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How adversity affects communities

How a community copes with adversity depends on the nature and length of the challenge.

Rural communities are used to facing adversity in many forms. Natural disasters such as bushfires, drought and floods are all regular stressors that can be unpredictable and have devastating effects on people’s home and livelihoods. Economic pressures on farmers, the closure of local industries, infrastructure limitations and social isolation can all add increasing pressure to small towns.

“How communities deal with tough times really depends on the nature of the adversity,” Martin Heppell, Partner and Facilitator at The Resilience Project. “Some events are more likely to put pressure on a community and how it functions than others.”

Factors which erode resilience in communities include a lack of predictability, inadequate recovery resources, incidents that are human-caused (rather than natural disasters) and that involve children, poor or misleading communications, and a preventability of the event.

Protracted incidents, such as long-term drought or economic stress due to loss of industry can have devastating effects on rural communities. “Chronic stress has an effect on both individuals, and in turn the communities they live in,” says Martin.

People who live in drought affected communities in Australia feel their community has lower social cohesion – quality relationships within the community – compared to those living in areas not affected by drought, according to a study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. This feeling of low social cohesion could be down to several issues.

Firstly, the healthand wellbeing of a community depends on funding and services. The economic effects of drought often mean there’s a loss of services such as schools and hospitals in the area. These services make people feel they are part of a strong community and without them, that feeling disintegrates.

Secondly, drought means residents may have to move away from the area. The people left behind can feel as though their community is being fragmented and no longer exists.

Finally, drought can cause financial hardship. Not only do people have less money, they also have less time as they need to work harder. This results in fewer community activities and volunteers, and less time to socialise and feel part of a social group.

Although ‘short term’ events such as floods can still impact individual lives and communities for months or years after the event, studies show it can be easier for communities to recover from a single event like this rather than long-term drought which has no end in sight. After the floods in the Northern Rivers region of NSW in 2017, those who felt connected to their community recovered much faster from the social effects of the floods, such as domestic displacement, according to research from the University Centre for Rural Health.

If there is strong social cohesion within a community before a disaster, the people within it can cope much better with adversity when it happens, particularly when it’s a short-term incident. “The stronger the community, the quicker it is able to bounce back from tough times,” says Martin.

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