The Social Process in Environmental Water Management

The Social Process in Environmental Water Management

What does the model discuss?

Human needs, attitudes and aspirations are a critical component of the way in which environmental water management is undertaken. The human dimension of setting flow standards and rules is an essential component of the component of the ELOHA approach process; appropriate consideration of social needs in the process of setting environmental water guidelines is fundamental to achieving outcomes likely to protect biodiversity and ecological processes that achieve wider community support.

Australia’s tropical aquatic ecosystems and the rich biodiversity they support are of social, cultural and economic value to residents, visitors and the international community (Stoeckl et al 2006a[1]). These natural areas are of intrinsic value and, because they are in generally good health, they also provide many important ecological services upon which a range of human activities depend (Greiner et al 2009[2]). The predominant regional industries—pastoral grazing, mining, Indigenous enterprises, fishing and tourism—all use and rely on the region’s water resources and aquatic ecological processes in different ways. These industries, along with people’s livelihoods and lifestyle practices—such as camping, swimming and fishing—are thus linked by land and water: they all need to consider the region’s resources and biodiversity, with regard to access, quality, use and changes.

Understanding values, their relative importance and their influence on natural resource policy requires a clear picture of the region’s socioeconomic environment—its size, key attributes and complexity. The region has a number of distinguishing features, such as low population density, significant numbers of Indigenous people who tend to be impoverished, and a relatively high population growth rate. Although the region represents around a quarter of the Australian land mass, it contains just 2% of the Australian population, or just over 300,000 people, more than a quarter of whom are Indigenous (Carson et al 2009[3]). One-third of the population—around 100,000 people—lives in the greater Darwin area, while another third lives in urban centres such as Mount Isa in Queensland (home to around 20,000 people) and Broome in Western Australia (with 12,000 residents) and other larger localities (Carson et al 2009[3]).

TRaCK research has acknowledged the importance of people in the landscape and the need to incorporate societal needs and values into environmental management. Although northern Australia is relatively sparsely populated (below one person per square kilometre), the region’s inhabitants have very well-defined expectations of how the future of the regions’s resources are to be managed. Importantly however, there is significant variation across northern Australia in those attitudes and expectations and the extent to which people expect to be included in decision making and their ability to be included.

Environmental water management needs to be based on a socially inclusive process recognising the many stakeholders involved. This not only includes water management agencies but primary producers, recreational and commercial fishers, the mining sector, conservationists and the tourism industry but most importantly, also includes the traditional owner communities for which water availability and ecological health take on importance defined by more than just economic value. Traditional owner communities have in the past been poorly involved in water planning but recent changes in legislation applying to water resource management require that they now be involved at all phases of the process.

Importantly TRaCK research has shown that the way in which water resources are managed is not only a concern for the various stakeholders within individual catchments but also extends to people living distant from areas of proposed development (e.g. city dwellers in southern Australia). Thus, societal values are comprised of a diverse base and the relative importance of different values and expectations needs to be carefully considered and evaluated.

The social process component of the ELOHA framework consists of four major steps (which are here labelled as 5 through 8 in keeping with the four steps previously outlined in the scientific process):

5. Determination of societal values and management needs – what is it that people value and how is this related to stream flow? How can one value system be compared to another? What is the relative value of different uses of environmental water?

6. Determination of acceptable ecological condition – how much ecological change are people willing to accept? Which areas should be protected (i.e. no change)?

7. Setting environmental flow standards – what rules or guidelines need to be followed? Which standards are applicable to individual rivers? What are the relationships between ecology and environmental change (i.e. water use)? Does the natural flow regime need to be restored (i.e. in the case of an already impacted river)? How are non-water resource use and development interact with other pressures that may impinge on the system to be managed?

