faggian outlined his research in working with farmers to build models to assess the impacts of climate change, which offers potential solutions as well as showing possible future climate scenarios.

These models incorporate climate; rainfall and temperature, soil parameters and topography to create a map to understand spatial differences. Different crops are then mapped out on these models, to show how they are likely to perform over time under future climatic scenarios.

Therefore, while the yield of one particular crop type might worsen under the scenario’s conditions, other crops types are able to be modelled, thereby providing potential alternatives for farmers. Farmers themselves are part of the iterative design process of the models, to make sure they are getting information which is useful to their business. These climatic models are then able to be linked to economic models that answer questions like: ‘how do we break even? Or ‘how do profit margins evolve over time?”

Successful climate adaptation also involves locally-specific solutions. Dr Faggian has analysed what various local or provincial governments (overseas) are doing in relation to drought and climate adaptation and grouped them into three main categories:

  1. Construction of new water storage infrastructure
  2. The implementation of regionwide water conservation strategies
  3. Delivering education and infrastructure and other programs to support sustainable agriculture practices.

In Victoria there have been some successful projects, for instance climatic modelling was used by the Southern Grampians Shire at Glenelg Catchment Management Authority, in south-west Victoria to drive economic development, by looking at what land management strategies will be most effective in the future. This was used to promote the Southern Grampians to farmers from outside the region as a good investment option.

Panel:  Involving local communities in water management and adaptation to drought 

The panel session has been summarised below:

Caroline Welsh Deputy Chair, GWMWater and the Australian Government’s Future Drought Fund Consultative Committee.

Since the Millennium drought, what was once considered ‘average rainfall’ in the Wimmera has never returned. Historically, 200 gigalitres of inflows was expected but since 1997, only about 85 gigalitres of inflow has been coming to the region. Rainfall is expected to reduce in this region, under climate change and this will also mean reduced inflows into streams.

Grampians Wimmera Mallee Water, in the state’s west, covers 25 percent of the state in terms of the management of water and wastewater. Much of the system has now been piped, since the 1990s, to create more water efficiencies and increase reliability. During the millennium drought, the Wimmera Mallee pipeline was huge undertaking, which saved 103 gigalitres of water.

A more reliable and higher water quality system has also changed farming production across the region. When farmers had a once off channel supply and the millennium drought took hold, they were selling stock so they didn’t have to cart water. But now, with the increased water reliability, stocking rates have gone up significantly. This has been a steep learning curve for some farmers in terms of stock management.

One adaptive outcome to an effective pipeline system, is the reduction in dams across the region (now that farms no longer need them). So that recreational activities are not impacted, there has been a renewed focus on maintaining recreational lakes. Director Welsh said GMWWater has put in place a recreational levy, where customers pay a small fee, so recreational lakes are kept in the region.

Nina O’Brien, Disaster Resilience and Recovery Leader at FRRR (Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal)

The FRRR has a strong resilience agenda, with three strategic areas: people, place and disaster resilience. In the last 12 months, $20 million dollars of investment has been directed to small not-for-profit community-based organizations in remote, rural, and regional Australia. It’s about a ground up approach rather than top-down.
FRRR works across the disaster-cycle, but there is increasing focus on medium-long term recovery and preparedness. While recovery is still a big focus, 45% of investment is now directed to preparedness, which FRRR plans to continue to increase.
FRRR is partnering with the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation to support mentoring and leadership. This is about moving away from the traditional transactional granting approach, to instead implementing a co-design and multi-step process with communities. It is also about being more agile in the grant process to encourage collaboration rather than competition amongst communities.

Other focus areas include identifying the silent voices; such as young people and First nations peoples, who are often not included in drought preparedness and adaptation conversations. There also needs to be efforts to make sure people who are impacted by drought, beyond the farm gate are also reached.

Damian Wells, Managing Director at Coliban Water

According to Damien Wells, the business of a water corporation is essentially about public health; providing safe drinking water, recycled water, sewage, and rural water services for public health. Water availability has changed dramatically, particularly after the millennium drought, with a 40% reduction in inflow in the region. In the millennium drought, Bendigo was within five weeks of running out of drinking water.

Coliban is proposing a 1.9% price increase for water consumers to address significant challenges to supply including climate change, population growth and ageing assets. Water treatment plants, water reclamation plants and clear water storages all need upgrades to address climate resilience. Therefore, Coliban is investing in its infrastructure, which means further increasing the Authority’s debt of $440 million (paid for by Coliban water users). Coliban’s capital program will triple over the next five years to ensure water security.

