Stirring the sediment in the Murray Darling Basin

5 Dec 2011

Recently the e-bulletin NRM jobs, advertised new positions for Directors at the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA). The first responsibility listed stated: “Lead and manage or participate in a team whose responsibilities may include the development and review of Basin water policy”, betraying the Authority’s less than optimistic outlook. Anyone applying would know leadership at the MDBA is provisional. The CEO changeover in March saw Rhonda Dickson, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture step in on Rob Freeman’s resignation. She and Chair, Craig Knowles, who came in when Mike Taylor threw in the towel, were to steer ‘a fresh start’ for the launch of the Draft Basin Plan in June, and take the it into the next phase. As for the Board, Knowles had asked them to shift gear, and consider whether they were ‘so much perceived as being part of the problem that they couldn't be part of the successful future’.

A new leadership was set to counter last year’s unsuccessful interaction with rural communities and irrigators. Now it’s December and the Draft Plan is out for 20 weeks of consultation. My thoughts turn to leadership in water management, and to younger leaders in particular as the new Basin Plan rolls out. Ongoing succession at the MDBA and in Basin leadership clearly depends on them. What will give them appetite for leadership in roles like the one advertised, mitigating “social and economic impacts of water management reform on the community, as well as providing technical support across the Authority to promote the optimisation of environmental, social and economic outcomes in the Basin”?

Over the last few years I’ve got to know Amanda, an engineer with a role in the people side of projects, in water management consultancy working on Victorian rivers and catchments, and in the Murray Darling Basin. We met through the Centre for Sustainability Leadership where I was a mentor. She was as passionate as other mentees I’d worked with, but in other ways she broke the mould. She was cautious about proposing a ‘vision’ or making major change by the end of the year. The field she worked in, improving the environmental health of rivers, was a bit different.

‘What is it about water management?’ I asked. ‘How do we as a society connect with it? What makes it such a challenge?’

I ask these questions again as I read response to the Plan. The river system has been given small allowances. Yet irrigators aren’t happy. I’m sure I’ll ask them again through cycles of drought and flood, as a never-ending process unfolds.

‘I don’t know’, Amanda said, ‘but I don’t think putting forward a grand vision – whether it’s mine or anyone else’s – is going to bring about change … water management is a complicated area, and change happens slowly.’

‘What role,’ I asked, ‘do you think individuals and the community have in all that? Are the apparent efforts made to ‘engage communities’ really intended to take into account a broad public’s views or are they just about institutions covering their backs?’ We had a lot to talk about.


‘Institutions for water are built up by means of the gradual accumulation of equipment and technical, social and political tools,’ says French social commentator Jean-Pierre Le Bourhis. ‘The institutional machinery is particularly visible when the survival of the group is dependent on the water supply; access, allocation and circulation must be strictly controlled, and therefore corresponding collective (social, cultural and religious) frameworks must be constructed.’

Through the mentoring sessions Amanda and I talked about the way technical and political tools dominate in water management. Le Bourhis’s statement about ‘gradual accumulation’ brought to mind a kind of deposition, layer upon layer, in which muddy substances settle and solidify for all time. This is the complicated business, the less than penetrable thickness of water management. It’s a reminder of the problem of the irrigators remaining unsatisfied, the Murray Darling and communities raging against plans for change in 2010. Layers of governance and formal process, based on scientific data are not really intended to engage people. This is the stiff quagmire in which, when change occurs, it is always only at the surface. Irrigator interest groups only have to flick their crusty tails to make an instant mark on the Labor Minister of Water, who in 2010 pulled any suggestion of environmental priorities back down into the ooze.

The incremental and slow nature of this sedimentary process gives us water governance built on foundations that formed up a long time back, the bottom layers over a century ago. Those who dealt with water in past eras took for granted the arbitrary intervention of Ministers and state premiers, and to some extent this culture continues, as if implementation of water planning will most be sensibly handled by those in back rooms with their fingers on the pulse of politics.