8. Implementation of derived management plans.


  1. Stoeckl, N., Stanley, O., Brown, V., Jackson, S. & Straton, A. An assessment of social and economic values of Australia's tropical rivers: a scoping report to Land and Water Australia's Tropical Rivers Program, Darwin. (Darwin, 2006).
  2. Greiner, R., Gordon, I. & Cocklin, C. Ecosystem services from tropical savannas: economic opportunities through payments for environmental services. The Rangeland Journal 31, 51-59 (2009).
  3. Carson, D., Taylor, A. & Campbell, S. Demographic Trends and Likely Futures for Australia's Tropical Rivers. (2009).


Related projects & resources

TRaCK research relevant to the social components of environmental water management occurred predominantly in four of the seven research themes:

  • Theme 1. Scenario evaluation
  • Theme 2. Assets and values
  • Theme 3. River and coastal settings
  • Theme 6. Sustainable Enterprises.

Aspects of Theme 5 Foodwebs and biodiversity research are important to the social component of the ELOHA process particularly in the values component.

Theme 1: Scenario evaluation

The function of the TRaCK research within this Theme is to inform decision-making about tropical rivers and coasts. This requires the exploration of the environmental, social, cultural and economic consequences for the rivers, coasts and communities of potential development and climate change. Theme 1 addresses this task by bringing together information from the other themes to develop predictions based on realistic scenarios. These predictions can inform public debate, stimulate community action and help policy makers explore solutions to conflicting stakeholder needs. Three projects (1.1 was discontinued and transferred to 1.4) were contained within this theme.

1.2: New ways of better involving Indigenous people in planning for our water and land resources

The perspectives of Indigenous communities are often not heard in mainstream water and land planning processes and debates.  Through targeted training (learning by doing) this research aimed to give local Indigenous communities the skills required to effectively participate and be heard; and to explore alternative ways and arrangements for developing water resources (scenarios).

1.3: Collaborative water planning in northern Australia

This project aims to improve the certainty, legitimacy and efficiency of water planning processes across northern Australia. To do this, the team are developing a tool-kit of good practices to engage industry, Indigenous and rural communities in water planning. They are also working with water agencies to improve water planning approaches.

1.4: Knowledge integration and science delivery

Project 1.4 aimed to improve our understanding of the functioning and management of tropical rivers and coasts by integrating the knowledge that is being developed across the TRaCK program. To that end, TRaCK developed concepts, methods and tools that deliver such knowledge to a range of stakeholders, especially in support of natural resource management. Our approach to knowledge integration is based on a conceptual framework known as Catchment-to-Coast Management Strategy Evaluation. This framework recognises the various elements of an adaptive management approach, including (i) management decisions, (ii) management actions, (iii) our knowledge of the natural system, (iv) our capability for observation, (v) the assessment process and (vi) our ‘learning by doing’.

More information about this project and the software tools developed to aid scenario evaluation can be found at

Material related to these projects include:

Exploring and Evaluating Scenarios for a River Catchment in Northern Australia Using Scenario Development, Multi-criteria Analysis and a Deliberative Process as a Tool for Water Planning

Water managers are increasingly consulting community and stakeholder groups to ensure their decisions reflect the values and preferences of water users. Growing tensions between different water users require the use of techniques that can enable stakeholders to learn about each others’ positions and deliberate about the costs and benefits of alternative water allocation scenarios. This paper describes the use of scenario development, a small group deliberative process (citizens’ jury) and multi-criteria analysis to assist in water planning for the Howard River catchment in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia.

Critical Times Need Practical Measures: Water Resource Planning in Australia (Presentation to NWC)

The National Water Commission in their 2009 assessment of the implementation of the NWI recommended the immediate acceleration of water plans, identification of information gaps, actions that explicitly address climate change, development of SMART water planning objectives and the monitoring of these objectives. These with other recommendations mean that water planners in all jurisdictions face a huge task, which they cannot do alone. Collaborative and adaptive governance, based on inter-agency integration and stakeholder participation is the paradigm adopted in international water policy and academic circles.