At a local level, Coliban is focusing on climate adaptation by understanding the local water context for each town; where the water sources could be to support that town, groundwater aquifers, and working with local governments to understand the supply and demand curve. Mr Wells said having water connectivity across the region is also important to make sure there are a variety of water sources to draw upon if needed. Mr Wells also raised the issue of the time it takes for project approvals through government, with the risk that communities could run out of water before critical infrastructure is approved.

Panel: Enabling communities to engage with science for successful adaptation to drought

The panel session has been summarised below:

Ben Latham, Policy Advisor Climate Equity and Emergency Management, Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS).

VCOSS represents the community sector in Victoria such as housing supports, family violence services and disability advocates. In times of drought their services experience increased demand. It is understood people experiencing disadvantage are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (this can be due to income, housing, health, age etc). Mr Latham said an equity lens is needed in climate change, to understand who is most exposed to drought and who has the least number of resources to prepare, respond and recover.

VCOSS recently went on a listening tour of Victoria and found there has been a compounding effect on resilience from recent events such as Covid 19, bushfires and floods. People were asked about what they needed for a good life and to feel resilient in the face of tough times, such as drought. And while income and safe housing was raised as an issue, social connections was also very important, with many people identifying feelings of isolation.

This tour was also an example of how community engagement can be done; by working through several trusted community organisations, VCOSS was able to reach a range of different voices, including people experiencing disadvantage, whose voices often don’t get heard in policy debates. It is therefore not about putting information up online and hoping they will read it, but using different community groups where meaningful connections can be formed and discussions about climate and the impacts on their families can be had.

Prof Rebecca Lester, Freshwater Ecologist and Director of the Centre for Regional and Rural Futures, Deakin University

As an ecologist Prof. Lester says her research is fundamentally about what the impacts of climate change will do to the things that we value within ecosystems and within communities. An example of this is a project looking at the impact of water management, conducted with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. This research assessed the impacts on ecosystems between an environmental watering scenario compared with a no watering scenario. This enables the benefits of a particular management action to be quantified.

Tools have also been developed to help facilitate decisions, such as an interactive online tool which enables shires in the Corangamite CMA region (in south-west Victoria) to look up their properties and see what happens if they fence off their riparian zones (the area near riverbanks). This tool provides the costs and benefits, such as fencing costs and revegetation costs, along with the expected carbon sequestration and expected change in production, to allow people to understand how ecological changes will affect their individual properties.

There is also research about the attributes of freshwater systems that could contribute to adaptation. For instance, there is early work in plants and algae, such as seaweed, in sequestering carbon. Future climate projections are also an important aspect of the science, i.e. what will future temperatures and rainfall look like and therefore how will that effect stream flows?  Prof. Lester said successful climate adaptation is about understanding how the community, the environment and the economy can be synergistic and work together.

Professor Richard Eckard, Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Melbourne and Director of the Primary Industries Climate Change Centre

Professor Eckard said Victoria is experiencing a step change in its climate and the Millennium drought never ended, rather it has been punctuated by a few El Nino events over the last 20 years. There will be some ‘winners and losers’ when it comes to agriculture and climate change, but Professor Eckard says the key is to take an intelligent view of the landscape and think: where are the opportunities we should adapt to, versus what are the changes we need to adapt to?

Farmers are already adapting to climate change and seeking opportunities. An example is the response to the southward movement of weather systems in Victoria, affecting farming systems and changing what has been traditionally produced in certain areas. For instance, canola is being grown further south now than it has been traditionally around the Hamilton region, which was previously prime sheep country, but it is now more viable for cropping because it has dried out. Climate change has also brought more summer rainfall to the North east and Orbost.

Meanwhile, mixed farming systems are becoming more popular in the northwest of Victoria, in traditional cropping countries to help buffer against crop failures. Wine companies, such as The Brown Brothers, are moving pinot noir grapes to Tasmania, because they worked out that by 2030, Victoria won’t have the right temperature to produce quality pinot noir. Farmers and agribusinesses are already factoring in the current and future climate scenarios.

Panel: What are local governments doing to adapt to drought…and what do they need to do it better?  

The panel session has been summarised below:

Prof. Lauren Rickards, Chair of Climate Change Adaptation, La Trobe University

Professor Rickards said local governments, community service organisations and universities are key enablers in climate adaptation. Therefore focusing on their own organisational adaptation is also important – in how we work and the assets we own. The challenge however, is the risk of institutional overwhelm; when you know what climate change and drought entails and what you should be doing, but you are dealing with yesterday’s issues.

Prof. Rockards said universities are struggling to come to the table on climate adaptation. Out of Australia’s 44 universities, only four have climate adaptation plans (they are La Trobe, RMIT, Deakin and Melbourne universities). For local government, it has the benefit of being networked already through regional partnerships. But local governments should also be thinking about connecting over greater spatial regions. For instance local council in Victoria could connect to local governments in California, where there are shared struggles and synergistic benefits.

