Resilience in climate emergencies: a helping hand or from within?

img_0404Last week a Strategic Master Plan for the town of Harrietville in Australia was launched, which identified priorities for action and was owned by the local community. In short, it is a collaborative vision for the town, built as the product of a valuable and collaborative journey, to protect a town that faced a very real threat of decline due to climate shocks.

In 2013 the small rural community of Harrietville in south east Australia experienced a bush fire in the adjacent national park.  The fire was uncontrolled for five weeks in January and February, and burned 37,000 hectares in the Alpine region.  An official estimate claims the 400 resident community lost $7 million in revenue, primarily from lost tourism, during the burn period and its aftermath.

Harrietville is a quaint little village tucked away at the base of the Australian Alps.  Some of its residents are employed in the local ski industry, others have chosen Harrietville as a place to retire for its charm and proximity to nature.  A number of retirees supplement their income through small scale accommodation.  Without tourists, businesses in Harrietville struggle.

In April 2013, still suffering from poor tourism numbers, heavy rain in the Alpine region resulted in localised flooding and landslides due to the inability of fire affected areas to catch and slow rainfall.  The Great Alpine Road is a major gateway to the Alpine region and it runs through Harrietville. It was significantly damaged by landslides and shut for April and May.  The community feared that without the road there would be fewer visitors and an impact on local businesses. Unfortunately their fears became reality.

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Resilience is a question that many marginal communities are faced with, vulnerable to the perils of climatic emergencies. How can agencies best support communities to cope? Can economic safeguards be put in place?  What drives resilience? Should the solutions come from within the communities, driven by local personalities; or from outside the communities, in the form of support?  Literature suggests that both are essential. This was certainly true Harrietville post 2013, where coordination between agencies and government bodies combined with community mobilisation were key ingredients to Harrietville’s resilience.

Coordination

Initial response to the Harrietville emergencies was coordinated by the Alpine Shire Council (local government) and followed up by the Fire Services Commission.  In August 2013 discussions began with the Harrietville community to develop a Community Emergency Management Plan and this was completed in time for the 2013/2014 summer season.  Importantly, the discussions involved a number of different stakeholders: land managers, Parks Victoria and Department of Environment and Primary Industries (Now Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning). These agencies are responsible for managing the land and forests around Harrietville.

Community

Residents who had previously been involved in town betterment projects banded together to form the Harrietville Community Forum.  While they do not claim to be representative of community views, they do act for the benefit of the community and make an effort to act in the interests of the community as a whole.  Crucially, the Forum became a body for agencies to engage with and a vehicle for communication.

In 2015 the General Store in Harrietville closed, a major setback for the community as this was the only fuel supply for residents and visitors in the Alpine area.  Without it, people would have to backtrack down the Great Alpine road to Bright, and many tourists may pick the larger, better serviced town of Bright for accommodation if they had to return there for fuel anyway.  Community morale was low.

The closure of the General Store coincided with a glimmer of hope: the establishment of a new project delivered by the Alpine Shire Council, funded by the State Government, called the Communities Adapting to Climate Change project. I was the project officer leading this project, and in response to the imminent challenges in Harrietville, the focus was expanded to cover strengthening the ability of the community to leverage the ‘assets’ and values inherent to the township. The walls have been buzzing in Harrietville over the last eighteen months, with countless hours of conversations with agencies and residents about Harrietville, about what makes it tick, what is important, what the town relies on, what it needs, and who needs to do it.

As the project draws to a close the General Store is about to re-open its doors and community morale after a strong snow-tourism season is at a high.  Reflecting back on the last eighteen months it is clear that without local strength and leadership, the project would have had no significance for the community.  Likewise, without government funding, local Council support and a dedicated officer to liaise with stakeholders, support for the community’s priorities would have been more difficult to obtain and momentum would have slowed. I hope the value extends well beyond these 18 months, and that the Harrietville Community Forum will remain energised, committed and able to galvanise their community in strengthening resilience into the future.

Michelle Kent

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