THE Wimmera's population is declining faster each year than anywhere else in the state.
A new state government report, Victoria in Future 2019, predicts populations for each local government area for the next 20 years.
The report shows West Wimmera Shire will have biggest decline, losing 1.3 per cent of its population by 2036.
Hindmarsh will lose 1.2 per cent, Yarriambiack will lose one per cent, and Northern Grampians will lose 0.6 per cent.
Horsham Rural City, however, will grow by 0.2 per cent by 2036.
Regional Development Australia Grampians chairman Stuart Benjamin said regional centres were growing at the cost of smaller communities.
"It is diabolical - we need population to provide services such as education and health," he said.
Mr Benjamin said population decline affected the region's political representation.
"We live in a democracy where one vote is equal to one vote, but as the number of people in regional areas gets less, our share of the political influence continues to decline," he said.
"That is the thing that impacts all other services."
Mr Benjamin said while there was great examples of small towns trying to buck the trend, more work was needed.
"We have to take our heads out of the sand - when we work on plans for population growth, the community is not unified," he said.
"We continue to use the same case studies that we have been using for the past 10 years.
"There are terrific success stories in the Wimmera, such as Nhill's Karen community, but we can't keep relying on those small isolated stories, it's not going to save us.
"We need more people, and the only way to get more people is with jobs and investment, but there is also a lot of constraints particularly relating to housing.
"If people can't get a house, they won't move.
"At the end of the day, the issue sits with the community because if we are not growing, we are declining.
"Even though Horsham is seeing growth, it is at the cost of the other smaller, country towns."
Mr Benjamin said stronger conversations were also needed around migration to smaller communities.
Horsham continues to grow
HORSHAM'S city population is set to increase as more and more people relocate from surrounding Wimmera towns.
The state government's Victoria in Future report projects Horsham Rural City will grow by 715 people between 2016 and 2036.
However, the city itself will grow by more than 1000 people, but the areas surrounding the city will decrease by 472 people.
Regional Development Australia Grampians chairman Stuart Benjamin said the fact that Horsham's population was slowly growing put pressure on the city.
"The issue with Horsham is that the population is increasing, but it is ageing," he said.
"There is a lot of ageing people moving in to the city for services, particularly health and community services.
"Young people are leaving to access education and employment opportunities and they are not returning."
Horsham mayor Mark Radford said farms were getting bigger and less reliant on people to run them.
"The other side is that Horsham is attracting retiring families and that is predicted to continue," he said.
Cr Radford said it was important to realise that just because a centre has less people in it, didn't mean it was less important.
"It is important the city received the facilities it needs to support growth, especially in our schools and hospitals," he said.
"We need to cater for an increase of people but it can't be at the detriment of other towns."
Cr Radford said council was constantly looking at the future.
"To get the planning right is important and the improvements we've made to our hospital and Horsham College are shining examples of that." he said.
Community groups fight the decline
DESPITE the ongoing trend of declining populations, many Wimmera communities are doing everything they can to create change.
Rural Northwest Health people and culture director Kay Knight said the organisation was actively recruiting graduates into nursing positions.
"We increased our graduate numbers this year - previously we had taken on six registered nurse graduates, but this year we took another six enrolled nursing graduates as well," she said.
"It's been really successful and we are going to maintain those numbers in the future."
Dr Knight said the organisation also encouraged undergraduate students to do placements at Rural Northwest Health.
"They often come with preconceived ideas about what rural areas are like and there are always quite surprised at the breadth of experience they are able to get," she said.
Dr Knight said students had often returned to the healthcare group when looking for employment.
"Out of our graduates we employed this year, about 80 per cent had done a placement with us," she said.
"Most of them were from outside the region, so they have come here specifically for employment."
The Rupanyup community started a program earlier this year to try to attract migrants to the town.
Rupanyup Rural Migration Initiative spokesman Malcolm Uhe said a few families had already moved to the region, but housing was an issue.
"We have people who want to come but it has been difficult finding housing," he said. "We set up a trust and got investment from the community so we could buy and renovate a house, which will be a good result, but it is only helping one family."
Mr Uhe said there was no shortage of people wanting to move to the region.
