A new independent centre funded by a coalition of 16 Australian philanthropic organisations seeks to encourage collaborative reform in Australian water policy.

The national water and catchment policy centre will launch next year, incubated at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra for at least its first five years. Initiated in 2018 as a project by The Ian Potter Foundation and The Myer Foundation, the centre will begin work with committed funds of more than $30 million to support at least 10 years’ operation.

The new centre aims to work beyond electoral cycles and sectoral interests to engage all stakeholders in considering how best to manage Australia’s freshwater resources. It will remain independent of any special interest and focus on helping communities and governments reset the water reform agenda by deploying proven models of participatory and deliberative policy co-design.

Alluvium in partnership with Point Advisory and Global Change Advisory helped the foundations with the research and design for the centre.

Transformative change needed to deal with Australia’s water issues

The World Economic Forum recently identified water crises as among the top five global risks by impact in nine out of the last 10 years[1]. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth with the most variable rainfall from one year to the next. Our freshwater ecosystems are subject to ongoing and unsustainable pressures, particularly in high population or intense agricultural production areas. Our demand for water is only likely to increase and climate change will only exacerbate these pressures.


Catchment disturbance increases with population density and land use intensity and has major impacts on our freshwater systems.[2]

Water has immense social and cultural value. Supplying water of the right quality, in the right place, at the right time, at the price consumers are willing to pay, and with minimum ecological disturbance presents a complex set of problems.

The Foundations wanted to find out how philanthropic investment might help catalyse change in Australia’s management of its freshwater systems to ensure Australia’s long-term water security while protecting its fragile ecosystems. Their first step was to fund a study of the major issues affecting the nation’s freshwater systems. They commissioned our consulting firms (Point Advisory, Alluvium Consulting and Global Change Advisory) to undertake this study.

Policy is at the heart of Australia’s big water issues

We first identified a long list of all the most important issues affecting management of Australia’s freshwater systems. We then tested the validity and importance of these issues with a range of stakeholders and synthesised all our findings into five major issues papers covering governance, economics, ecosystems, First Peoples’ water rights, and water and society.

These papers, along with an overview paper, were reviewed by more than 100 stakeholders in the water and land sector. An expert panel assisted our process and included some of Australia’s most eminent freshwater ecologists, economists, lawyers, geographers, hydrologists, Indigenous leaders and water managers.

Overall, we identified 27 major issues in the management of Australia’s inland waters and catchments. Of these, 26 required policy changes. We identified issues across Australia that were often entangled with other policy areas including climate change adaptation, regional development, agricultural transitions and urban planning.

We also noted that Australia currently lacks a space for trusted, independent, non-government deliberation on land and water policy, which can work at the scale needed to catalyse transformative change, rebuild trust and find common ground on water and catchment policy.

Philanthropic funding of the new centre means it can fill this gap. The centre will act as an ‘honest broker’ to work across Australia and bring together the collective intelligence of all stakeholders to explore and co-design innovative policy proposals.

[1] World Economic Forum, 2020. The Global Risks Report 2020 15th Edition. World Economic Forum.

[2] River Disturbance Index, Stein, J. L., J. A. Stein, and H. A. Nix, “Spatial analysis of anthropogenic river disturbance at regional and continental scales: identifying the wild rivers of Australia,” Landscape and Urban Planning, vol. 60, pp. 1–25, 2002. Map provided by Professor Mark Kennard, Australian Rivers Institute.

Focus on deliberative decision-making involving all stakeholders

The centre’s work will engage all stakeholders: policymakers, politicians, government agencies, academic experts, farmers, First Peoples, land and water managers, corporations, financiers and regional and urban communities.

The centre’s main approach to breaking political deadlocks on water policy revolves around enabling stakeholders to participate in deliberative decision making. This includes proven models, from Chatham House Rule forums, to structured decision making approaches, citizens’ assemblies and juries or deliberative polling.

A 2020 OECD study found that deliberative decision-making was useful for “values-driven dilemmas; complex problems that require trade-offs; long-term issues that go beyond short-term incentives of electoral cycles”[3].  All the different deliberative decision-making processes share a commitment to respectful debate and communication. Practically, they bring together (a) a representative stakeholder group willing to participate in in-depth deliberation; (b) understandable inputs from experts; and (c) trained and experienced facilitators.

Deliberative processes have been shown to deliver more engaged citizens and more enduring outcomes. For example, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, a deliberative approach was used to manage conflicts between hydropower, fisheries, First Nation Peoples, and local communities over river systems. This resulted in 22 out of 23 water use plans being agreed without extensive litigation.

Success will only come for the centre if it establishes an authorising environment. The centre can’t make policy; only governments can. But the centre can help establish an environment for better policymaking by engaging all relevant stakeholders, including senior officials, political advisors and members of parliament, in deliberative decision-making processes on specific policy issues.

An Independent Panel for the Assessment of Social and Economic Guidelines in the Murray-Darling Basin convened by the Australian government found that Basin communities are increasingly cynical and mistrusting of governments and feel “over-consulted and under-listened to”[4] with regard to water policy.

The centre’s deliberative processes are designed to help re-establish trust in the institutions managing our water resources across Australia. The centre will provide a neutral ground for stakeholders to tackle the issues surrounding the current policy deadlocks and find mutually acceptable solutions.

Deploying expert knowledge

Deliberation must be underpinned by expert knowledge to be effective. The centre will ensure the ongoing participation of Australia’s best scientific and technical expertise in its work by being incubated at the Australian Academy of Science for at least its first five years of operation, as well as engaging closely with Australia’s other learned academies.

Academic expertise is only one of the forms of knowledge the centre will work with. It will also seek to engage with river and catchment managers, local, state and Commonwealth governments, agricultural groups, farmers and land holders, local communities, environmental groups and Indigenous knowledge holders.

The centre will also recognise the importance of deploying existing knowledge to plan ahead, while not letting go of the uncertainties that remain, particularly with regard to climate change impacts on Australia’s inland waters and catchments and their communities—deliberation needs to focus on thoughtful steps forward, without overstating confidence in the knowledge we have.

These maps show percentage runoff declines for the median projection (left) and the dry extreme projection (right) by 2046–2075 (for RCP8.5, the ‘business-as-usual’ emissions scenario) relative to 1975–2005. The regional averages hide substantial differences between catchments within regions.[5]

The next decade is critical

Action over the next decade is critical. Australia faces many significant water and catchment management decisions over the next 10 years—most with long- term consequences. We need to break current policy deadlocks as a matter of urgency. Our major reforms in water and catchment management need to be ready to adapt to a changing climate and sustainably balance the often-competing needs for water.

Alluvium, Point Advisory and Global Change Advisory’s global research has shown the value of independent, non-government third parties in helping bridge divides between a variety of water users and mobilise key stakeholders to work together to promote sustainable water and catchment policy. We are excited to have been part of developing the centre and believe it will play an important role in Australia’s water policy future.

[3] OECD, 2020. Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions: Catching the Deliberative Wave. OECD.

[4] Sefton, R., Peterson, D., Woods, R., Kassebaum, A., McKenzie, D., Simpson, B., Ramsey, M., 2020. Final Report: Independent Assessment of social and economic conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin

[5] Chiew, F. et al., 2017. ‘Future runoff projections for Australia and science challenges in producing next generation projections’. 22nd International Congress on Modelling and Simulation, Hobart, , 1745-1751. On the use of RCP8.5 see Schwalm, C.R., Glendon, S. and Duffy, P.B., 2020. RCP8. 5 tracks cumulative CO2 emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(33), pp.19656-19657.