Basin communities ready to work for water reform

by | Nov 22, 2010

Source: Sydney Morning Herald. Photo: Kate Geraghty

The below article by Inovact’s Managing Director Brian Ramsay, was published today by Sydney Morning Herald, examining the public response to recent water reforms.

Read the original article, “Basin communities ready to work for water reform” here.

Watching the recent emotive public reaction around the consultations on the Guide to Basin Plan you could assume that the Basin community is vigorously opposed to water reform and that the prospects of meaningful change any time soon are grim to say the least.

However, according to the latest independent Basin Pulse research conducted in late October, the evidence is that Basin residents do support some type of water reform.

The research surveyed 500 people in Basin areas from Queensland through NSW, Victoria and South Australia and questioned residents on issues ranging from industries in the region and the impact of proposed water reforms, to how water is used and allocated.

It shows that 75 per cent of the Basin population maintain that water allocations need to change so that more water goes to the environment. This is just 5 per cent less than in June this year. Even with the breaking of the drought, people living in the Basin are resolute about the need for change to water management.

Rather than saying that change can wait, there is a strong sense of urgency — 62 per cent say that changes should already be under way or started immediately. The level of urgency has certainly eased since June (74 per cent), but it is still emphatic.

Rather than believing that water reform is unlikely, more people (60 per cent) now believe that water reform is even more likely than they did in June (46 per cent).

The sentiment towards the impact of water reform from people involved in agriculture tends to be more negative, with 81 per cent saying that their local area will be worse off if less water is available for economic use. Despite this, 41 per cent of these people still say change of varying degrees is needed. The general population, while believing their local area will be worse off (68 per cent), does understand the implication if less water goes to agriculture and still wants water reform.

A powerful indicator of the level of buy-in for change is that almost half the population (46 per cent) now believe that the “whole community” is responsible for achieving water reform in the Basin. By comparison, the federal government came in a distant second at 29 per cent.

So what is really happening in the Basin? The evidence is that far from becoming disengaged or opposed, the wider community is actually buying into the change process. They have moved beyond awareness and reflection. They are preparing for change to occur and want to be engaged on a whole of community basis.

Despite the recent public angst, the broader Basin community is moving on with its thinking on water reform. They want to get on with the job and find workable solutions at the community level. Communities want an inclusive approach and the opportunity to shape the changes that will affect them.

The challenge is for government to deliver such a process. Unfortunately, the thinking that drives decision-makers in government and industry usually lags what is actually happening on the ground. There is a disconnect.

There are real risks ahead for the reform process and the strength and resilience of community support for reform may not be enough.

The first risk is that leaders in government and industry will overreact to the recent high-profile anger expressed about the proposed Basin Plan. People are angry, there is no doubt, but they also understand that reform is needed — they just want to be included. The second is that the process could lose momentum and sink into the classic traps of confusion, delay and endless analysis of the same data, rather than moving to refine change proposals and design a plan for transition. Signs of both risks are already emerging.

After 15 years of effort we are on the path to achieving historic change in the way we manage one of Australia’s most important natural resources. More importantly, the broader Basin community is ready to be involved and to back water reform.

The reform process is on a precipice. If the hard decisions are not taken and the residents excluded, then we may truly see Basin community dissatisfaction on a broad scale.

Brian Ramsay is managing director of Canberra company Inovact Consulting. The company has independently funded Basin Pulse, which aims to support reform by better connecting people and decision makers in the Murray-Darling Basin.

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