The Centre for Sustainability Leadership (CSL) takes a solution seeking approach. Bright young people seek to influence the current of progressive change rather than make a few ripples on the surface. Amanda chose not to go it alone on the course’s major project and I met her team at the annual cocktail party. An environmental lawyer, an accomplished public artist and Amanda, the socially oriented engineer. It was this mix of disciplines that they hoped would create a solution to a chronic water problem which had come as a shock to the group of CSL urban-ites when Amanda presented on it at the first intensive: thousands of kilometres of cow-trampled river banks on Victorian waterways. As an engineer Amanda was all too familiar with this longstanding issue. She found herself enlivened by the input of the public artist, and the way art might create a new and more inviting interface with the public. She felt less jaded about the issue herself, working with her collaborators.

I once worked in community arts and also in catchment management. There I’d become a bureaucrat of a particular sort, charged with delivering a program with a social focus, in a department where ‘community’ always sat at the bottom of the Deputy Secretary’s key powerpoint slide. I’d never seen art seriously received by natural resource managers. I wanted the collaboration to succeed. Yet I knew that staying power is required to influence practices in the water arena, especially when you take a social perspective into account.

It was exciting. They’d have the chance to work on planning with the notable advocate for citizen water literacy, Mary Crooks of the Victorian Women’s Trust, another mentor in the program. The Trust’s Watermark project had brought groups around neighbourhood tables and workplace benches to educate themselves on issues in water management that ordinary Australians might wish to influence in cities and regions, including over-allocation of water in the Murray Darling Basin. Influence and change was what the group was on about. The following weekend Amanda would take them on a site visit to a depleted river with cow trampled banks, and they’d put their heads together about their approach.


Site visits might be dismissed as being like school excursions. However, their power shouldn’t be underestimated. Being on site is more influential than any amount of thinking about something, and people like Tony Windsor are aware of this. He did a big tour of the Murray Darling in his first months in Parliament. Immediate connections to a locality heighten interest in and concern about any policy or change that affects it, as we keep seeing in the Murray Darling Basin.

Other water management bodies have faced problems as huge as the MDBA. Take for example a highly contentious commission charged with making recommendations to the World Bank on the global dams industry in the late 1990s. It sought credibility by making site visits. The commissioners made a point of going to dams in dozens of countries to meet with affected people. The consulting effort changed them, and they were able to say at the end of the process that they had gained a far more complex and realistic view of their subject.

Figures and graphs about a river, a town or a reservoir might be very convincing in office meetings, but they rarely cut it on the ground, where plans succeed or fail. Will the new Directors of the MDBA be out in the Basin? Judging by the job description, I don’t think so.

In planning for the Murray Darling Basin modern participatory philosophies of government have not found a foothold as yet. Any down-to-earth specialist in the community engagement business, would have warned that the 2010 public meetings to bring the highly charge Proposed Murray Darling Plan to the people would fail. Yet the Commissioners and scientists would likely have seen more engaging strategies as surrendering far too much control. The solidification of sediments has made governance clunky, top down and very dated.


In the existing structures water management plans and frameworks go through a high quota of formal review processes to comply with legislation, in the case of the Murray Darling Basin Authority, the Water Act. Technically accurate plans have to be matched with a reasonable level of understanding and agreement among those affected, which in turn will make for orderly behaviour today and in future, over rivers, reservoirs, pipes, channels and allocations. Agreements need to stand up in times of certainty and uncertainty, given the nature of water availability.

What Amanda and her team grappled with was that so many bureaucratic institutions together govern water use. Broadly speaking the decision-formation takes place on a collective basis, but could hardly be said to be democratic. The key contributors are part of a top-down family of State and Federal government departments, water authorities and agencies like catchment management authorities, National Parks and Crown Lands, along with well known peak bodies like the National Farmers’ Federation and the Australian Conservation Foundation. It’s clear that there is no role for individuals here, in the sense of one person-one vote, and that a paternalistic, authority-laden paradigm is the accepted norm, along with negotiated settlements among powerful players.

With the value-laden issue of water and rivers, differences of interest can impede any great forward movement. At various times Amanda struggled with her role in the group. Was she weighing down her collaborators by explaining the complexity of policy and decision-making structures, and suggesting that water governance was far too set in its ways to adopt new ideas? However she always came back to an optimistic sense of being in a team in which ideas from different backgrounds sparked fresh ways of going about things, and allowed them to thrive.

