The Tragedy of the Commons

The School’s Water Research Centre recently hosted a very topical Forum - ‘Building Drought Resilience in NSW’ enthusiastically attended by over 100 industry and community colleagues from more than 40 organisations.

While recent heavy rains have brought much, although not all, of the state back from the brink, drought remains part of our climatic landscape and will certainly return. Our soils remain drier, while increasing populations will place even more pressure on water supply, and concern over fair allocation of water amongst a wide diversity of needs continues to be a community issue.

As CVEN Professor of Practice Robert Care noted in his opening address, “Drought is a natural event but it is also political, social, cultural, and given the intensity of recent events, particularly over this summer, it is a deeply psychological event.  Our solutions today need to take that into account.”

The Forum sought to discuss how we can better manage and nurture our engineered and natural water systems in both regional and urban areas.  The keynote speaker was the NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer, Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, while industry panellists included Jim Bentley, CEO Water at NSW Department of Planning, Industry & the Environment (DPIE), Erin Cini from Water Services Association of Australia, Adrian Langdon from WaterNSW, and Narelle Berry from Sydney Water. 

UNSW academic panellists included experts in water sensitive urban design, water quality, rainfall data and modelling, restoration of wetlands and estuaries, and environmental law.

Chief Scientist & Engineer Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte

One of the opening panellists Associate Professor Will Glamore spoke of ‘The tragedy of the commons’ - where everyone values something but no one is responsible for it.

 ‘In NSW,’ he said, ‘our 183 easterly flowing rivers, where 85% of our population lives, are the ‘commons’. This is where we live, work and play. We love the recreational, commercial, heritage, aesthetic, and resource values but NO one is responsible for their wholistic management. There is no Murray Darling Basin Authority of the east, no $12B investment and no collective action. And so the upper catchment management is not connected to the river management. The river isn’t connected to the wetlands/farms and the farms aren’t connected to the ports and urban centres.’

Glamore called for a total catchment solution where collective action is taken to address the common values and develop the priority actions.

A/Prof Will Glamore

It was a theme repeated throughout much of the day, as speakers, panellists and participants called for more collaborative relationships  to build and improve the state’s drought resilience – in regional and urban areas.

During the day, break-out discussion groups focused on formulating evidence-based solutions and prioritising actions to respond to current and future challenges. Discussion topics included water recycling, rehydrating the land, water sensitive urban design, government policies, data and information sharing, constituencies, innovations, and how we can better manage what we have.

Professor Denis O’Carroll, Director of the UNSW Water Research Centre and host of the event, affirmed the Forum’s aim is to produce an engineering/science white paper and strategic plan, addressing the most pressing drought issues; outlining actions which can be taken immediately, actions with longer term implementation and objectives, and defining who should be responsible for those actions. “Our plan will be coherent, concise, evidence-based and do-able’” he said.

Full Program available here.

Full notes of WRC Drought Resilience Forum proceedings are now available here.

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