merged image of drought and pasture

Creating new options for drought policy could mean transforming drought science

Science provides new options for Australian drought policy

Rethinking the way science supports drought policy could open new opportunities to share the risks of Australia’s variable and changing climate between communities and governments.

  • 7 October 2008 | Updated 14 October 2011

The issue

Drought policy presents Australian governments with a difficult dilemma.

Providing acceptable welfare for farm families needs to be balanced with sustainability and economic efficiency goals. The applied science used to support the implementation of current drought policy is aimed at the technical definition of drought, rather than achieving this balance.

Adaptive governance provides a positive alternative - pathways to locally owned systems for sharing climate risk between communities and governments.


Farmer checking crop

Rural communities can share management of drought risk with government.

  • There are many ways that science can be used to support drought policy. The system currently used in Australia represents one choice across a diverse spectrum of alternatives.
  • The science currently used to support Australian drought policy has led to a highly centralised system of administration. This has limited the options available to policy advisers for reconciling the multiple goals of drought policy.
  • An unintended consequence of this centralised administration has been to force much of the complexity and uncertainty surrounding drought policy from scientists back onto policy advisers and Australian Government Ministers for Agriculture.


  • Adaptive governance opens pathways to locally owned, regionally relevant systems for sharing the responsibility for drought risk between communities and governments.
  • Shared ownership of drought risk could be achieved through government-led, community-based regional governance systems similar to Landcare groups and Catchment Management Authorities.
  • Shared management of the multiple and interacting goals of drought policy between governments and communities can be supported by science that is regionally distributed and capable of integrating local knowledge.
  • The precursors of many alternative forms of drought science already exist, including those capable of predicting the impact of drought on production, land use and farm incomes.

The process of adaptive governance.

The process of adaptive governance.

Research paper

Nelson R, Howden SM, Stafford Smith M. 2008. Using adaptive governance to rethink the way science supports Australian drought policy. Environmental Science & Policy. 11: 588-601. [external link]

Read more about research in the Climate Adaptation Flagship.