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The Myth of the Water Manager

By Brigid Walsh - posted Friday, 16 April 2010

The Victorian Government, in its current term, has attempted to get runs on the board on water management in a time of drought and climate variability. What a pity neither Brumby nor Holding learned lessons from the past. This would have been possible had they read J.M. Powell’s seminal work, Watering the Garden State: water, land and community in Victoria 1834-1988.

Joe Powell adapts the 1985 work of Sewell, Smith and Handmer to provide a table comprising five major Australian ‘water myths’. The fifth and last of these myths is as follows:

5. ‘Water Management is Mainly for Technical Experts’
a) Domination of water agencies by engineeers/water scientists; search for a ‘technical fix’ is increasing, minimal provision for public involvement.
b) Multi-faceted nature of problems ignored; less expensive, environmentally benign solutions overlooked or downgraded; forgets that ‘public’ contains some equally well-qualified experts; does not harness public concern; misses opportunities for monitoring changing values.


Domination of water agencies by engineeers/water scientists

A tour of Victoria’s government owned water corporations’ websites is enlightening. Particularly, that of Coliban Water. On the Board of Coliban Water sits an engineer who is the Group General Manager for Veolia Environmental Services. Veolia is a French multi-national with a corporate history second only to Suez whose subsidiary, Degremont, is part of the AquaSure consortium building the desalination plant at Wonthaggi. The presence of Veolia management on the Coliban Board raises questions of probity and conflicts of interest as well as future intentions and presence in the decision-making of a government entity.

Search for a ‘technical fix’ is increasing

This statement was made in 1985 and is still true today. Surely, the search for the ‘technical fix’ has reached its zenith with the construction of a desalination plant and the completion of a huge-pipeline to supposedly bring water ‘savings’ to Melbourne. Any water coming to Melbourne currently is subtracted from environmental flows. Other ‘fixes’ have not been seriously contemplated: mandatory tanks; stricter behaviour modification; compulsory retro-fitting of water meters to premises lacking them; wide-scale storm-water harvesting; and extension of recycled water past the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

Minimal provision for public involvement

The Brumby Government does little or no social benchmarking to monitor impact of major infrastructure decisions on human communities. Long struggles for environmental impact statements succeeded. It’s time there were human community impact statements required as well. Community engagement as it may sketchily exist in the Victorian government certainly is not best practice. A glance at the construction of the Community Liaison Committee established with the construction of the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant shows that it will have no impact, it will have no strong community voice, and is not answerable to the community at all.


The Brumby government ignores and endeavours to cut out any opposition or compaints of poor management. The North-South Pipeline has divided communities and has absorbed community energies and resources over a considerable period of time. Mediation does not seem to have occurred to Brumby. It appears that water down a pipe to Melbourne equals votes in 2010 and that is all that matters. Surely, the government can do better than this. As we move into periods of great climate variability, there will be many policy issues to be decided in relation to natural resource management. Are the current actions of the Brumby government in relation to community engagement and problem solving to be the model for the future? Or are communities destined to fight battles for their environment to the point of exhaustion and resource depletion?

As if cutting off community voices is not bad enough, 2010 has seen the Brumby government is prepared to abridge the civil liberties of Victorian citizens with a contract allowing AquaSure to provide “spy-type” information on protesters to the police and the spying on and collation of information in relation to Jan Beer, a Plug the Pipe leader. Does the Brumby government consider this a way to gain broad community confidence for its water plans? Do Melbourne Water and AquaSure consider this community engagement?

Forgets that “public” contains some equally well-qualified experts

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About the Author

Brigid Walsh is an independent researcher and commentator living in Melbourne.
She is a graduate of the University of Qld in Economics, Government, Sociology , and Religion.
Brigid is a born and bred Queenslander who has spent most of her long existence in North Queensland and the Northern Territory where she developed her skills in community engagement and advocacy.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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