Best Grant Program Award 2020

Breaking the drought, step by step

Thallon is a small place, home to about 250 people in south-west Queensland. It’s a wheat-growing and wool area that has been devastated by drought dating back to 2013, when it was officially drought declared.

Leanne Brosnan, the secretary of the Thallon Progress Association, says the town went from a thriving rail hub to a community struggling to survive the impacts of drought, business closures and a population decline.

Last year, what’s known as the 4T program, funded a kitchen upgrade in the Thallon community clubhouse, which paid for a fridge, freezer, stove and stainless steel sink and bench to ensure the clubhouse was able to host community events.

In May this year, Thallon’s most famous landmark – William, the giant Hairy Nosed Wombat (funded in large part by a separate FRRR grant program) – needed a shade to protect it from the elements. One again, 4T helped out, this time with a $16,000 grant to give William a roof over his head and provide protection for the visitors who stopped at Thallon’s park to see the big sculpture of the critically endangered species.

Outside the town, the first grain harvest in three years offers the hope of a turnaround in Thallon’s fortunes. But for Leanne, FRRR’s support has been critical to helping Thallon survive the hard times as the town tentatively moves to better days.

It underlines how important the 4T program has been to rural and regional Australian communities who are battling the drought’s deep impacts. Sudden downpours don’t wash the effect of drought away so easily.

 “That’s the fallacy of drought, sometimes from an urban perspective, they see that some areas have had decent rain and think, ““It looks fairly green, they’re OK,’’” says Nina O’Brien, FRRR’s Disaster Resilience and Recovery Lead.

It takes something special to arrest the decline. And sometimes that something special is a grant program that gives locals a hand-up. And that’s where the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal’s Tackling Tough Times Together drought-relief grant program comes in.

“Economically, it might take two-three seasons to get people established again but socially, it takes many, many years to bounce back. That’s why the support of 4T is so important because it’s based around that need for social connection and bringing people together, which is a critical component of recovery and long-term resilience.’’

The work behind the 4T program is built on a mixture of local knowledge and meteorology. Not only are there regular conversations with grant recipients but the quarterly grant cycle also involves looking at the Federal government drought rating data and the Bureau of Meteorology charts to monitor changes in drought ratings across the country.

And that’s not just looking at rainfall in localised areas but also rainfalls in catchments that have consequences for other areas. “So, when decided which project are prioritised, we take that approach of really balancing that data-based view and that really important anecdotal feedback from grant seekers on how the drought is impacting them, and then we shift our focus to community engagement, depending on where we see those needs,’’ Nina says.

While the picture in some parts of Australia suggests the worst of the drought might be over, the forecasts suggest that the La Nina climate conditions will mean that some areas in South Australia and south-west Western Australia may miss out on decent rainfall. “We respond to that with an increased level of engagement, increased level of promotion and awareness-raising to meet those community needs,’’ Nina explains.

Central to all of the local engagement, the data and the 4T grant program is the inescapable importance of water to so many communities. “Depending on where you live in regional Australia, water and access to water has huge social and economic impacts,’’ Nina says.

But it takes a flexible grants program to increase the impact. That’s the way communities, including Thallon, can come up with an idea that they believe will make a difference.

“Our grant guidelines are sufficiently flexible that we don’t dictate to communities what they should be doing. It’s a community-led approach and they tell us what’s important to them, and what will best meet their needs,’’ Nina says.

“We give them a lot of support through the process including coaching through the delivery of the project to the community and the acquittal process as well…it’s in our best interest as well as theirs to see it successful.’’

Drought may be changing but Nina doesn’t expect the need for 4T to diminish. “I firmly believe that the need will continue to evolve,’’ she says.

“There’ll always be demand for a program like 4T in Australia because there’ll always be drought and a need to support climate resilience. Thankfully, there are many in the philanthropic sector who understand that and have been generous with their support. It's only with the help of donors like Gina and Tim Fairfax, who first got behind TTTT and continue to support the program, and the Australian Government, that TTTT can get out there and help these communities.’’

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