A number of other publications associated with collaborative water planning include:

Collaborative Water Planning: Groundwater Visualisation Tool Guide

Collaborative Water Planning: Howard East Water Planning Project Final Report

Water Planning in Australia's Tropical North. Collaborative Water Planning: Summary Report.

Theme 2: Assets and values

2.1: The value of Australia’s tropical rivers

The aims of this research was to work with communities, businesses and the government to identify the uses, values and benefits of three of Australia's tropical rivers and to quantify some of them in dollar terms so that their extent and importance can be accounted for in decision making.  The project examined how the uses, values and benefits of the river have changed through time so that we can learn from history about how some potential development actions may impact on future uses, values and benefits

2.2: Indigenous values and river flows

In northern Australia the need for water planning to identify and address Indigenous interests and values is great. However Indigenous values associated with rivers are poorly understood by decision-makers. This project worked closely with Aboriginal communities to look at the importance of water. It documented the social significance of water and quantified the economic benefits households derive from their use of aquatic resources.

Material relevant to environmental water management derived from these projects include:

The value of Australia’s tropical river ecosystem services

This project provides assessments of the potential impacts of future development scenarios on the ecosystem services of Australia’s tropical rivers. In doing so, this work builds on existing knowledge of the values and assets of Australia’s tropical rivers by identifying the ecosystem services of Australia’s tropical river systems, their contribution to human well-being, and the drivers that impact on them and assesses the impacts of potential development scenarios.

An economic assessment of the value of tropical river ecosystem services: Heterogeneous preferences among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians

Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents of tropical river catchment areas have complex values for these systems which are difficult for decision-makers to accommodate. Aboriginal Australians are a large and growing proportion of the population and are also significant landowners, yet there is little information about the impacts of potential development scenarios on the welfare of Aboriginal Australians that can be used in benefit–cost analyses. This paper reports the potential impact of development/management strategies for three tropical rivers in Australia, and explores the differences between the preferences of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians living in the catchment areas.

Socio-Economic Activity and Water Use in Australia’s Tropical Rivers: A Case Study in the Mitchell and Daly River Catchments

Using an extensive array of data from several different sources, this report describes how water-use input-output models were firstly built and secondly used to explore the way in which Indigenous and Non-Indigenous incomes, employment, and consumptive water demand changes in response to the growth of different industries in two, remote, river catchments in Northern Australia (the Mitchell and the Daly).

Trade-offs between development, culture and conservation – Willingness to pay for tropical river management among urban Australians

Australia’s system of tropical rivers constitutes one of the largest and least changed drainage networks in the world. However increasing demand for water in parts of Australia, along with ongoing drought, is driving pressure to develop these rivers. This paper assesses the benefits of different management strategies for three tropical rivers in northern Australia: the Daly, Mitchell and Fitzroy Rivers.

Indigenous Socio-economic values and river flows - Newsletter 2, October 2010

Australia's tropical rivers account for about 70% of Australia's total runoff. With water becoming an increasingly valuable resource in southern Australia, there is growing interest in the water resources of the north, particularly for irrigated agriculture. There is also recognition that tropical river systems sustain important fisheries, and underpin a wealth of other natural and cultural assets values by society. If we are to ensure that greater use of water in north Australia is sustainable then water planners and land managers will need good information on tour tropical river systems - how they work and how people value and use them.

Seeing northern rivers through Indigenous eyes

This paper describes initiatives to incorporate Indigenous knowledge in efforts to document the value of northern tropical rivers, estuaries and billabongs to traditional communities.

Protecting Indigenous Values in Water Management: A Challenge to Conventional Environmental Flow Assessments

Although environmental flow assessments and allocations have been practiced in Australia for nearly 20 years, to date they have not effectively incorporated indigenous values. In many cases, even though indigenous people rely substantially on aquatic resources, environmental flows have been assumed to be an acceptable surrogate for the protection of indigenous interests. This paper argues that the need to adapt flow assessments to account for linkages and dependencies between people and rivers is equally applicable to developed world indigenous contexts such as Australia as it is to developing countries where there has been some attempt to address indigenous or subsistence water requirements.

