Developing an Australian Vision for Water?

ARDC-Max FinlaysonProfessor Max Finlayson was a keynote speaker at the Australian Regional Development Conference held at the Albury Commercial Club on 26 – 28 August 2015.  Here is a short summary of his presentation.

Developing a vision for water entails the establishment of a common view about the future of our landscape, communities and economic activities, and the role that water plays in our lives. Water is critical for human wellbeing and forms important ecosystems that support a diverse array of life. I am confident that most of us believe in having a healthy riverine environment, but do we mean the same thing when we say this? I am pretty sure that we do not – once we get to the details and these entail change or threaten our very livelihood and worldview I am sure we will see very large differences of opinion.

We have been talking in Australia about sharing and developing water [resources] since Federation, but do we yet have a common view, and is this adequate for the challenges and problems we may face in the future? We have come a long way, and we have a conceptualised view of water based around sustainable social, economic and ecological system/s. But do we really know what sustainability means, and can we cope with emerging issue, such as coal seam gas, and deal with the uncertainty and complexity that characterises our riverine systems? The water system is complex, especially when you overlay the biophysical landscape with a social and institutional layer, and consider the multiple jurisdictions that expect to have a say and shape the outcomes for water.

Prof Max Finlayson We can address these issues by recognising that water management operates within a complex social-ecological system and there are limits. The essence of this view is that we are purposefully combining our social and institutional view of the riverine or water systems with an ecological view. I am treating economic issues very much as a part of the social view, and not as an entity by itself. In this way the emphasis is initially on the people. From this viewpoint we need to treat the human dimensions and the need for a healthy environment as fundamental and interlinked components.

At the same time we need to recognise that we have changed much of our land and water, and there are now major and costly efforts to restore these, or at least attempt to repair them. As the pressures on these systems have been immense and much of them does not match what was once there, and these pressures are mounting what is a realistic future for the rivers and wetlands that supply the water and for the people who depend on them?

This leaves us with some hard questions including how we share our water resources, and when do we see the dividends from policy changes and public investment? Some of the questions we need to address as a community, in fact, led by the community, include:

  • Do we understand Australian river systems? Who is doing the measuring? And how well?
  • How are we ensuring efficient water use for irrigation and environmental purposes? What is the balance? Whose balance?
  • Do we need more dams or better use of existing dams? Or have we reached the limit? Can we switch to groundwater?
  • What are the socio-economic/cultural benefits of environmental flows and resultant ecosystem outcomes?
  • Will we see more urban demands for inland water? And how much will they pay? Who can pay the most?

A common vision is possible – is needed. And I believe we can develop this – the roadmap to reach the vision is where the real work will occur.

For the  full presentation slides in PDF



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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