Sub-project 1 – Social and cultural values in water planning

Socio-cultural Values in the Adaptive Management Cycle Fact sheet



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 1 of the TRaCK NAWFA Social and Cultural Values Project. This project focussed on Socio-cultural Values in the Adaptive Management Cycle.


As part of the North Australia Water Futures Assessment, research was conducted to identify tools and methods to better incorporate sociocultural values in water planning. Based on this research, which included two case studies in water planning areas of north Australia, a model of the adaptive planning cycle was developed that is relevant across northern Australian jurisdictions, consistent with the National Water Initiative (NWI) and allows for better inclusion of the socio-cultural values associated with water resources. The types of values and the questions and research needs of water planners, stakeholders and Indigenous groups are specified at each stage within the model. Methods for eliciting, describing and analysing values, beliefs and practices are also proposed.

Research Background

This report responds to the findings of the National Water Commission (NWC) in its most recent review of water reform progress, where it noted very few water plans include assessments of nonconsumptive social or cultural values and the water requirements of those values. Further, even where such values have been clearly identified in plans, this has not generally led to any additional water regime requirements beyond those specified for environmental needs.

This highlights the significant gap between the accumulating knowledge and understanding of water-related values and practices, and the limited capacity for this knowledge to translate into substantive water planning or management initiatives for the protection and enhancement of these identified values.

Several possible explanations for this have been identified, including:

  • The absence of any guidelines to provide consistent accounting for socio-cultural values in water plans
  • The lack of conceptual clarity around the definition of the term value, especially in relation to those values identified as 'cultural' and 'social'
  • The tendency for 'cultural values' to be singularly associated with Indigenous heritage and spiritual significance
  • Limitations on the appropriate use of privileged cultural knowledge and information as an input into the planning process
  • The emphasis on environmental and economic criteria for decision-making that marginalises social and cultural values, particularly those associated with non-consumptive water use
  • The lack of reliable and verifiable data on the water requirements associated with socio-cultural values and practices
  • The limited range of management strategies to meet socio-cultural purposes and needs through the scope of a water plan.

Limits to Socio-Cultural Values as Decision Criteria

Part of the explanation for why sociocultural values remain elusive in water planning can be explained by the nature of socio-cultural values themselves. As a basic definition, values can be considered as normative assessments about what is important, desirable or ethical. Values are typically categorised according to a series of descriptors that reflect who holds those values (for example, community values, Indigenous values, core values) or a taxonomy of knowledge domains (environmental, social, economic, cultural). Values become social or cultural as a consequence of their similar expression across populations (social) or of their coherence into relatively stable forms that provide the basis of a group identity and common practice (cultural).

To move from this simple definition towards the practical application of values assessment as a decision criteria entails a complex series of questions about what values are, how they are identified, how they are compared, and what role these values should play in decision-making. This work advances a constructivist approach to the consideration of values, which emphasises the ways that socio-cultural values are formed and transformed in a continual process of self and group identification. It assumes that all social practices that assert individual or group identity express, contest, negotiate and redefine values, and it these social processes that should be given priority in the analysis. Whilst this approach adds significant complexity to values assessment, it allows for an approach that avoids the tendency to interpret values as the pre-given, autonomous preferences of individuals, and instead looks to the ways socio-cultural values are modified and adapted through experience, interaction and exposure to new information.

An Adaptive Management Approach

The key contribution of this work is that it provides a structured means for the integration of the multiple lines of inquiry and disparate methodologies that can be used to identify, prioritise, tradeoff and manage for socio-cultural values in the water planning and management context. The five stages specified in the framework reflect the following assumptions about how socio-cultural values can better function as decision criteria:

  • The full suite of socio-cultural values associated with the resource and its management must be identified, including (and especially) the relationships and dependencies between those values (the inquiry stage).
  • The relationship between these values and the resource needs to be modeled to ascertain how these values will be impacted by changes in water availability and to the management regime (the system-building stage).
  • The relative importance of these values, and how this assignment of importance varies across stakeholder groups, needs to be understood to enable negotiated tradeoffs between values in setting management objectives (the plan development stage)
  • Assessment of the impact of management choices on sociocultural values is essential to determine the acceptability of planning decisions and to identify opportunities for mitigation actions (the implementation stage)
  • Monitoring and evaluating the impacts of a water regime on socio-cultural values improves collective understanding of those values, including their associated water requirements, and ultimately the quality and acceptability of water management decisions (the review stage).

No single tool exists for a comprehensive identification of values, and similarly no techniques of valuation are capable of establishing a total value of water that can include all aspects of its importance, significance and benefit. Instead, there are a wide range of techniques and methods from the social science and economic disciplines that are suited to particular aspects of value assessment. Through an adaptive framework, it is possible to articulate how various individual assessment and decisionsupport methods can contribute salient input to the planning process as a whole, through identifying the informational requirements of planners and decision-makers at each stage and demonstrating the inter-linkages and dependencies between nested stages of assessment, management and review.

Areas for Future Investigation

This approach also highlights the areas that are currently underdeveloped, and require further investigation. Priority areas for development recommended by this report are suggested to be:

  • Greater attention to integrated assessment tools that allow for synthesis of the socio-cultural value assessments with the other information gathering and assessment activities conducted for water planning. One of the key features of integrated assessment and system building tools is their ability to coherently combine multiple methods into a decision-support framework. The inclusion of socio-cultural values into such models is theoretically possible, but to date relatively untested. This work would assist in improving understanding of the water requirements associated with sociocultural values, and how these vary contextually.
  • Greater clarification of the management strategies available and appropriate for water plans to ensure or enhance priority socio-cultural values. Specifically, there is a need to clarify the range of mitigation actions for water plans in instances where socio-cultural values are risked, negatively impacted or annihilated by changes to the water regime. The use of collaborative projects to address the loss of cultural values for Indigenous communities in the Ord region provide an important example of the options envisaged by this approach, but the extent to which these exceed the current scope of water plans is an open question.

In collaboration with planners and agency staff, it may be possible for the approach outlined in this research to be used as the basis for a consistent guideline document for the consideration of socio-cultural values by the jurisdictions across north Australia.

Further information

John Mackenzie
Charles Darwin University
Phone: 0405 433 550 

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. This project was developed in collaboration with research partners from TRaCK (Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge ) – a research hub which has drawn together more than 70 of Australia's leading social, cultural, environmental and economic researchers.