Abstract Understanding of how best to support those most vulnerable to climate stress is imperative given expected changes in climate variability. This paper investigates local adaptation strategies to climate variability, focusing on agricultural decision-making in a communal irrigation scheme in Vhembe District, Limpopo Province, South Africa. Research done through interviews, surveys and participatory methods demonstrates that adaptation strategies within a community are socially differentiated and present differing objectives and priorities. These results highlight the need for intervention and policy that support a heterogeneous response to a wide range of stresses. Evidence for climate change is clear and the need for adaptation is urgent. However, adaptation measures have to be sensitively integrated with ongoing development pathways to ensure they are sustainable and relevant to local priorities.