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Building bridges over troubled waters: rethinking management of our rivers

By Peter Crawford - posted Friday, 19 December 2003

It is widely agreed that a source of future world conflict will be water. In Australia, there is already deep conflict about water - arising not only over its management and ownership, personal values and beliefs but also over the distribution of funds, decision making and power. These conflicts may be inevitable, but they are not insurmountable.

Solutions seldom lie in contesting one another's views, or in trying to achieve an illusory consensus. Rather, in managing our rivers for the future we need to agree on a way forward, set priorities, make informed trade-offs and change our strategies when the results suggest that is necessary. For most rivers it is not possible to return to pre-European conditions, although this is practicable for near-pristine rivers and lakes. In many cases, we need to decide what to protect and restore and how, and in the worst cases to get on with targeted and specific repair.

The central question is always: what do we actually need to do to sustain our catchments and rivers, so that we can continue to use their resources? Recognition of both human and ecosystem needs must inform our goals, priorities, type of management and trade-offs but we will fail if our patterns of use continue to be unsustainable.


Success often lies in better understanding our natural systems, rather than their parts, and in moving to manage such systems as a whole. We need to work out what critical actions are needed to make an overall difference to catchment and river health. Instead, we have a history of subdividing the management of our rivers into parts. Sounds sensible enough - fish, soil, water and trees all being managed by different groups. Yet, it does not work as the results often show, primarily because catchments and rivers work as complex whole systems. They respond differently from their parts.

Change must stretch beyond the realm of management to our legislation and our institutions. For example, when the Healthy Rivers Commission carried out its Inquiry into the 90 or so coastal lakes of New South Wales, we found various pieces of legislation under which lake entrances could be opened. The laws focused on planning, lands, fisheries and water management - but not lakes! In most cases, those involved in artificially opening the lakes were not even assessing the impact of their activities on the lakes or their natural resources.

We increasingly hear calls for so-called integrated management. It requires us to think and act differently and to focus on the needs of our rivers. In recent years, governments and their agencies have begun to talk about coordination. But coordination as a response is not sufficient - it is often code for agreement that allows each player to continue in the same role. Instead, we need to work to shift the focus of the efforts of agencies and councils so they act as custodians for rivers, with legislation devised to require just that. Then the many sorts of partnerships between government, community and industry required to manage our rivers will have the right focus and the results will not be eroded through government failure to meet its side of the bargain.

The path to integrated management is not easy, but it is a journey we have to take. At present, our knowledge of how ecosystems work as well as the role that rivers play in our lifestyle and commerce is weak, especially when we consider the big decisions that need to be taken. For this reason alone, it is critical to build in mechanisms that allow managers, planners and affected communities to review the results of new strategies and water reforms and to feed these results back. Basically, we need management that is not only integrated but also adaptive. Quite simply, our vastly modified rivers often fail to respond as we expect, so we need to be able to refine and adapt our strategies in light of experience. It is a matter of checking the compass to see if we are heading in the right direction.

All these concerns call for significant, even revolutionary change. We need to go well beyond reviews and announcements of reforms. The scale of the problem must inform the scale of the response. Too often we try to solve large problems through myriad small exercises, while we fail to deal with the central issue. If we are to sustain our rivers into the future, it is time to recognise scale and urgency, to challenge existing institutions and the distribution of power and money, and to stop trying to manage our rivers in their parts, frequently by fashion and rules.

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This article is based on a paper entitled “River Management: A Stocktake” to “Water: The Australian Dilemma”, presented to the 2003 annual symposium of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

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About the Author

Dr Peter Crawford is Commissioner for Healthy Rivers NSW. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

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