We propose three challenges to conventional environmental flow assessments that, if met, will improve the ability of water resource planning to address indigenous interests. The first challenge is to recognize that in an indigenous context a different suite of species may be considered important when compared to those valued by other stakeholders. The second challenge is to accommodate a different set of management objectives in environmental flow allocation. Environmental flows will need to meet the requirement of hunting and fishing activities at rates that are socially and economically sustainable. The third and arguably most theoretically challenging task is for environmental flow assessments to take into account indigenous worldviews and the quality of people–place relationships that are significant in indigenous cultures.

Meeting these three challenges to environmental flow assessment will assist water management agencies and other practitioners to protect indigenous interests as water allocation decisions are made.

Theme 3: River and coastal settings - Classifying tropical rivers

The rivers and estuaries across northern Australia can differ substantially between catchments. Differences in riverscape setting - primarily their flow patterns and how they form and evolve - are likely to influence ecosystem processes, the potential types of developments and the likely response to development and climate change.  The social component of this project sought to understand the demographic and economic character of local communities in nominated catchments, and how this relates to the physical classification.

3.1: Socio-economic activity and water use in the Tropical Rivers region

This project developed an understanding of the socio-economic systems and their relationships with the environment in northern catchments. This information is a key component in assessing the implications of future developments in northern Australia.  This project studied a range of economic, cultural, institutional and human-capital aspects of northern populations to look for differences and similarities among communities and to describe how the region's socio-economic systems might change under the different future development scenarios.

Material derived from this project relevant to environment water management includes:

The haves and have nots in Australia's Tropical North - new perspectives on a persisting problem

There is significant confluence in the literature that leads one to expect groups of haves and groups of have nots in socio-economic systems within common spatial contexts. Several economic theories suggest economic activity to be concentrated in a few core areas with geographically large ‘peripheries’ relying on one or two industries for employment and income. In the context of the north of Australia, issues of disparities in socio-economic status between the region and elsewhere in Australia, and also within the region have been highlighted in the literature for some time. This paper discusses the contemporary situation using customised data collected and analysed for 55 river-basin catchments in the Tropical Rivers region of northern Australia to highlight the extent of the haves and have nots problem. A range of spatial economic theories are discussed as theoretical bases for the present day situation and as pointers to revisionist approaches which may address it. Transforming the have nots to improved states of well-being will be a costly and difficult process. Consequently, we argue that factors other than raw incomes and economic production should be reconsidered and re-prioritised by governments as redress to the ongoing ‘problem’ of the North.

Comparing Multipliers from Survey and Non-Survey Based IO Models: An Empirical Investigation from Northern Australia

This article compares ninety different multiplier estimates derived from non-survey Input–Output (IO) tables with those derived from a novel survey approach. It finds that, on average, the estimates are surprisingly similar, indicating that the survey-based approach may be a cost-effective technique for generating multiplier estimates.

Socioeconomic and demographic profiles of northern Australian catchments

Various factors affect the way in which communities can participate in the water planning process, including access to information (e.g. internet access), education, isolation, employment status and many others. Such factors also affect attitudes and expectations. Moreover, socioeconomic and demographic factors are important in determining whether benefits from water resource development are symmetrically distributed throughout the population of a catchment. Socioeconomic and demographic profiles are individually available for the catchments of northern Australia in a series of short documents. Demographic profiles can be access at:

Theme 5 Food webs and biodiversity

5.8: Biodiversity and HCVAE. Bioregionalisation conservation priorities and predictive models of aquatic biodiversity

Biodiversity is a feature of aquatic ecosystems that is often valued by different members of the community.  To effectively manage aquatic biodiversity, we need to know where the areas of high biodiversity are.  It is also useful to know what causes some areas to have high biodiversity and others not.  This project provided an assessment of conservation value for individual catchments within northern Australia, based on patterns of aquatic biodiversity and measures of disitinctiveness (e.g. evolutionary distinctiveness). It used an existing framework already being applied at the Federal level and also used a systematic conservation planning approach. The outcomes of this research can be accessed at:

