Lessons on managing water scarcity

by Ivan Low (ELP 2016) | Senior Policy Officer, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Australia

As part of the 2016 Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (ELP), I had the opportunity to study water and environmental leadership under the tutelage of Professor Vincent Resh. Professor Resh is a Professor of the Graduate School in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management at the University of California, Berkeley. He has taught and researched water issues for decades and is a recognized expert on these matters.

More than 95% of the world's water is saltwater.

Professor Resh’s class on water was very well-taught. His lecture started with a passage from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations that illustrated the diamond–water paradox. Broadly, water is a useful resource but it commands a relatively low price when compared with diamonds. This is an interesting observation when one contemplates the importance of water in sustaining life. Without water, humanity and the natural environment as we know it will not exist.

The scarcity of freshwater requires careful management to prevent depletion.

The knowledge gained from Professor Resh’s lecture has been very useful. While he went at length at explaining how complex river and lake systems work, it was his teachings on water management that made me better understand how environmental leaders can use integrated water resource management to achieve the best outcome for the environment. The principles underpinning best-practice water management I gleaned from Professor Resh’s lesson are as follow:

  1. A shared vision of a community’s water future is essential
  2. There must be limits of water consumption
  3. Each user has allocated amounts of water to use
  4. Water conservation investment is necessary

I see the findings from Professor Resh’s class as part of an alternate paradigm to conventional water management practices. In particular, the notion that top-down government bureaucracies are not necessarily the best institutions to allocate scarce water resources serves to illustrate that local communities should be involved in water policymaking to assist in achieving a sustainable water future.

Australia is one of the driest continents in the world.

Australia is one of the world’s driest continents. This means that Australians are particularly vulnerable to freshwater scarcity for both human consumption and sustainable environmental management. Australia also has some of the most complex and unique water systems. As such, I trust that there are opportunities for policymakers to make a difference by applying water management techniques to ensure optimal outcomes for both economic development and environmental welfare.

I understand that both the Murray–Darling basin and the Snowy Mountains Scheme are large Australian icons that have significant impacts on local communities and the broader regional development. Both of these institutions contribute to the livelihood and wellbeing of Australians through their environmental flows that nourishes the Australian water system. Due to the water scarcity in the Australian ecosystem, there is value in ensuring that best-practice water management approaches are adopted to ensure that water is only used for the most productive projects.

Professor Resh’s teachings have the possibility of energizing water policymaking in Australia. Having a shared vision of a water future enables different stakeholders to have a target to work towards. Similarly, emphasizing the scarcity of water for consumption and allocating rights for water consumption creates the necessary economic incentives for the most efficient use of water. Finally, investing in water productivity creates opportunities to drive innovation in better using and conserving water. It is therefore not implausible that better outcomes can be achieved in Australian water assets in a manner that balances regional development and the sustainability of the water ecosystem. 

As a beneficiary of the teachings from the ELP, I see opportunities for me to work with other environmental leaders to ensure that the scarcity of water is managed well. I am certain that there is a place for environmental practitioners to improve water allocations in a manner that respects the environmental, social and cultural norms in communities.