Academic journal article Rural Society

Who Turns the Taps off? Introducing Social Flow to the Australian Water Debate

Academic journal article Rural Society

Who Turns the Taps off? Introducing Social Flow to the Australian Water Debate

Article excerpt


Australia is experiencing a major water crisis brought about by a severe and longstanding drought and consequent depletion of water stocks and river flows. That the issue has become one of national urgency is evident in the creation in 2007 of a federal Ministry for Climate Change and Water under Minister Penny Wong, and a National Water Commission headed by Ken Matthews, a senior and experienced Canberra bureaucrat. Closer to the ground Catchment Management Authorities have been established across the country to allow local people an input into decisions about land and water. In between these bureaucracies there are various bodies at state and regional levels that provide some form of water monitoring. While the creation of new instrumentalities and the ongoing work in long established bodies provide various foci for attention to the water crisis, it does nothing to replenish scarce water stocks. Consequently what water is available has become a source of dispute among stakeholders about priorities and practices. Among the competing voices are irrigators looking to secure their entitlements and crops, bureaucrats anxious to ensure ongoing national food security, politicians concerned about town water allocations in their electorates, environmentalists desperate to ensure biodiversity and environmental flows are maintained and recreational water users wanting ongoing access to rivers and waterways.

Complicating the messy business of water reform has been the introduction of water trading a process of commodification of our scarce water supplies that adds significant complexity. Water trading brings market forces into the area of water allocation, giving an economic value to water as a tradeable commodity. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (World Wildlife Fund [WWF] Australia 2003, p. 12) argue that 'markets make good servants but poor masters'. It is apparent that the dominance of market forces downplays the social justice element of water allocation.

In this paper we discuss a range of voices dominating the water debate, noting the prioritisation of an economic and environmental agenda and the lesser consideration given to the ordinary social uses of water, which we refer to as the social flow. Our discussion of social flow goes some way to making transparent the overshadowed social justice implications of water allocations and, in doing so, raises questions about water trading policy, the way we value water, the agenda surrounding water decisions and prioritised stakeholders. By incorporating an understanding of social flow we make transparent the way we value this scarce resource and expose the need for more inclusive decision making bodies that bring in the voices of community members, both Indigenous and non Indigenous, who have qualitatively different ways of assessing the value of local water ways.

We begin by introducing the notion of social flow to describe the often overlooked largely qualitative dimensions of water that add to human well being before discussing water policy and the underpinning ideology that shapes decisions. This discussion gives some idea as to why certain values, positions and stakeholders are prioritised and why social flow remains an indeterminate and increasingly marginalised factor in the water debate. We do not purport to be determinative in our assessment. Rather we use this analysis to allow an expanded debate that moves beyond economics and environmental factors to other fundamental issues of value to society in relation to our scarce water resources.

Social flow

In the crisis around water, the social value of water to a community and to local community stakeholder groups is often overlooked. Exposing the social value of water, or the social flow, creates a space for the voices of missing stakeholders to emerge. The CSIRO (nd: 4) describes the social value of water as 'the features of water and water bodies that people consider to be important. …

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