2017 - Going beyond the crisis response: building trust and maintaining legitimacy in environmental flows

The full report on the workshop can be found here .

Workshop overview

Australia is widely recognized as a world leader in water governance, particularly in environmental flows and water markets, but Australia has been less successful in maintaining the legitimacy of environmental flows programs over the long term (as demonstrated by the backlash to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, ongoing political disagreements, and the recent experiences of ‘theft’ of environmental water in New South Wales). As momentum builds for increasing Indigenous access to and ownership of water rights around Australia, it is also increasingly urgent to develop a strategy for water law and governance that recognizes the legitimacy of the perspectives and interests of Indigenous Australians.

Good water governance is globally recognized as being critically dependent on efficacy, efficiency, and trust and engagement (legitimacy). Water governance is often shaped by a top-down legal framework, but successful policies also require a high level of participation from a diverse range of stakeholders over the long term. This is especially true for environmental flows programs, which explicitly connect social and ecological values for healthy rivers and communities.

In 2007, environmental flows were defined as: “the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems”.  Ten years on, environmental flow assessment methods are now more focused on stakeholder participation and co-design, and recognize the dual role of environmental flows in supporting ecological and societal values, especially for those who rely on instream values to support their livelihood. However, environmental flows programs continue to be framed as technological ‘fixes’ for a specific problem, rather than recognizing that successful environmental management requires ongoing operation over a long period, which requires a continued investment in building, and maintaining, legitimacy.

In November 2017, twenty environmental flows specialists from government, academia, and non-government organizations gathered in Melbourne for two days, to share insights and develop a new approach for building and maintaining lasting support for environmental flows programs across Australia.

This workshop was funded by the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and was hosted by the Centre for Resources, Energy and Environment Law at the University of Melbourne, in partnership with the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Queensland, and the Environmental Hydrology and Water Resources Group in the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, at the University of Melbourne. The conveners of the workshop were Dr Erin O’Donnell, Dr Avril Horne, Prof Brian Head and Prof Lee Godden.