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Dismantling our water past

By Peter Crawford - posted Thursday, 7 June 2007

All Australians want solutions to our water problems - especially after a history of failures at national and state level over the past century. We must assure ourselves that the National Water Initiative deals with real problems and needs, that its objectives can be secured, and that the whole approach is continually reviewed in the light of experience and feedback.

Our history is one of many federal and state water initiatives which dealt with particular aspects of water management - usually as if water were a discrete element of a catchment or the environment, capable of being managed in isolation. This led to failed initiatives, poor planning and management, very large public costs, widespread confusion and general cynicism.

Now is the time to redraft the NWI to emphasise the deterministic role of catchments, particularly if future decisions on water allocation and use are to be sustainable.


A systems approach

Neither governments nor citizens are comfortable planning and managing at catchment scale. Governments traditionally subdivide catchments and their water systems into “manageable units”, such as water supply, environmental standards, forestry and soil conservation activity and so on. So, when ministers and officials meet to tackle national water problems they seldom think and act systemically. The NWI is an agreed document but this does not necessarily promote a systems approach to planning and managing resources.

The Commonwealth initiative in the Murray-Darling system illustrates the vital importance of acting and thinking systemically. It aims to respond to the scale and complexity of the catchment-based problems in a whole-system way. We can now see the social, environmental and economic cost of our failure to manage and plan for this system in an integrated way over the past three decades.

Winners and losers

Serious deterioration of rivers, significant over-allocation of available water, the legacy of past agricultural practices, poor town and regional planning all create problems at the catchment level. That calls for detailed analysis of the cause of such longstanding problems followed by strategic and systemic responses. We need to be realistic: there are few “win-win” strategies left in our efforts to overcome major problems, so the new decisions and trade-offs will be tough. There must be winners and losers.

Governments cannot soften the impact of these strategies by, for example, providing structural adjustment funding in every deserving situation. Instead, careful analysis leading to a good understanding of the extent of necessary change and its implications in a catchment can lead to better strategies and stakeholder understanding and a fairer distribution of benefits and costs.

Narrowly focused assessment, planning and management will almost certainly lead to poor social, economic and ecological outcomes. There is no place for comforting rhetoric and palliatives.

In 20 years working in this field I have rarely seen serious effort to deal with institutional blockages to major water reform. Throughout the nation there are hierarchies of town and regional planning, land, water, vegetation and estuarine management, as well as agency and local government arrangements to deal with a vista of water-related issues, many of which have been left in place over decades.


While this problem is at times acknowledged in planning reviews, it is little recognised in catchment and water reform, either at national or state levels. Nor is there much understanding that officials, community and industry representatives have effectively become custodians or defenders of these historical arrangements and that they will act to “protect” them. As a consequence, most of these arrangements will not and do not simply atrophy under the assault of major new reforms. There has to be a conscious effort to dismantle the past at the same time as planning and acting for the future.

Recognising all stakeholders

Successful catchment and water management requires a clear understanding by the various social partners of their respective roles. World-wide, effective catchment management has involved local communities and stakeholders in identifying problems, in setting priorities, discussing alternatives and signing off on major initiatives. Meanwhile the political leaders are often called on to face the tough issues, to mediate the various interests, ensure equity in the distribution of costs and benefits and that feedback occurs - and to drive the reform agenda.

All stakeholders - governmental, major water users and the community - rely heavily on the advice and analysis of experts in exploring system-wide problems, in analysing evidence and data and in laying out alternative scenarios and their implications.

In this context it is frequently difficult for lay people to see the need for system-wide responses to local problems or to bridge the many difficulties in interpreting available data, of variable quality and applicability. Those in government often fail to appreciate the same need as they strive to simplify, cut through and achieve a “politically satisfactory” outcome in an abbreviated time frame. The fact that such expertise is in short supply in academe, government and industry simply exacerbates the problem.

The National Water Initiative does not set out these roles clearly - and needs to do so. This will reduce the risk that NWI initiatives will be compromised and fail to meet public expectations when they are implemented.

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First published in Australian R&D Review on June 7, 2007  It is republished in collaboration with ScienceAlert, the only news website dedicated to Australasian science.

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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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