Saturday, April 21, 2007

Back in Australia the water situation seems dire for much of the continent

My first day back in Melbourne and it is raining. It feels good but I fear it is not the sort of rain to make a big difference. Melbourne is now on Stage 3a water restrictions. There may not be enough water to continue irrigated food and agricultural production in the vast Murray-Darling basin. Accusations fly back and forth, local action groups form, and as I suggested in an earlier posting on the subject, complexity and uncertainty seems exacerbated on a daily basis. Kathy Marks in a piece in the UK Independent, gives a good overview of the current situation.

There seems a strong case for more rigorous systemic analysis and for independent scrutiny of the claims and counter claims. Take the following example:

The New South Wales Government has asked for an expert review of a new report suggesting installing domestic rainwater tanks could allow a Sydney desalination plant to be delayed until 2026.

A study by economists Marsden Jacob Associates found rainwater tanks to be more than five times as energy efficient as a desalination plant per kilolitre of water produced.

The independent report, commissioned by three conservation groups, also found if tanks were installed in just 5 per cent of NSW households per year, the switch to desalination could be put back until 2026.

New NSW Water Utilities Minister Nathan Rees today said he had referred the report to "the relevant experts" for advice.

"As soon as they come back to me, I'll be giving that detailed attention," Mr Rees said.

"I would point out the Government's plan already increases the rainwater tank rebate from $800 to $1500 and extends it to rural and regional areas across the state."

Mr Rees refused to be drawn on whether the report's findings provided the Government with an attractive option in the fight to secure the state's water supply.

He said he "didn't have a view" on the report as he had yet to read it.

The Government's position on the 125 million-litre desalination plant proposed for Sydney's south remained unchanged, he said.

"The one truth in the water debate is there is only one option that will guarantee Sydney's water supply – an endless supply of water, the world's biggest dam and that is the ocean," Mr Rees said.

"That's what we're tapping into, that's what desalination allows us to do."

The NSW Greens said the Government's support for desalination was about maintaining centralised state control over water supply.

"Water utilities make money from consumption, they're less interested in conserving water and empowering people to manage their own supply," Ian Cohen, Greens Upper House environment spokesman said.

Mr Cohen applauded the boost to the water tank rebate but urged the Government to heed today's report and realise the full potential of the scheme.'

In the mean time the old town of Adaminaby has re-emerged from its grave in the depths of Lake Eucumbene.

The patterns of Provence

Over Easter the cherry trees in particular were a delight.

Friday, April 20, 2007

French voters faced with systemic complexity of the voting process

My French friends are in a quandary. Over recent meals these friends and acquaintances have engaged in intense discussions about the problem they face about how to vote. Most would like to vote for Segolene Royal but are even more inclined towards keeping Nicolas Sarkozy out. Basically they do not feel that 'Sego' can beat 'Sarko' if they both make it to the second round of voting. So they struggle with the question of whether to vote for Francois Bayrou in the belief that if he makes it into the second round he will attract enough votes to keep 'Sarko' out! It is an exercise in national second-guessing.

In Avignon at the beginning of Easter all the posters for 'Sarko' had been modified by a graffiti artist - the resultant image was very much like one Herr Hitler. By the end of Easter all these posters had been replaced or covered as in the example here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Public participation - necessary but not sufficient

Prior to going to the UK I pioneered the use in Australia of certain approaches to public participation in natural resource management R&D. Not long after my arrival in the UK (in 1994) I had a call from a senior researcher at a government research institute who said: 'I hear you know something about public participation? We have a project funded by ODA (now DfID) in India who insist it has a participatory element. We have done this but now we have one of our counterparts doing a study tour of England and he wants to know why they have to do participation when we can show him no examples of it here!'

This was an excellent question on the part of the Indian researcher.

Now things have changed dramatically ...or have they? The discourse and rhetoric, and to be fair, the practices have changed dramatically. So has our own research. From our perspective what is now happening is the uncritical incorporation of demands for public participation into almost every project. The result, too often, is poor practice, stakeholder burnout, the experience of being participated etc. We would now claim that participation is necessary but not sufficient. The reasons why it is necessary can be gleaned in a recent report from the UK-based NGO Involve. Here are the headlines from the report:

"Headline Findings:
• There remains considerable enthusiasm among politicians, policy makers, researchers and practitioners for continuing and enhancing public participation. Understanding of the benefits is growing in general terms, although there is significant unwillingness to quantify these benefits - and particular reluctance to 'monetarise' the benefits (assign a monetary value to them).
• There is a serious lack of data on the practical costs and benefits of participation, for a range of practical and ethical reasons.
• The lack of understanding of potential costs and benefits makes it difficult to develop a coherent hypothesis about participation overall.
• New analytical frameworks are needed. Participation is a new and crosscutting approach that is only partly captured by existing academic and professional disciplines. A new theoretical model is needed that goes beyond the disciplines and fields within which participation began.
• Participants' perspectives are critical to defining the costs and benefits of participation. Only by including this perspective alongside that of institutional interests, and considering the wider impacts on local communities and society as a whole, can the true costs and benefits of
participation be understood.
• Greater investment in assessing participation processes is required, to build a robust evidence base.
• A simple framework for capturing the actual practical costs and benefits of participation is needed, to complement the wider thinking needed around broad new analytical frameworks. In this way, simple data can begin to be captured and provide benchmarks against which future activity can be tested.

Our recent research on social learning addresses some of the concerns raised by this report. Policy briefings can be downloaded from our SLIM website; a special issue of the journal Environmental Science & Policy (vol 10, (6)) will be devoted to SLIM research findings. It should be available in August.