The importance of socio-cultural values for Australia's tropical rivers
Stoeckl, Neil, Welters and Larson for
Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC) and the National Water Commission (NWC), April 2012
The Northern Australia Water Futures Assessment (NAWFA) aims to provide the science needed to inform the development and protection of northern Australia's water resources, so that development is ecologically, culturally and economically sustainable.
This brochure describes the results from Sub-project 2 of the TRaCK NAWFA Social and Cultural Values Project. This project focussed on the social and cultural values associated with Australia's tropical rivers.
The NAWFA has four programs: Water Resources, Ecological, Knowledge Base, and Cultural and Social. The objective of the TRaCK NAWFA Cultural and Social Program is to increase understanding of the socio-cultural values, beliefs and practices associated with water in northern Australia and how they may be affected by changes in water availability. The TRaCK Social and Cultural Values project, which is part of the NAWFA Cultural and Social Program, was comprised of three sub-projects.
Sub-project 2 – The importance of socio-cultural values for Australia's tropical rivers
Where did we do the research?
Researchers conducted interviews with people who live in and around the upper reaches of the Mitchell River catchment (Mareeba, Dimbulah and Chillagoe) in Queensland. They also mailed out questionnaires to residents across northern Australia, collecting information from 290 households.
This project sought to improve our understanding of the social and cultural values associated with Australia's tropical rivers.
Its specific objectives were to improve our understanding of:
- the relative values of water for different stakeholder groups (i.e. to find out what different people care most about with respect to Australia's tropical rivers);
- the rate at which different stakeholder groups are willing to trade-off economic development for social and cultural values;
- the extent to which stream flow and / or water quality could change before there was a 'significant' impact on social and cultural values; and
- the likely response of stakeholders to the consequences of upstream development scenarios and to potential changes in the downstream uses of water.
a. Values associated with Tropical Rivers
Residents told us how important different values associated with rivers were to them.
The list of values included six examples of social and cultural values:
- Future generations (termed Bequest);
- Simply 'being there' even if never used (termed Existence);
- recreational Fishing;
- other types of Recreation;
- Aesthetics; and
Plus three other values:
- Supporting human Life;
- Supporting Biodiversity;
- Supporting Commercial ventures;
These other values were included so that researchers could gauge the importance of social and cultural values RELATIVE to other values. We found that:
- In terms of importance, the top three values were those associated with Biodiversity, sustaining human Life, and Bequest.
- One of the highest policy priorities seems to be that of Commercial values. This is not because such values were considered to be important (they were rarely in the 'top three'), but because the satisfaction scores associated with these values were so low. Resident concerns included, but were not limited to issues associated with: pollution (past, present, or potential future), pricing, overuse, lack of certainty in supply, allocation and lack of monitoring.
- Biodiversity, Life and Social/Cultural values were viewed as being largely complementary to each other. In contrast, Commercial values were consistently viewed as quite separate from – and often competitive or detrimental to these other values (with the important exception of tourism).
b. Willingness to trade economic activity for social and cultural values
Respondents were asked to indicate whether they approved of a development which would negatively impact their social and cultural values, and – if not - how much they would be willing to pay (WTP) to avoid the development.
- Fewer than 33 per cent of respondents indicated that they approved of the development scenarios - even when the impact was relatively small.
- A large proportion of respondents refused to consider any trade-off at all. Of the group that agreed to 'play' the trade-off 'game', approximately 5 per cent were willing to pay very large sums of money to protect (or repair) their social and cultural values. The maximum bid offered was $1 million and many offers were in excess of $10,000. These high bids inflated mean willingness to pay to between $6000 and $28,000 per annum per household. Most of the households however bid much more modest amounts, between $15 and $100.
- More than 50 per cent of respondents indicated that they would be willing to accept a DECLINE in income if it was associated with improved opportunities to enjoy their social and cultural values.
- Excluding extreme bids, researchers were able to determine that willingness to pay was strongly linked to ability to pay - interestingly, it was the 'poor' who were willing to sacrifice a much higher proportion of their income to protect, or repair, their social and cultural values than the rich (three to four times higher).
- Those who placed a high value on Biodiversity were less willing to trade their Social and Cultural values for greater income flows than other people.
- Comments made by interviewees indicated that the size of the 'tradeoff' between development and social/cultural values is not a 'given': it would depend upon how the environmental issues associated with the development were handled.
c. Changes to stream flow and water quality
Respondents were asked to indicate how changes in stream flow or water quality (specifically, sediment and algae) would affect their Social and Cultural values.
- Respondents indicated that any change which stopped the flow of perennial rivers even if only for a month or two would have a significant, negative impact on their social and cultural values.
- Respondents were generally positive or undecided about changes in stream flow which shortened dry periods.
- Scenarios that reduced water quality (be it due to increased levels of turbidity or algae) were viewed negatively; improvements positively.
- Respondents viewed reductions in water quality more negatively than reductions in stream flow, and were consistently more positive about scenarios that involved improvements in water quality than about scenarios that involved increases in stream flow.
Management implications/ recommendations
Developments which have a negative impact on downstream usages of water are likely to be met with quite a negative reaction. The opposition is likely to be characterised by significant disquiet amongst a possibly vocal minority and a present, but less significant disquiet amongst a larger group of other residents.
Opposition to proposed developments could be at least partially redressed by ensuring that developments do not adversely affect either water quality or stream flows although water quality appears to be of more concern to residents than quantity. Of course, each proposal needs to be separately assessed in detail, and the assessments should include effective community engagement: allowing a broad cross-section of residents to communicate concerns and to contribute ideas, and allowing policy makers/managers to respond and to communicate their own ideas and efforts.
Further research requirements
Some socio-cultural and biodiversity values may be non-rivalrous (basically meaning that many people can enjoy these values together). If so, then planners who intend to trade-off values should firstly work out which values are non-rivalrous, and then add those values together, before trading-off that grouped value with the competing value.
In other words, planners need to find out which socio-cultural and biodiversity values are non-rivalrous, before assessing trade-offs.
But they also need to find out which values compete with Biodiversity values. This is not a 'given'. Different people hold different views about what competes with Biodiversity (and those views depend upon management regimes). So insights from other parts of the world, or even other parts of Australia, might not be transferrable to the north.
As such, more research is needed to determine which values are perceived as being complementary to (and nonrivalrous with) biodiversity, and which are perceived as competing with it.
Prof Natalie Stoeckl
School of Business
James Cook University
Townsville, QLD 4811
Tel: 07 4781 4868
NAWFA is a multidisciplinary program being delivered jointly by the Australian Government's Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and the National Water Commission, in close collaboration with the Office of Northern Australia and state and territory government agencies. Through the Raising National Water Standards program under Water for the Future, the Australian Government has allocated up to $13 million for projects between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012.