Local governments also need to be able to look at multiple stressors at the one time. This includes moving beyond the direct impacts of climate change but also the flow on effects. Prof. Rickards said, climate adaptation is not ‘a snap audit,’ but rather  needs to be collective, systematic and inclusive thinking when it comes to climate adaptation and asking the question, what is the purpose of adaptation?

Michelle Wyatt, Manager Climate Change and Environment at the City of Greater Bendigo

The City of Greater Bendigo is working with their farming community to be more adaptive, which also involves collaborating with the nearby Macedon and Hepburn shires. The Council recently did a climate risk assessment for its own operations to understand if its practices will be fit for purpose in the future (between 2030 and 2050), when there is likely to be more extreme weather and disasters.  It has also been working with Deakin University on a land capability assessment for the Bendigo region, which looks at how farming land is going to be sustainable into the future. Ms Wyatt said they are also looking at the city’s water usage and are working to bring as many parks and open space onto recycled water (about half of the council’s open spaces are on recycled water).

Ms Wyatt said the way projects are funded is problematic. She said when you only have one year of funding, you only start to make connections and see results, but then the funding ends. Ms Wyatt is advocating for sustained funding . She said this is particularly important when working with farmers, because there has been a gap in extension work, which has been filled by farmer groups, led by councils or not for profit organisations).Ms Wyatt said the solutions to this can be for councils to make partnerships with each other and look inwardly to better assess their priorities. Another part of the solution is to look to the State Government, she said there are legacy problems in council and a rate capping environment, so support is needed from other levels of government.

 Jennifer Alden, Deputy Mayor, City of Greater Bendigo

Cr Alden noted that when she became a councillor seven years ago, there was a reluctance in the community to use the world climate change, there was “climate variability”, but that was as far as it would go.  Cr Alden says Bendigo’s population will double in the next 30 years, so the critical question is: where is the water going to come from? The Council has a “Greening Greater Bendigo” strategy and is also part of the Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance (which includes 13 councils in the region). Cr Alden said there are greenhouse alliances around the state, which is a great vehicle for action and thinking about what councils could do if they were resourced better for green infrastructure. Cr Alden said dealing with the recent floods has meant the council doesn’t have the resources to put into the green infrastructure needed for drought preparedness and climate adaptation.

Dona Cayetana, Community and Partnerships Program Manager, DEECA (Department of Energy Environment and Climate Action)

Dona has been involved in the ADAPT Loddon Mallee project, which arose from a State Government initiative to develop six regional adaptation strategies.

The purpose of these was to take place-based approaches to adaptation, to then take targeted action. Key outcomes included developing partnerships with local government, local agencies and grassroots community groups which enabled 40 projects to be delivered over four years. These were bookended by the Black Summer, bushfires, Covid and the floods, so Ms Cayetana said it is a testament to the strength and willingness of communities to engage in this process through such difficult times.

The process of the this project, used a framework to build knowledge, not just in communities but for Government to be able to value local knowledge and lived experience of community. In the Loddon Mallee, Ms Cayetana said, the things people raised as concerns were: impacts of drought on cultural heritage, grand spaces, biodiversity,  local agricultural communities, water bodies, food and water security and housing. She said, the enormity of the wicked problem of climate change means we need to take a partnership approach. There is also an issue of equity between local governments; some councils are very poorly funded and may not even have a sustainability officer.

Ms Cayetana said the key to enabling local action is building trust and relationships. For example, she said working with traditional owners can be a challenging space because Government timelines don’t often match the timelines needed for meaningful indigenous engagement and therefore the relationship can be tokenistic. Over the past four years, Ms Cayetana said they were able to develop those strong relationships to develop plans and programs, such as for indigenous food crops in the Mallee.

Competitive grants funding can be barrier to enabling action where it is needed most. Ms Caytanya said the people who are most disadvantaged by climate change often don’t have the time or capacity to apply for grants. She said they did it by working collaboratively with people who were interested in funding, to work out what the program could look like and whether it met government objectives.

Videos - Think Tank Keynote and Panel One

The Hub's Think Tank event, "Are We Drought Ready?" has been broken up into five easy to watch videos.

The event was held on March 23 at La Trobe Univeristy's Bendigo campus.

1. Keynote: What is climate adaoptation and how are local governments addressing it?

Dr Rob Faggian, Climate Change Adaptation, Centre for Regional and Rural Futures, Deakin University.

2. Panel - Involving local communities in water management and adaptation to drought

Video - Think Tank Panels Two and Three

2. Panel - Enabling communities to engage with science for successful adaptation to drought.

3. Panel - What are local governments doing to adapt to drought... and what do they need to do it better?