82 – Seeking more effective NRM policies

Two of Australia’s main national programs for natural resource management are in their latter stages: the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, and the Natural Heritage Trust. These programs have been at the centre of a major national experiment in delivery of national and state funds through regional bodies. Discussions are currently occurring on what their successor program(s) should look like. It is timely, then, to consider the performance of the current arrangements and the potential for improvements to them.

The Australian Government is, indeed, already doing this. In late 2005, they commissioned a series of 8 reviews, conducted by external consultants, addressing issues such as salinity outcomes from regional investment, and the national investment stream of the Natural Heritage Trust (see http://www.nrm.gov.au/resources/index.html under Books and Reports). Simultaneously, a three-person panel toured the country, reviewing the regional arrangements, and reported to government.

Of course, such a large experiment was destined not to succeed on all fronts. Weaknesses I see with the current arrangements include the following:

  • In a number of states, the regional bodies are still maturing.
  • Even for the relatively mature regional bodies, the task that they have been set under these programs is extremely challenging. It appears that the difficulty in designing and implementing cost-effective, outcome-oriented regional plans for natural resource management was not fully recognised by governments, at least initially.
  • The programs are too impatient, especially in relation to salinity. Ministers prefer the programs to focus expenditures on “on-ground works”. However, determining which on-ground works offer the best value for money requires detailed analysis, and the timeframes for planning effectively discourage such analysis. Further, in many cases, farmers lack options for salinity management that are economically viable on sufficient scale to address the problem. Their development in ongoing R&D will take time.
  • In many regional plans, the link between funded actions and the stated target outcomes is weak. The plans tend to be much too optimistic about what can be achieved by extension/education or by small, temporary incentive payments.
  • The use of science and economics in many plans is inadequate. There is reliance on community preferences without adequate assessment of their scientific or economic realism.

Notwithstanding these and other problems, it is clear that the government will continue the regional delivery system in a more-or-less similar form. How, then, can we enhance the performance of the arrangements? Here are some suggestions.

1. Develop an agreed set of investment principles to be applied by all regional bodies.

2. Require regional bodies to demonstrate consistency with those principles, through use of a sound investment framework. The framework should be focused at the asset level, and should result in much tighter targeting of investments. For example, I suggest that the regional bodies overall are currently trying to do about 10 times too much in their salinity plans.

3. Strengthen the accreditation process for regional plans and investment strategies in relation to their use of science. This includes social science – prioritisation processes for existing plans generally neglect what we know from research about the achievement of practice change.

4. Adopt a more rigorous approach to setting resource-condition targets and management-action targets. Current targets are often a compromise between a limited use of science and what the community might be prepared to accept. The current approach of selecting aspirational targets is counterproductive as it causes a disconnect between actions and outcomes. Targets are needed, but should be based on what is achievable by realistic actions.

5. Develop a more rigorous evidence-based approach to determining the relative allocation of funding to different regions. The current allocation is not consistent with needs and opportunities.

6. Introduce a subprogram for major investments that are funded separately from the regional process. In many cases, the most cost-effective investments for dryland salinity would be targeted, major projects to protect ‘iconic’ assets. The regions have mostly chosen not to undertake such major projects, and in any case they should be prioritised at the state or national levels rather than the regional level.

7. Introduce a subprogram for provision of appropriate technical and other support to regions. This needs to be done in collaboration with the States, who hold most of the technical information. Support is needed in the following areas:

  • Guidelines on the implications of latest research.
  • Guidelines on the investment framework to be used, and support in applying it.
  • Guidelines on the appropriate circumstances to use different policy tools (extension, MBIs, R&D, engineering, etc.). Use of inappropriate tools is a major weakness in the current program. (See here for my framework that gives guidance on this.)
  • Processes to ensure the provision of appropriate technical support (models and technical advice) and provision of consistent, high-quality data on key variables (e.g. groundwater salinity, depth to groundwater) at usable scales of resolution. The current strategy of leaving these issues to individual regions results in duplication of effort, inconsistency, and failure to use the best information.
  • Development of improved salinity management technologies and systems.

8. A stronger partnership with the states is needed. The states have essential roles to play in the following areas: legal/regulatory approaches (e.g. the need to purchase water rights to plant perennials in water resource catchments, as discussed in the National Water Initiative); development of improved technologies, such as more profitable (more adoptable) farming practices for salinity management; on-ground works on public lands (e.g. pumping in nature reserves); research to provide improved data for subsequent planning.

Overall, I believe that measures such as these are much needed. If they can be introduced, there is great scope for strengthening the cost-effectiveness and achievement of outcomes in Australia’s main NRM policy programs.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Pannell, D.J. (2005). Salinity: new knowledge with big implications, A transcript from ABC Radio National, from the Ockham’s Razor progam. Full paper (19K)

Pannell, D.J. (2006). Public benefits, private benefits, and the choice of policy tool for land-use change, http://cyllene.uwa.edu.au/~dpannell/dp0601.htm

Pannell, D.J. and Ewing, M.A. (2006). Managing secondary dryland salinity: Options and challenges, Agricultural Water Management 80(1/2/3): 41-56. Full paper (66K)

Ridley AM and Pannell DJ (2005). SIF3: An investment framework for managing dryland salinity in Australia. SEA Working paper 1901. CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity, University of Western Australia, Perth. Full paper (126K pdf) 2-page summary SIF3 project page

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