Transformative Community Water Governance in Remote Australian Indigenous Communities

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Beal, Cara D

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Stewart, Rodney A

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Governing water systems to address issues of safety, security and sustainability and to build resilient communities is a key policy focus globally, as climate change and human impacts on freshwater resources are being increasingly felt. Yet, in remote Indigenous community contexts, Western management systems tend to focus on technical and engineering aspects of water services, often excluding Indigenous people from decisions about their own water resources. Unsustainable and inadequate water services have resulted that constrain local economic development and contribute to poor health and high mortality rates of Indigenous peoples. Sustainable water governance approaches are recognised as important to address such issues, but the pace and scale of uptake has been slow. Transformative governance is an emerging field of research and praxis that has potential to support scaling up sustainable water outcomes, however, very limited empirical or theoretical studies exist from which to guide action, particularly at the community scale, or in remote Indigenous community contexts. Focusing on remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia as a study setting, this thesis aims to explore Transformative Community Water Governance (TCWG) as an approach for practice and consider how it can be applied to contribute to sustainable and resilient remote Indigenous communities. Through a pragmatic and transdisciplinary lens, three objectives are addressed: 1) identify key concepts and principles for TCWG and assess current water governance arrangements and processes in remote Indigenous Australia; 2) develop an evidencebased framework for TCWG appropriate for application to remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities; 3) apply the conceptual TCWG framework in a remote Indigenous community context to identify lessons for practice. Employing mixed methods, the exploratory study identified key concepts and principles for TCWG and assessed current practice in remote Australia in relation to these. The findings reveal limited uptake in practice of processes that could support longer-term transformative sustainability outcomes. Barriers that prevent transformative governance being adopted are also identified across five categories: governance arrangements and processes; economic and financial; capacity, skills education and employment; data and information; and cultural values and norms. Enablers that can support transformative community water governance in this context are also identified. These findings provide the foundation for design of a novel TCWG framework applicable to remote Indigenous Australia. Key components of the framework include a guiding vision, five foundational principles to guide planning and action, an eight-step process for implementation, together with knowledge sharing activities across communities and regions. These components in combination create a comprehensive framework to guide community water governance for transformative change outcomes across communities and the water sector. Moving beyond conceptual research, the TCWG framework was applied through participatory action research in the remote community of Masig in the Torres Strait Islands (Australia), providing lessons for practice. Activities included installation, monitoring and feedback on household water use from high-resolution smart water meters, household end-use survey and in-depth interviews with community and other stakeholders. The action research demonstrated how technocratic management approaches occur, are reinforced and impact on communities at the local scale resulting in outcomes that do not fit the local conditions. For example on Masig, continued focus and investments in centralised water treatment ignores community member preferences for drinking rainwater, which is often untreated, over mains water; imposition of water restrictions increase health risks from storing water for use during the day; while existing strengths within the community that could support longterm sustainable water outcomes are generally not considered in water decisions. A co-designed household water demand management trial also resulted in a 39% reduction in water use over the research period, demonstrating that a coordinated and educative approach can be more effective than ‘stick’ approaches, at least in the shortterm, building a foundation for long-term change. The overall thesis findings suggest that there is significant potential for a TCWG approach to improve outcomes for sustainable, resilient communities and water systems at the local level and for scaling up on a larger scale. Recommendations are provided based on the research findings, for embedding this approach into governance institutions and supporting capacity building within the water governance system. Considerations for scaling up the TCWG approach across diverse community contexts, such as Pacific Island communities, and post-colonial settler nations such as New Zealand, Canada and the United States are also identified.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Eng & Built Env

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Transformative Community Water Governance

Aboriginal communities

Torres Strait Islander communities


water systems

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