Community benefits as sustainability framework

Posted on July 25, 2010


In the second of two talks Professor Geoff Syme presented a social psychological approach to water allocation.  While many of us don’t have the extreme water allocation problems Australia does (he seriously described Australians as becoming environmental refugees),  the concepts have wider appeal.

The key message is that rather than focussing on managing the allocation of the physical resource, we should be looking to  allocate benefits.  This,  Syme says, can be the basis for sustainable framework.

He describes how water is the primary driver of development, but is it unequally distributed.  The  way we analyse and manage it – by economic analysis – is too short sighted and “will result in mismanagement”.  Current models of water allocation models are based on the allocation of plenty, and models of scarcity don’t work when applied across geographic and social communities, temporal scales, barriers, variability and uncertainty (sound familiar? see the basic principles of Sam).

For such resources, policies and management regimes fall back on notions of equity or fairness.  Unfortunately, these terms are poorly understood.    Often what is described as “fair” is really a bad application of virtue theory (here resulting in a cyclic argument that those that have the resource will look after it because it is their duty).

Not finding much guidance in law, Syme has spent decades examining lay philosophies for equity in water allocation and finding that they are remarkably robust.   These include: that water is a common good (even though getting it may disproportionately cost): the environment must have allocation rights; effeciency is important; there is a moral obligation to other users; and more than market mechanisms are required for allocation.    These philosophies form a system of interation, for example the efficiency is important principle means even if you otherwise have right to water, it is not your’s to waste.

Over a great many studies and areas, Syme is able to describe universal fairness principles in water allocation.   People operate at two levels: universal (general principles) and situational principles (principles for the application of those general principles).    He describes common, otherwise unspoken, understandings of the situational principles.   Equality of opportunity and effeciency of management are always acceptable.  Water markets and decisions solely on history of use are always unacceptable to communities.

Syme then argues that rather than arguing about the allocation of volume of water,  allocation based on water benefits provides a  sustainability framework for integrated management.   He calls this a  Sphere of Needs model.

Armed with these insights, Syme describes community based problem solving in areas such as the Namoi Valley.  There, the decision makers and community diverged and an impasse had been reached, with the government assuming that the community was only acting out of self interest.  Instead Syme asked the community to rank principles for managing the water.  An agreed set emerged: reduce allocations but reward self management; protect family farms; set a viability base for minor users (ie recognising the social benefit of the smaller users); and don’t punish efficient invested users.    This is, Syme argues strong evidence for a community using benefits, not resources, to work past any self interest that might have been there to develop a robust solution.

I asked Syme about the generality of his approach.   He says that there are still areas we don’t understand: how can we visualise the Sphere of Needs across geography?  how does it scale?  how do people discount effects over time and space?

A water system is sustainability writ large.   It is a perfect model of the effects of spatial and temporal interaction, of  vested interests and multiple legitimate interests.  It exemplifies how the interaction of community and economic and environment means it is really all the same thing – attempts to separate out the different elements and manage with only one lever are doomed to failure.

First Syme talk: trusting community understanding