Northern Grampians mayor Kevin Erwin said council was confident it could grow its population.
He said the shire had a number of new business developments over the past few years, including a new hay processing centre at St Arnaud, along with the gold mine, underground physics laboratory and hydroponic farm at Stawell.
"No one wants to see a decline, so we are working really hard to reverse that trend and we are fairly confident we can," he said. "We can accommodate a lot more families in Northern Grampians Shire than we have - we have the infrastructure."
West Wimmera Shire chief executive David Leahy is hoping a new pipeline in the region will help drive growth.
"We are in the throws of lobbying fairly hard to get a rural pipeline in the southern part of the shire and hopefully this will help with value adding to larger agricultural pursuits - it might be a point of difference that we can offer in the future to attract businesses."
Small towns open their doors to migrants
THE Wimmera is now home to many migrant families.
Rupanyup's rural migration program actively encourages migrants to move to the region, helping them secure jobs and housing.
Vanessa Triana and Ivan Perdomo moved to Australia from Columbia in 2016 as a way to explore a new culture and learn English.
Mr Perdomo is an industrial engineer and Ms Triana is an environmental engineer.
Ms Triana said the plan was to live in Australia for six months, but the couple soon became pregnant with twins, which changed their plans.
"We chose Australia on the recommendation from my cousins, who told us that there were good job opportunities here, but that we first had to learn English," she said.
"One of the most beautiful gifts that Australia gave us was our children, because one month after our arrival we were pregnant and they were identical twins - they changed our lives."
The couple's boys Matthew and Daniel are now two years old. "We are still here in the search of opportunities to obtain a good future for us," Ms Triana said.
The family recently moved to Rupanyup as part of the town's rural migration program.
Ms Triana is now an international student, studying a masters in business and project management.
Mr Perdomo works at Wahroonga Enterprises, a farm machinery company at Marnoo.
"The biggest challenge in Rupanyup has been getting housing, but now we live on a farm with a wonderful family, who adapted their bungalow for us," Ms Triana said.
She said there had also been issues with the lack of childcare in the region, but the family really enjoyed living in Rupanyup.
"I really enjoy this place, it is very quiet and everyone is very friendly," she said.
"We want to continue in Australia and we are working improving our English."
Councils struggle with ongoing costs
WIMMERA councils say they will struggle to cope financially if the region's population continues to decline.
Hindmarsh Shire mayor Ron Ismay said population was an issue that needed to be addressed.
"Melbourne keeps getting bigger and we need to start looking at bringing people out to country areas," he said.
"With technology now, people don't need to live in the city."
Cr Ismay said Hindmarsh towns were struggling to keep people, especially young people.
"If you look at the footy clubs around, they are all struggling," he said.
"Farmers are already up in arms about the rates they have to pay, but there is a cost in running the shire, so unless the government is going to start putting more money into councils, our only revenue is collecting rates and we can't take much more off people.
"I don't know where we are meant to get the money from."
Cr Ismay said his biggest worry was Jeparit as the town was "really struggling".
"The two hotels have closed - there is only a takeaway shop and a supermarket," he said.
"There is not a lot of reason to go to Jeparit, except for the Wimmera River, and it's a great little place."
West Wimmera Shire chief executive David Leahy said population decline was always a concern for the region.
"It has a roll on effect - with population decline comes decline in service levels such as healthcare and education," he said.
"Unfortunately any funding provided is based on population and job growth, so things like access to public transport then get more and more difficult to achieve.
"I think at some stage the balance between job growth and resident welfare has to take higher priority."
Mr Leahy said council did what it could to foster employment in the region.
"We work hard to maintain the Vicroads maintenance contract, which is five full time employees," he said.
Mr Leahy said isolation from essential services had a negative effect on people's wellbeing.
"This needs to be addressed somehow so that people have access to services and can retire in the place they grew up in," he said.
Wimmera Development Association acting executive director Mark Fletcher said there was a lot of work happening with shared services between councils, but it was vital that services were retained in the region.
"We are looking at ways to deliver services, but we need to make sure the services we currently have in the smaller areas are maintained," he said.
"Once essential services in small communities are lost, it affects the livability of the region."