‘Maybe,’ she’d say, ‘the reason why water managers never see much progress, is that we only ever talk to each other!’


As is apparent today with the difficulties of leadership on the Murray Darling Basin Plan, the ‘socialisation of water’ develops in a ‘hazardous way’, in Le Bourhis’ terms. In 2010 the Minister came on to the scene and relegated the environmental concerns of the Water Act, that led to the creation of the Authority in the first place, by bowing to politically important views. His sparing support of the then Authority’s direction and assessments contributed to the resignation of the Chair. A new inquiry was set up. A new Chair was selected. A new interpretation of Water Act was disseminated.

Amanda’s team quietly cherished a large ambition: that these complicating hazards might in future rouse community passion about the greatest risk: the vulnerability of the ecological framework which Australia is trying to get to adhere. The public artist became passionate and articulate on the subject as she learned more. ‘We want the Murray Darling system to go on for a long time’, she said, ‘beyond the current generation of political representatives, MDBA leaders and irrigation industry spokespeople. On tributary rivers like the Loddon whose river channels have been trampled, eroded and infested with weeds over a decade of drought, we want changes to management that would help them to stand the strain of this year’s big flood.’

But precious few people understand what it means when spokespeople talk about water allocations being directed away from irrigated agriculture, and how this may happen. The complexity and weight of the political and technical content of the Authority’s Plans put power in specialists’ hands.


In late 2010 did the MDBA move with too much haste? Why did they fail to sniff the wind and smell the fear?

Questions of involvement in water management are ones Amanda and her team continue to work through. In the larger context of society, Le Bourhis has proposed that rivers with governance structures like the Murray Darling Basin Authority are ‘construction sites where an environmental democracy is being invented’. In this hazard zone we see an Authority mandated to bring about change to a vital river system’s environmental health, with due regard to the social and economic life of a diverse region losing any capacity or confidence to provide leadership or institute change.

Truckloads of data have been brought on site, a huge proportion of it scientific. Down amongst it you might spot the National and State Farmers’ Federations and industry bodies marshalling heavy moving equipment. Individual farmers stand around waiting. It has rained, and this year they’ve been dealing with that. Still, they’re ready to fight the people who matter. However, on this site they can and will always only confront the equipment and tools of governance. However full of sound and fury, there is no actual opponent feeling anything.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority’s fresh and original mandate was to advance ecological improvements on the Murray Darling. This has come into question. The stakes are high. Over half of the Basin is in poor to very poor condition. However much rain comes down in a couple of seasons, only remote and unfrequented corners are in good health. There’s only so much water to go round. In fact, change is happening already. The Strengthening Basin Communities program has projects and financial investment in place assisting affected regions and towns to transition to a new way of living in their places. But can the institutional machinery and its processes ever change?


The struggles of communities in the Basin are real. So is the ‘construction site’ of environmental democracy. At this site, we have a societal interest in the development of a more inclusive collective vision, which engages thoughtful leadership, imagination and creativity in the service of change. How will community interest in striving for a desired future state in the Murray Darling Basin be kindled? How will other-than-technical perspectives given a place? Will the processes of water governance be eased in favour of a greater democracy in coming years?

Amanda and her Centre for Sustainability Leadership colleagues’ continue to take their project forward. They won funding from an entrepreneurial innovation program to develop a demonstration fencing system with art at the heart of it, to draw attention to the importance of getting cattle out of riparian zones. This winter they took interested people on a site visit in the morning fog. In an environment of slow movement and historically paced change, their desire to play a part in changing accepted ways of thinking about managing rivers is invigorating.

Young professionals participating in water and catchment management want to think ahead. Women need as much of a place in decision-making as men do. Successful interactions between engineers and scientists, artists, social researchers and community engagement specialists with links to communities make a huge difference. But nothing is more important than political will for a genuine change process in the Murray Darling Basin. Ongoing sedimentation carries with it the known risk that life-giving oxygen will gets killed off in the murk.

© Annie Bolitho

Dr Annie Bolitho is an Associate of the University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute. She is involved in various Masters Programs, Transdisciplinary Thinking and Learning at the University of Melbourne, and Coastal and Catchment Management and Planning at RMIT.


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