Australia is a low-lying, old, flat, dry, salty continent. It sits across a mid-latitude, sub-tropical dry climatic zone marked by continental deserts on either side of the equator, making it the most arid inhabited continent on Earth. Australia’s flatness combines with its hot, arid climate to limit rainfall runoff and make its rivers slow flowing and sometimes ephemeral.

Australia’s use of its water resources for economic development has not really properly responded to the biophysical limitations of the continent’s fresh water systems. This has led to tensions between interest groups and jurisdictions and a situation where the current status of many fresh water ecosystems is poor and at further risk from projected changes in climate.

The scarcity of fresh water resources has caused long-standing conflicts between the use of provisioning (e.g. drinking, irrigation), regulating (e.g. water purification, waste decomposition, climate regulation) and cultural (e.g. water associated with First People’s cultural practices, recreational uses) services while allowing for ecosystem support services (e.g. nutrient recycling, primary production) to operate sustainably.

In this context, the Myer Foundation and Ian Potter Foundation identified a need for “an independent, dedicated, apolitical, expert-driven and community-facing voice focused on ensuring the long-term health of the nation’s water resources and in turn its water security.”

Alluvium teamed with Point Advisory (coupled with an eminent expert panel) were engaged to complete an “Australian Fresh Water Mapping Study” to identify and provide evidence of “gaps, barriers or impediments” to the effective long-term management of Australia’s fresh water resource.

In order to deal with the complexity of the issues, we developed an analytical framework drawing on Nobel Prize-winning economist, Elinor Ostrom’s general framework for analysing the sustainability of social-ecological systems. Using this framework we organised our mapping of the current state of Australia’s fresh water resource across biophysical, geographical, technological, economic, legal and sociocultural domains. Ostrom’s approach helped us understand and represent the nested attributes within these domains and the linkages between them.

The project involved a major consultation exercise and delivery of a number of discussion papers on key issues to advance the understanding of the economic, social, biophysical and governance systems nationally.

The project is moving into its next stage and we look forward to future announcements by the Myer Foundation and Ian Potter Foundation