WSSD - Australian National Assessment Report

Environment Australia
ISBN 0 642 54855 2


5. Thematic Review - Integrated Land and Water Management (continued)

5.4 Information for decision-making

One of the major constraints that has traditionally limited Australia's capacity for integrated decision making which addresses environmental, economic and social objectives has been the lack of comprehensive information on the state of the environment, and, in particular the state of our land, water and biodiversity.

Australia now has in place a range of policies and delivery frameworks that assist in national coordination of information. Substantial progress has been made on national standards for data collection, access and use. The Australian New Zealand Land Information Council is developing an Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure to provide better access to essential spatial data. Meeting Federal legislative requirements has also led to the development of information products to assist decision-making. For example, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, a Collaborative Database on Protected Areas, a Directory of Important Wetlands and a database of nationally significant threatened and migratory species have been developed. The Australian Biological Resources Study has continued to document Australian flora and fauna, and the Australian Virtual Herbarium is a promising new database on the distribution of species.

In addition to the five yearly State of the Environment Report mentioned above, Australia has recently completed a comprehensive audit of our land and water resources, taking into account environmental, social and economic values. We are also improving mechanisms for manipulating data, and for accessing indigenous knowledge.

5.4.1 The National Land and Water Resources Audit

The National Land and Water Resources Audit is a four year, Natural Heritage Trust Program in partnership with States, Industry and Community Groups. It provides an independent, objective assessment of the extent of natural resource degradation and includes an economic analysis of each problem.

The objectives of the Audit are to facilitate improved decision making on land and water resources by providing:

  • a clear understanding of the status of, and changes in, the nation's land, vegetation and water resources to assist decision makers in their efforts to achieve ecological sustainability;
  • assessments which also to serve as a baseline or benchmark for future trend analysis;
  • reports on the economic, environmental and social assessments of land and water resource change (including land cover) and remedial actions;
  • integrated, nationally compatible data sets to support the Audit process, which are suitable for ongoing development and maintenance as a readily accessible national information system;
  • a National Water Resources Assessment to show the extent of the surface and groundwater resources, quality, supply, capacity and use, including environmental requirements;
  • defined and agreed reporting links between the Audit and the State of the Environment reporting process, the Indicators for Sustainable Agriculture and other relevant activities at the State and Federal level;
  • a framework for the long-term monitoring and assessment of the health and management of Australia's land and water resources that meets the needs of all major stakeholders.

The Audit has provided a comprehensive nationwide appraisal of Australia's natural resource base. It focused on rural and remote Australia, and on natural resources as they are used and managed for a range of productive and conservation values. It has comprehensively covered all land tenures in relation to the Australian environment and economy, and will enable far better decision-making than in the past.

5.4.2 EcoPlan and the Resources and Advice Decision Support System

To assist in decision making on resource use, especially in areas of high biodiversity such as forests, the Federal Government has developed software tools for computerised modelling which provide decision makers with options on the basis of a range of policy objectives and priorities.

One such software package, developed specifically to assist with the regional forests assessment process, is EcoPlan. It was designed to enable decision makers to protect environmental values and provide for an ecologically sustainable forest industry, and was used extensively in these assessments. It is a state of the art system of concepts, methods and software that allows decision-makers to use facts and assumptions to generate different land use options to meet a range of policy objectives.

EcoPlan uses biodiversity distribution maps and management options for species and ecosystems. It can be used to answer specific ecological or land use planning questions. A series of ecological questions related to land use issues can be posed, such as the status of a species or ecosystem, where the species occurs in the region, what is the most important habitat for the species, what area of land is needed to maintain a viable population, and what management prescriptions are needed to maintain the species.

The system then allows for the integration of economic data to develop a protected area for the biodiversity at the least cost to industry, or to examine alternative industry structures and their economic and social benefits. EcoPlan could be very valuable to policymakers in other areas, and internationally, in dealing with sustainable development policy challenges.

Geoscience Australia has also been working on significant developments in advanced geographic information systems for the integration and analysis of diverse datasets. For example, the Resources and Advice Decision Support System can be used to integrate different land values such as vegetation, rainfall, population density, infrastructure, as well as known and potential mineral resources, for application in land use decisions. The suitability or unsuitability of areas within a given region, or Australia-wide, can be delineated for specific land use purposes by identifying critical land resource characteristics for a specified land use.

5.4.3 The role of indigenous knowledge

While Australian governments have had to make many environmental decisions in the absence of adequate scientific information, considerable untapped knowledge about our environment has been available all along amongst Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have managed the Australian landscape for tens of thousands of years. Traditionally, land is central to their world view and underpins indigenous history, culture and spiritual beliefs.