Identifying high conservation value aquatic ecosystems in northern Australia

Theme 6: Sustainable enterprises

There are many impediments to the development of enterprises in riverine and coastal environments across northern Australia and the way in which planning for water resource development occurs. These impediments range from the logistic and technical difficulties arising from tropicality and remoteness to communication with audiences that speak English as a second and sometimes third language. Projects within this theme include:

6.1: Establishing water markets in northern Australia

Northern Australian Indigenous people are among the most disadvantaged in the nation.  Improved socio-economic status will depend on access to, and sustainable use of, natural resources, including water.

This research examined examine the potential effectiveness and durability of water markets in tropical Australia, how the transition to market-based allocation may interact with existing institutions, and the potential socio-economic impacts arising from an open trading market.

6.2: Indigenous rights to water in northern Australia

This project built on recent work done on international developments in Indigenous water rights. The project examined the detail of present law and associated process in northern Australia and the way it deals with native title and other Indigenous interests in water. In particular, the project investigated (i) the match of State and Territory law to the National Water Initiative in areas affecting Indigenous interests; (ii) obligations under existing law and process in water planning, including the nature of consultation required, treatment of native title etc and; (iii) implications of recent court decisions (especially Blue Mud Bay).

6.3: Developing an effective conservation and sustainable use economy in Arnhem Land: options for payment for environmental services

Much of the Indigenous estate in north Australia is either thinly populated or unpopulated. There is emerging evidence that, in situations where Indigenous people live on their country, ecological and wider benefits are generated via favourable fire regimes, control over weed infestations, and potentially through feral animal harvesting.  When people are on country, they generate economic benefit for themselves by harvesting wildlife for consumption and engage with the market sector by using natural resources in commercial enterprise like arts and crafts production.

6.4: Development of a holistic sustainable Indigenous livelihoods plan for the Archer River Basin, Cape York

Traditional Owners and their supporting organisations from the Archer River catchment worked with TRaCK in a participatory, action-based research project that will lead to the development of a holistic basin-wide sustainable Indigenous livelihoods plan. The focus will be on the delivery of environmental services by Indigenous people but it will also look for other opportunities that will contribute to a sustainable livelihoods agenda.

6.5: Nyikina Mangala Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River) Sustainable Livelihoods on Country Case Study

This participatory, action-based research project documents the factors that have contributed to the Nyikina Mangala Traditional Owners' sustainable livelihoods agenda to date. The project worked to build local leadership and governance capacity, develop and implement a number of strategic management plans, and document barriers, strategies and actions to achieve Indigenous sustainable livelihoods on country.

Material derived from projects within this theme of relevance to the social process component of the ELOHA framework include (but are not limited to):

Water trading

All state and territory governments have agreed – water is a scarce resource that we need to manage better. The principles and mechanisms for better water management are in the National Water Initiative (NWI). One of the mechanisms is the creation of a national market to trade water rights. Markets are expected to result in an appropriate price on water and more efficient water use. Research by the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK) program, coordinated by NAILSMA, is examining how water markets can work in tropical Australia, and the potential socio-economic impacts arising from an open trading market.

Assessment of the potential costs and benefits of water trading across northern Australia

Water trading is at a formative stage in northern Australia. Markets have been effective in southern Australia and are seen as an effective tool to optimise economic, social and ecological values associated with water under the National Water Initiative(NWI).

For a water market to be effective there need to be low to medium transactions costs. The potential for high transactions costs is significant across northern Australia, a key reason being uncertainty over Indigenous rights and interests to water, which if not resolved could impose constraints on water markets. This suggests that there must be greater certainty around Indigenous involvement in water markets.

