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Water, Food, Poverty: Time to join the policy dots

By Victoria Kearney - posted Thursday, 21 October 2004

During National Water Week and Anti-Poverty Week, I think that it is necessary to emphasise the need to view complex social and environmental issues such as increasing poverty, as an opportunity to critically examine our attitudes to public policy development and cross jurisdictional government management. 

Policy needs to be considered in a new way and with a new attitude. One that ensures such decisions support the common good and which acknowledge the interconnectedness of planning issues and policy development. It seems clear that the complex interdependency of issues management requires a committed and holistic approach to public policy development. For the “common good” we need to start being committed to a view that stresses the interconnectedness of policy reforms, at all levels. It is time to more effectively join the policy dots!

A recent example in NSW clearly demonstrates the significance of this. The NSW Premier recently announced $106m for a dredging project at the Warragamba Dam. This infrastructure solution is ostensibly to get us through a 3-month water supply problem over summer and seems to be no more than a short-term solution to a long-term problem.


It might be better if we spent this money on providing incentives for householders to have a rainwater tank attached to their homes. If this could be achieved, then after rains every household might be able to look forward to a supply of fresh water for the summer. Consequently infrastructure capital could be spent with a different attitude and achieve different outcomes.

As has been frequently pointed out, the highest users of water are not households, but industrial and agricultural consumers. However, if we redirected our capital investment to support households in providing water for their domestic needs, including growing vegetables, there would be some relief from poverty at the same time.

Policy solutions need to be transparent, straightforward and long term and they need to ensure recognition of interrelated issues. Poverty is about many things, including food supply and the use of our agricultural water to ensure an adequate food for all Australians. Urban water policies, public health, welfare policies, agricultural policy solutions, are not just for those who can pay for the resources.

A sustainable social fabric is connected to the management of our natural resources such as water. Sydney people, when poor, could have access to veggie gardens grown from fresh water, caught in a tank from water pouring off our roofs, meaning they can have both a water supply and food for the summer.

Understanding interdependence of policy is not about governmental structural change, but attitudinal change. If asked, we share common values with each other, but in government we often make decisions based on political or economic short-term outcomes ahead of the long-term common good.

Examples of enterprises, which could have an impact on welfare and water reuse, are household water tank cleaning and installation, water recycling of storm water, food co-operatives, commercially viable community gardens and water sensitive urban design and construction incentives.


There is an urgent need to encourage an attitudinal shift and look at the future policy solutions with a more optimistic, entrepreneurial flair and create long-term investment opportunities at a community and national level.

Decisions makers protect their own “patch” and investments. Instead we need to see public actions based on the attitude, “How can I, as a decision maker, relate to others in a way that my actions contribute to the long term common good and which brings the joy of being of service to social change and the future?”

So in this National Water Week and Anti-Poverty Week let’s look at poverty with a twist of water. Let’s make the connection between policy portfolios and make an effort to understand the interdependence. This shift in attitude is a necessary fragment of social change towards a more sustainable and liveable future.

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About the Author

Victoria Kearney is currently completing a Doctorate of Philosophy in Human Geography at Macquarie University. She has previously spent several years teaching and working in public health promotion and local government livability planning.

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