In June 1999, the Minister for Environment and Heritage established an Indigenous Protected Areas Advisory Group to provide advice on the development of the Indigenous Protected Areas program. The Indigenous Protected Areas program aims to support Indigenous landowners to manage their lands for the protection of natural and cultural features. The membership of the group reflects a range of participants with both expertise in and commitment to promoting the benefits of Indigenous involvement in the management and protection of Australia's biodiversity. The Advisory Group includes representation from Indigenous people from across the country.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act also provides for the establishment of an Indigenous Advisory Committee. The role of this Committee is to advise the Minister for the Environment and Heritage on the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in the light of Indigenous people's knowledge of the management of land and the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Members of the Indigenous Advisory Committee are appointed on the basis of their expertise and experience in Indigenous land management and the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

5.5 Government contributions to land and water sustainability

Australian governments are committed to finding ways of assisting Australian land and water use to be sustainable without the use of production subsidies. Very few subsidies to the agricultural sector remain in Australia, except for water, and its subsidisation is fast disappearing as the Council of Australian Government's water reforms (see above) are implemented.

Government assistance to farmers to protect their land and water from further degradation has been primarily through programs such as those under the Natural Heritage Trust (see above). Assistance is provided for a range of activities, from: grass roots projects such as planting trees, or fencing off areas of remnant native habitat or fragile watering holes from stock, or locating habitats of rare flora or fauna; to higher technology solutions, such as for extracting salt or reducing energy use; to the development of more accessible information or educational resources, for example through the development of software along the lines of EcoPlan (see above).

Providing funding for the development and implementation of land management plans (as under the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality, see above) which meet an accreditation standard may be an increasingly effective tool for protecting and restoring our rural environment.

The Federal Government has recently legislated to reduce capital gains tax liability so as not to disadvantage landholders who place a perpetual conservation covenant on their land for its protection, while Western Australia is establishing a Bush Bank, which allows areas of private land of high environmental value to be protected in perpetuity. There is considerable potential for developing other economic instruments to encourage communities, landholders and local governments to protect and repair their land and water resources, through taxation and compensation measures and the removal of implicit subsidies. Prior to the Council of Australian Governments reforms, the price of water did not include the cost of maintaining environmental flows, or of sustaining water resource over time; so too, the pricing of agricultural outputs has not included the very real costs necessary for protecting the environment and sustaining the resource over time.

The Australian Governments has also played a role in facilitating the development of environmental technologies which can be used to improve management of our land and water. The Federal Government's financial support for science and innovation has increased significantly in real terms over the past decade, with the introduction of incentives for industry and increased appropriation for university research and competitive research grant schemes. Australian companies have responded positively and are active in developing new environmental technologies for domestic and export markets. Several new technologies have been used in remote areas of Australia and may be suitable for use in other countries.

For example, wastewater treatment systems have been applied in remote areas of Australia to treat municipal and industrial wastewaters. Solar technologies, such as the solar stock water pump, have been used in remote Australia and in Indonesia. Solar cells and other energy technologies were integrated into an international showcase of sustainable urban design at a solar village for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Software packages for a range of different problems, such as land restoration assessment, have been developed in Australia and applied both here and overseas.

5.6 Regulation of land and water sustainability

The federal process of government and administration in Australia has led to a situation where the various levels of government are responsible for different aspects of land and water management. Under the Constitution most powers over land and water management reside with the States. A range of State legislation (for example the Native Vegetation Conservation Act 1997 in NSW and the Queensland Vegetation Conservation Act 1999 as well as the various State water management acts) are the main regulatory mechanism for the sustainable management of land and water.

There are also various cooperative arrangements between the States and the Commonwealth to achieve agreed regulatory outcomes, for example, the Council of Australian Governments water reform process (see above) including the capping of water use in the Murray-Darling Basin and other river systems. Similarly, under the Natural Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (see above), through bilateral agreements with the States, the Federal Government is ensuring that regulatory controls are in place on land clearing, where this may lead to unacceptable land and water degradation.

The federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (see above) also contributes to the regulation of water and land sustainability through its protection of matters of national environmental significance and the establishment of protected places.

5.7 Globalisation of domestic markets

There has historically been little understanding or serious attention paid to the environmental consequences of agricultural processes in Australia. This has been at least partly because of the need to minimise production costs so that Australian agricultural commodities can successfully compete on international markets. Ecological consequences and sustainable use have been a secondary focus at best. In that sense, the recent globalisation of international markets has not directly increased pressure to intensify exploitation of our land and water resources.

However, globalisation of international markets may be having indirect impacts on our land and water. The need for service providers to compete on international markets has led to the rationalisation of banking, telecommunications and other public and private services to country towns. The Bureau of Rural Sciences reports that accelerated rates of closures of government and private services (such as banks, schools, hospitals, medical practices) in non-metropolitan areas, along with a lack of new investment, have exacerbated the problem of locational disadvantage in rural Australia.

There are a number of ways in which this increasing locational disadvantage in rural communities could be expected to place additional pressures on our land and water resources. The de-population of some rural towns could lead to the abandonment of land - and not necessarily land that would benefit from being abandoned. Alternatively, land may be sold by small land holders, for whom it is both their immediate livelihood and their principal investment in their family's future, to larger corporations which regard the land as a short term and expendable investment, and therefore have less incentive to ensure its sustainable management.

