How might ILWS find its role in sustainable development of regional Australia?


Dr John Williams

Opinion Piece Dr John Williams – Chair ILWS Advisory Board

In our Strategic Plan CSU is called to be a university whose courses, graduates and research help our regional communities to thrive and prosper economically, socially and environmentally. How can and does ILWS marshal the horsepower of CSU to make all that happen? This was a question we struggled with at the ILWS forum in July and one which merits increasing attention with the election of our new Australian government.

At the Institute’s board meeting it was agreed that a foundational requirement for ILWS is to bring social, environmental and economic considerations together to get outcomes for regional communities. Therefore the issues around integration and people engagement need to be included upfront and central in the discussion of how ILWS might operate. Our rhetoric highlights the importance of ILWS’ conducting appropriately integrated biophysical, social and economic science and bringing this well-conditioned knowledge to bear in evidence-based decision-making of community and government.  The Board felt that an important contribution that ILWS’ knowledge could make was through listening to society’s questions, reflecting, thinking, often re-framing the questions and working with society to explore solutions and facilitate implementation and further learning. ILWS is in a prime position to influence, support, encourage and where appropriate facilitate and be involved at grass roots level.

How do we support authentic commitment to community connectivity whilst keeping the end in mind to tie things together in the form of a sustainable outcome? Just maybe the important contribution that ILWS sciences can make is by reflecting on society’s questions and coming to understand who and what we are as regional communities. But then, is ILWS part of regional communities or a distant uninterested observer?

Integration for integration’s sake is a sad waste of time.

Regardless of how it is pitched it seems we all want ILWS to be a means by which integration of the social, economic and biophysical sciences can take place when appropriate.  But we all know this is not easy. Generally, however, we know that unless the people issues are properly understood and brought to bear biophysical knowledge seldom leads to sustainable and enduring solutions. I think it is natural that many of us would prefer not to have to integrate our knowledge with others from totally different disciplinary fields, where language, frameworks of thinking, and expectations are foreign and uncomfortable. And I also think it is true that not everybody needs to integrate. What we need to do is to be good at stitching together all the necessary components of knowledge and endeavour to yield a sustainable enduring solution. Integration for integration’s sake is a sad waste of time. But how ILWS manages this synthesis in all its complexity will in the end determine how successful we will be in contributing to sustainable development of our regional communities.

It is clear that over many decades both Federal and State Governments have struggled to find effective ways to deliver to regional Australia. This is impacting on good regional planning decisions and regional development. I think it can be claimed that central governments are currently seen as failing regional Australia with vested interest leadership ignoring community well-being while dominating the development agenda from the capitals.

Could there be a role for ILWS to contribute into this area of pioneering new institutional and governance arrangements to facilitate and deliver more effective sustainable regional development?

Old Economic Development versus Environment model has had its time

Surely the old model of Economic Development versus Environment has run its course and it time for a new way to take Australians into a more ecologically sustainable future together. The bottom line is that we must change our two incompatible stories about landscape biodiversity, energy, water, food and climate. We cannot continue to foster one story that assumes an infinite planet and is framed around the paramount need for economic growth while maintaining the other story around the paramount need to protect an increasingly fragile natural world.  The future in my view depends upon the evolution of a more subtle and resilient story about human-earth interactions, in which land, energy, water and climate are central and where a new story evolves to empower a transition to a society that lives within the means of a finite planet and improves global human  wellbeing at the same time.

That is the new story that ILWS could contribute into for the 21st century. I wonder if development and evolution of the Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) principles could take us someway in this new direction.

Is an Integrated Catchment Management concept useful in ILWS?

If there is a role and ILWS were able and willing to contribute, there are some developments in our capacity which I see as critical. First is to consolidate a set of conceptual models in our culture of how we bring together Land, Water and Society. It’s in our name. But how is it framed in our thinking? One such conceptual framework which may help and which I discussed at the July Forum is to consider the principles set down in Integrated Catchment Management (ICM).

This has been well researched and ICM has evolved since the 1980’s, although effective application in regional development has been fragmentary and slow. However current adoption of ICM, in progressive Catchment Management Authorities in NSW and Victoria continue show emerging signs of promise. Therefore I wonder if the time has come for us to face up to the need for a more strategic approach as to how we use our landscapes and catchments for; urban and industrial infrastructure to support our regional cities and towns, our farmland, forests, fisheries, our water and energy all underpinned by the ecosystem services provided by our biodiversity and conservation of our natural heritage. How do we manage all these demands under increasing population pressure, industrial and mining development and climate change while meeting our desire for environmental amenity of clean beaches, rivers, and other natural assets in which we seek recreation and renewal?

What is Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) ?

Peter Ashton1 of CSIR South Africa uses this simple diagram to conceptualise ICM and it perhaps could do so for ILWS also.

John Williams graphic

It focuses attention and actions on resource sustainability and resilience concepts. ICM is simultaneously seen as a philosophy or approach to land-use and resource management with a strong emphasis on having a “people-orientated” management process.  As Peter Ashton1 writes “it can also be seen as a product or implementation strategy or plan, which seeks to achieve a sustainable balance between the utilization and protection of ALL environmental resources within a catchment, and also seeks to grow a sustainable society through stakeholder, community and Government partnerships in the management process.”

ICM is a systems approach which recognizes the individual components as well as the linkages between them, and addresses the needs of both the human and natural systems. It is a stakeholder approach which recognizes the importance of involving individual citizens and landowners, industry as well as government agencies, in a participatory process to define all decisions around conservation and use of natural resources and the landscape urban or rural in which we all live,.

Most importantly ICM is a partnership approach which promotes the search for common objectives, and defines the roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of each industry, agency and individual which participates in the process of decision-making; and seeks a balanced approach where close attention is given to decisions designed to achieve a sustainable blend of economic development and protection of resource integrity, whilst meeting social norms and expectations.

To be effective ICM would need to sit within an institutional and administrative framework which uses the ICM process to deliver the desired goals and outcomes for society as a whole. To succeed experience shows it needs a guiding “philosophy” at a National level coupled with an overarching National policy and legislation for ICM to bridge the line functions of different government departments and so yield whole of government delivery . How ICM might be part of the future is the question at hand. It could provide the glue that ILWS seeks.

I see that ILWS is in a prime position to influence, support, encourage and where appropriate facilitate and be involved at grass roots level in exploring more effective ways to marshal regional delivery of more sustainable development.  Can ILWS pilot, and through action learning, pioneer more effective delivery of regional sustainable development by building on the knowledge, learning and evolution of Integrated Catchment Management? That’s a question for our future. But regardless the old dichotomy of Economic Development versus Environment has had its time.

It’s time for new ways for our 21 century and ILWS is one place where I hope these will emerge, be tested and applied with regional communities.

John Williams
Advisory Board
CSU Institute of Land, Water and Society

26 September 2013

1 Peter Ashton (1998). Integrated Catchment Management: Balancing Resource Utilization And Conservation.  See:

About ilwscsu
The Institute for Land, Water and Society is one of four Centres of Research Excellence within Charles Sturt University, Australia. Its principal focus is on integrated research which contributes to improved social and environmental sustainability in rural and regional areas.

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