Indigenous Rights in Water in Northern Australia - NAILSMA/TRaCK Project 6.2

This project covers the range of laws applicable in northern Australia that recognize and affect Indigenous rights and interests in relation to onshore or inland waters both surface and subterranean.  This includes both Federal law and the law of the provincial jurisdictions of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

Stakeholder values and attitudes towards water markets across northern Australia

This report is the second of three reports and part of a two year project entitled "Establishing water markets in northern Australia: a study to assess feasibility and consequences of market-based mechanisms of water delivery" undertaken through the Australian National University's Crawford School of Economics and Government. This report provides analysis of stakeholder attitudes and values and their implications for the design of water markets across tropical Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia (with focus on the Gulf, Timor and North East drainage divisions).

Tropical Rivers in Australia and Customary Resource Use: Putting People into Flow-ecology Relationships

Water resource development carries the potential for the relatively intact aquatic ecosystems of northern Australia to be altered by anthropogenic impacts. Aboriginal people make up a large proportion of the population of northern Australia, especially in more remote areas away from major urban centres. Harvest and consumption of wild resources such as fish and plants (customary use) from aquatic habitats can make up a substantial part of Aboriginal livelihoods, forming the basis of indigenous dependence on "healthy" and functioning tropical rivers and other waterbodies. Environmental flow assessment methods in Australia largely focus on ecological requirements of river systems and do not directly incorporate social requirements, and human needs are sometimes viewed as directly competing with the protection of biodiversity and other conservation values.

TRaCK sustainable livelihoods

Creating livelihoods from traditions and culture - Indigenous land and sea owners in northern Australia wear many hats. Rangers in the Dhimurru and Djelk Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) in Arnhem Land, for example, are people managers – controlling visitor numbers and activities; environmental conservationists – assisting with biosecurity and managing fire; and cultural teachers – performing traditional ceremonies and giving talks to schools and international conferences.

Environmental water terminology

A top down environmental water assessment method used in Queensland in which ecological condition is assessed against known deviations from the natural or pre-development flow regime whilst also taking into account the impacts of water infrastructure on ecological condition.
Bottom–up methods
Reconstructing an altered flow regime by sequentially adding water needed for specific functions i.e. adding a flushing flow designed to move refine sediment or a maintenance flow designed to provide a minimum amount of wetted area.
Cultural flows
Water required to meet the cultural and spiritual needs of Indigenous people. Environmental flows A term that supplanted the term instream flows in recognition that water was needed for more than just the maintenance of habitat quality and quality. Water is needed to provide cues for biota to move and to reproduce, to provide areas for food production, for refuge from temperature extremes, for maintenance of channel form and substrate composition, to create and maintain new habitats such as floodplains and tributaries, and many other needs.
Environmental water
A term that supplants the term environmental flows in recognition that flowing water is not the only water critical to the maintenance of ecosystem function. Hyporheic water (water held under the stream bed) and groundwater are also critical compartments of environmental water and groundwater dependent aquatic habitats may never be connected to the riverine environment.
Holistic flow management
A conceptual framework first described in 1992 in which water needs are considered more broadly than just those relating to in-stream or in-channel needs e.g. estuaries and the near shore marine environment are dependent on freshwater inputs as are riparian forests and off-channel wetlands.
Hyporheic water
(water held under the stream bed) and groundwater are also critical compartments of environmental water and groundwater dependent aquatic habitats may never be connected to the riverine environment.
Instream flow incremental methodology: a computer driven means of assessing changes in in-channel habitat quantity and quality.
Instream flows
The original term for environmental flow management, principally concerned with the maintenance of habitat quantity and quality defined by depth, water velocity and substrate composition. Typically, instream flow investigations of were undertaken at small spatial scales – i.e. at the reach scale.
Top-down methods
Environmental water assessment methods in which occurs the simulated sequential removal of volumes of water until an impact of nominated severity occurs, thus defining the limit below which this aspect of the flow regime can be altered.

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