Since the consequences of Australia's historical approach to land management have started to become more apparent and immediate, we have begun to develop the range of institutions, described above, that are both powerful and flexible enough to resist short-term imperatives. Enforceable legislation will help us protect the rural environment from the depredations of mobile capital or other short-term profit objectives. Funding programs will assist landholders to manage their land sustainably. Robust institutions for ensuring consensual approaches at both the government and the community level will help to keep urban and rural Australia talking to each other and developing approaches that work for everyone. These institutions are now well-placed to assist us in coping with the pressures of globalisation.

5.8 Lessons learnt that might be applied internationally

Australia faces a range of very specific and immediate challenges in the way we treat our land and water resources including:

  • loss of biodiversity due to land clearing and a range of other human activities;
  • salinity and loss of water quality due to land clearing and irrigation practices;
  • loss of soil due to land clearing, overgrazing and cropping in marginal land;
  • changes in local climate due to land clearing;
  • impacts of greenhouse gas related climate change (the impacts may be long term but the need for action is immediate).

In addressing these challenges, Australia's experience since Rio shows that it is very important to establish institutional and legislative arrangements which internalise the principles of sustainable development at all levels of decision-making. Effective environmental management occurs through a cumulative impact of many decisions and actions taken throughout the community - including governments at all levels, farmers, utility companies, indigenous communities and the general community. In developing more sustainable land use systems, people must, first of all, want their land and water to be sustainable; then they must know what to do, and they must have the resources and capacity to do it.

By incorporating the principles of sustainable development in all their objectives and operations, governments can play a crucial role in establishing an enabling framework for sustainability. Such frameworks involves: establishing a sound information base to support decision-making; supporting implementation with incentives and mechanisms for engaging stakeholders; and setting appropriate minimum standards and thresholds backed by regulation.

Commonwealth agencies and intergovernmental mechanisms have increasingly incorporated sustainable development in their objectives and operations. In the area of land and water management, the Natural Heritage Trust, the Natural Resource Management Council, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality are all significant examples of this that are worthy of international attention - and possible adaptation.

With the National Land and Water Resources Audit and the National State of the Environment Report, Australia has recognised the importance of having adequate information and the means of presenting information for decision making. Having adequate information on (for example) the environmental consequences of continuing an action to balance concerns about the social and economic consequences of ceasing or constraining the action allows a government to make more holistic, informed, and accountable decisions.

In terms of incentives and mechanisms for engaging stakeholders in order to integrate environmental, social and economic concerns, Australia's experience may be particularly useful. Australia's land and water issues are often large in geographic scale and extend across administrative boundaries. Australia has therefore developed regional strategies and approaches to deal with these issues. In developing these approaches, we have improved our capacity to ensure that national or state-wide sustainability principles cascade through to regional planning and are reflected in local planning, zoning and rating schemes. We have also found that integrating the environmental, social and economic concerns involved in the management of rivers, catchments, coastlines, vegetation, wildlife and land use is most feasible at the regional catchment scale. Engaging all stakeholders is more manageable and effective at this level than at the broader State or national level. Australia has had substantial success with this approach in: the delivery of programs under the Natural Heritage Trust; in cooperative decisions under the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality; and in the numerous ways in which the public can involve themselves in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

In developing regional strategies and approaches to effective natural resource management, we have learnt that the strategies need to be reflected in statutory planning or regulatory processes which have real legal force. The States and Territories, which have primary responsibility for environmental matters, all have legislation in place to protect the environment and ecological processes. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act provides a powerful statutory basis at the federal level. Incorporation of sustainable development principles in the decision-making processes under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act has also been a major step towards the institutionalisation of sustainable development.

In short, since Rio we have come to accept the following matters as essential to implementing sustainable development:

  • establishment of mechanisms to ensure that decisions can be made on a whole of government basis (and, in Australia, on an intergovernmental basis), or at least jointly by those agencies (and jurisdictions) most likely to come into conflict;
  • capacity to compile, manipulate, present and access relevant information, both prior to taking an action and in order to review the effectiveness of the action once it has had time to show an outcome;
  • broad community support and involvement, especially from local communities at the regional and catchment level, who are directly affected by problems and by actions to address them;
  • provision of financial assistance and incentives to enable landholders and the community to understand, manage and protect biodiversity and the long-term productivity of their land, without the use of production subsidies;
  • a safety net of strong, widely supported, enforceable and enforced legislation/regulation.

Most land management issues are national rather than international, but many countries share some of Australia's problems. Since European settlement, Australians have caused the extinction of numerous endemic species and created a salinity problem that will probably take generations to fix. In some places, the damage may be irreversible. Other countries may not face these problems on quite the same scale - they may be less biodiverse and therefore have fewer species to lose, or they may be geographically and climatically less prone to concentrating salt in the landscape. However, many other countries are still destroying their original vegetation, along with other biodiversity for which it provides habitat to make way for agriculture or urban development, or are committing their water supplies without guaranteeing adequate water for the environment. These countries may well be able to draw on Australian experience.