New approach to water resources

A new approach to tackling the urgent challenges confronting the nation’s water resources

In Australia, our rivers, wetlands, lakes and groundwater systems are facing unprecedented challenges. Despite almost three decades of internationally recognised reform, Australia’s current management of its fresh water resources is unsustainable and good policy-making has become harder. Intensifying this water policy challenge are the dual impacts of climate change and population growth. There is an urgent need to change the way in which we manage our fresh water resource, to ensure the prosperity of future generations and the survival of our precious ecosystems.

A fence splits the land and waters in this aerial photo taken near the Macquarie Marshes in NSW, showing the impact of different land management practices on vegetation, soil runoff and water quality. Credit: Peter Solness.

After twelve months of extensive research and consultation, funded by The Myer Foundation and The Ian Potter Foundation, the boards of these two long-standing philanthropic foundations have joined forces to establish a water and catchment policy centre to help catalyse transformative change in the management of Australia’s fresh water resource. The foundations have each made a $5 million commitment over 10 years to establish this new policy centre and they are now seeking funding partners to ensure this proposal becomes a reality. The philanthropic partners describe the venture as “a new, independent, authoritative and trusted centre that can bridge the gaps between knowledge and power while working collaboratively with all stakeholders on solutions to Australia’s water and catchment challenges.” 

There is now a palpable sense of urgency to address the problems affecting our rivers, wetlands, lakes and groundwater systems: the CSIRO forecasts that water demands in Australia could double by 2050, while at the same time climate change will continue to reduce surface water availability.

The Ian Potter Foundation CEO, Craig Connelly, says: “In the next 30 years, we are going to see a much drier Australia, particularly in the south-east and south-west. We need to come to terms with Australia’s hydrological realities because we all have a stake in making sure our water resources are managed efficiently and sustainably.’’

Mr Connelly sees the new initiative bringing the best of philanthropy to an issue that is highly contested, often beset by short-term thinking and managed reactively to events rather than proactively through medium to long-term risk planning. “Philanthropy can fund a process of discovery, take risks and be independent, ensuring that as a nation we consider these complex issues deeply, to assist communities to have a voice, and to allow our best and brightest to provide informed, community-led options for policy makers to consider,” he says.

So how is the new centre proposing to catalyse change? Leonard Vary, CEO, The Myer Foundation, explains: “We need to focus on improving the way we make decisions about water and catchments in Australia by drawing on expertise and better engaging all stakeholders in policy decisions. There’s a need to build a broad constituency for change by linking water policy to other issues including climate change, population growth, regional development and urban planning with a focus on achieving optimal outcomes.’’

Mr Vary is referring to the centre’s focus on addressing policy deadlocks by prioritising deliberative approaches to decision-making and policy co-design. “Policy debates on some water and catchment issues have become so partisan,’’ Mr Vary adds, “that they no longer focus on the long-term, critical issues that matter to all of us. We need to draw on proven ways of bringing stakeholders together to engage with the science and develop shared solutions to water and catchment policy problems.”

The Myer Foundation and The Ian Potter Foundation are seeking $25 million in commitments from like-minded partners, with a deadline of September 2020 to secure those commitments.  This will add to their confirmed $10m funding and ensure the centre has secure and independent funding in place for its first ten years of operation.   

The centre will be incubated at the Australian Academy of Science for its first five years to help facilitate links with experts and to work with other academic centres to support knowledge sharing. Using proven models of policy co-design including citizens’ assemblies will mean communities are also afforded a larger role to exercise their local knowledge and expertise to help shape enduring solutions.

Philanthropic and corporate support will ensure the centre takes a long-term and innovative approach to policy, free from the limitations of short-term electoral cycles. Given the historic challenges to Australia developing an effective and lasting water policy, the centre will need at least a decade to make an impact. Philanthropic support will guarantee the centre’s independence at a time when water policy debates are characterised by partisan priorities.

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