Trust, as much as science, is at the heart of water management

By Waiology 25/03/2013

By Chris Arbuckle

WaterGovernanceWaiology2013For many years now “Water User Groups” (WUG’s) have done a great job implementing community-based water management initiatives. And they have achieved this with the assistance of organizations such as the Landcare Trust, Crown Research Institutes, non-government agencies and regional councils. Projects on the Waituna Lagoon, Upper Taieri River and Aorere Catchment attest to this. They were formed because a community of people desired practical action to address concerns about environmental change. Usually a champion has encouraged a group of interested people to form around an issue to seek a solution. In the main this is all done voluntarily, for the well-being of the water resource and community, and by someone with great charisma to drive it through.

Upper Taieri River, Central Otago (Credit: C. Arbuckle).
Upper Taieri River, Central Otago (Credit: C. Arbuckle).

Of the three main recommendations in the Government’s “Freshwater Reform 2013 and beyond” (national objectives framework; collaborative community planning (CCP); managing within quality and quantity limits using best industry practices); the collaborative planning bit clearly represents the biggest challenge. Without this working the other two recommendations lose their effectiveness.

I agree with the fact that to make decisions about resources you need to gather “sound information, preferably undisputed, and based on sound interpretation of the underlying science”. However, we need to remind ourselves that the environment doesn’t actually wait for humans to decide what is “sound”, and policy recognises that we can’t wait for all the science to be understood. In a resource-limited New Zealand, in the end the CCP group will need to trust each other enough to make the hard decision with whatever science is at hand, or water managers will gain little from this process. Any decision will no doubt affect people’s livelihoods and their values, and is likely to be your neighbours, triggering a suite of unintended consequences, environmentally, socially, culturally and economically that keep the CCP group awake at night.

Up until now, and as ugly as it is, the hard decisions are by default made via the Resource Management Act (RMA), one important benefit being that the law keeps the decision independent of community and impersonal as possible. This “new” CCP approach needs people who can explain the science and build an enduring relationship of trust with people, to become personal (as you can’t hide behind your lawyer in collaborative processes). As a scientist, you never have all the answers to make a completely “undisputable” decision (policy), so we need researchers to walk with community for the long haul, not just dump numbers and run, as Ned and Helen highlight. They need to be able to bridge the gaps for disputed science. In my view, this is where we will struggle. We simply don’t as yet have enough people on the ground to help a community digest a massive amount of information, nor do we have the time to trust the science completely so then the CCP group can rest easy on their hard decision.

For water user groups (or collaborative planning groups) to be effective and truly influence decision making, Government needs to quickly look to even more innovative ways to provide support and, just as importantly, invest in people to deliver the information. I know this is being considered, but for this CCP challenge to prosper there needs to be more haste put into supporting the process and that means more money.

So to underpin this collaborative process, we need to:

  • Build capability while setting up the core water management objectives for CCP groups;
  • Provide a support governance structure to assist a CCP to highlight the hard issues and underpin critical decision making;
  • Provide lots of administrative support;
  • Provide support to ensure catchment based initiatives are effective, implemented and perceived conflicts minimised;
  • Provide groups with succession strategies, as environmental initiatives take a long time;
  • Assist with establishing appropriate monitoring programmes so the successes of a water user group can be assessed through time, as well as the policy;
  • Use social media and open learning initiatives to up-skill our community decision makers.

So if some of these community planning approaches go off track, allow these groups to retain their dignity by ensuring they are given the best shot possible and have time to learn from the experience. This stuff is hard and complex and unlike those embroiled in the RMA process, a community of people in a catchment will still need to return home and trust each other at the end of the day.

Chris Arbuckle is an independent environmental consultant at Aspiring Environmental Ltd.

0 Responses to “Trust, as much as science, is at the heart of water management”

  • Having observed the creation of Canterbury’s zone committees, I would add another bullet point to your list: establish representative and constructive community groups. And having run Waiology for going on two years now, it’s good to see more thoughts on the use of social media in exchanging knowledge and collaborating. [Daniel]

  • Thanks Chris. Great to see this article. It’s easy to forget that water management is at least as much about how we manage relationships, build trust and learn from and with each other, as well as about using the harder sciences. My observations of the Canterbury Zone committees would support this. I’d also highlight the importance of great facilitators to help groups build trust at the same time as the face the issues and differences.

    I note that there are still issues about how the Zone Committees are trusted further afield. I’ve seen ZC members make significant shifts in their perspectives and in their understanding of the interlinked nature of the issues facing them. Those shifts and the learning that they do can be difficult to pass on to the interest groups they are part of. it’s not easy for those not at the table to see why and how the ZC reached the conclusions that it did.
    That’s not t take away from your observation that trust is important. Rather, it is to highlight that there is still work to do on building trust at the interface between the ZCs and the stakeholder groups that they serve, as well as within the ZC in question.

  • Agree completely the help of those “facilitators” whom can maintain the understanding of WHY a group is there is critical. And also agree with your last statement, having worked with many groups, and as an observation, even within and between ministries in Govt, – trust so very hard to build, so easy to erode….would be interested to see if you think there is a point you have to support a group to walk away…and leave it to past process. Chris

  • All of your points regarding the CCP cost money. And not just a small amount. Part of the trust issue is around councils using rates effectively. It is a big hurdle for councils to say “trust us, we want to work with you and charge more”. Particularly when most other government departments have reduced costs.

    Here in my region we have compliance staff being sacked at an unprecedented rate, and the chairman has been describe as untrustworthy by one of her own councillors. When the compliance stick has been brandished so vigorously and dishonesty stems from the top, how does one trust and pay more?

  • That’s a good point: tax payers will need to trust those who decide where the money goes in these processes. Voters too. Two ingredients of this would be transparency and success. [Daniel]