The launch of the community guide to the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan marks the latest step in the largely bipartisan process of water reform that started with the COAG reforms of 1994. It also graphically displays the risks inherent in the increasingly centralised Commonwealth-driven approach to water planning that developed under the Howard government and has intensified since.
The lack of buy-in to the draft Basin plan among affected communities is palpable. The feeling that decisions that will affect lives and businesses are being made remotely, without a fine-grained understanding of local impacts or local solutions, is widespread across the Basin. Even among people who accept that the Basin is not a magic pudding, and that decades of over-allocation need to be corrected in the interests of long-term water security and river health, there is a strong perception that the plan is a done deal, that consultation processes are cosmetic, and that legitimate social and equity concerns are not being taken seriously.
The past few weeks have been profoundly disturbing for professionals in water or natural resource management in Australia and the prospect that another critically important reform process may unravel is depressing. The loss of goodwill and the human cost of the current approach has been terrible. It is jeopardising the social capital and broad consensus on sustainable natural resource management (NRM) that has evolved since the advent of Landcare in the late 1980s. We have learnt much about NRM and social change in these decades, but these lessons appear to have been ignored in the Basin plan process.
How could this have been handled differently?
Australia is facing big, long-term, systemic challenges: to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions; to reduce the carbon, water and energy intensity of our economy; to shift to renewable energy; to handle a highly variable climate and more frequent and intense extreme weather events; and to manage population growth and development pressures without trashing or urbanising our best farm lands, carving up our coastline and bush, or further endangering native flora and fauna.
Australia has a unique place in the world’s evolution and thus a grave responsibility for protecting its unique ecosystems. But this cannot be done without informed and committed people.
In the past two decades we have learnt that we won’t be able to meet the challenges of sustainable farming, carbon, water, energy or biodiversity conservation without grassroots community support and engagement. Durable, adaptable, locally responsive solutions are unlikely to emerge through centralised, command-and-control planning.
As a thought experiment, imagine where we might be now with the draft Basin plan, if the Rudd government had decided to mark the 20th or 21st anniversary of Bob Hawke’s launch (with bipartisan support) of Landcare, by announcing a major rejuvenation and expansion of Landcare around climate change, carbon literacy, renewable energy, water management, drought resilience and sustainable food systems. This could have been a natural fit with schools programs under the so-called Education Revolution, linked with widespread community engagement through interactive web 2.0 technologies.
Designed around principles of community involvement, adult learning and local development and ownership of local solutions, this could establish an informed and engaged community base for the big national debates around climate, carbon, water, energy and food.