Dr Lisa Robins — Strengthening water governance: lessons from Australia and the United Kingdom

By Lisa Robins, Robins Consulting

A short video featuring Dr Lisa Robins, principal of Robins Consulting sharing her professional experience working to support water governance initiatives in the Greater Mekong Region, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom. In working with M-POWER, then with ACIAR, DFAT, and ANU, Lisa has developed a critical understanding of how water governance can best support communities through knowledge management and stakeholder engagement.

Robins Consulting is an AWP partner organisation. Lisa, a principal at Robins, is an independent consultant who has 30 years’ experience in the water and natural resource management sector — as a researcher, a science communicator, a facilitator, and a manager of programs and projects.

Lisa is also an honorary senior lecturer at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, where she completed her PhD in natural resource management governance and capacity building.

Ten ways to strengthen water governance

She then shares ten key approaches to strengthening water governance based on her 2017 publication ‘Making Water Policy Work in the United Kingdom: a case study of practical approaches to strengthening complex, multi-tiered systems of water governance’. The paper arose from a 3-month sabbatical in 2016 at the University of Durham in northeast England as a visiting fellow of Hatfield College. This included convening a 1-day deliberative dialogue on water sustainability with particular emphasis on integrated catchment management.

Each key approach has universal relevance to systems of water governance that are complex and multitiered. After describing each approach, Lisa presents an example or two to illustrate aspects of implementation in the contexts of the United Kingdom and Australia.

How do these systems apply to water governance in your country or region? We welcome you to leave your comments below, and we invite you to start a dialogue with Lisa about these 10 approaches, and how they may or may not be useful or leveraged in your context.

Greetings from my office in beautiful Canberra, Australia’s national capital. My name’s Lisa Robins, and I’m principal of Robins Consulting, and one of AWP’s many partner organisations. I’m an independent consultant, and I’ve worked for 30 years in water and natural resource management as a researcher, a science communicator, a facilitator, and a manager of programs and projects.

I also wear a second hat as an honorary senior lecturer at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, where I did a PhD in natural resource management governance and capacity building.

Apart from Australia, I’ve lived and worked internationally in the Greater Mekong Region, Indonesia, the United Kingdom and Canada.

This video clip you’re watching has two distinct parts. In this first part, I’ll give you a bit more background on my engagement with the Indo-Pacific Region and after that, I’ll present some slides on approaches to strengthening water governance, which is one of my interest areas. The presentation draws mostly from a 2017 paper I co-authored, published in the international journal ‘Environmental Science & Policy’.

So returning briefly to my work history in the Indo-Pacific, I was fortunate to receive an Australian Government Executive Endeavour Award in 2010 to work in Vientiane with the M-POWER network for a period of 3 months, which was a fantastic experience. M-POWER is a network of action-researchers, dialogue facilitators, and knowledge brokers, so much of what I was involved with at that time has informed my subsequent work.

Indeed, my relationship with M-POWER turned out to be much more enduring than the initial 3 months. I recently co-edited M-POWER’s 5th and final book in its edited volume series on Water Governance Dynamics in the Mekong Region, which was released at the 2016 Greater Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy.

Back when my M-POWER fellowship finished in early 2011, I was engaged by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) for 4-years as a knowledge broker and coordinator for their rice-based systems research program, which had projects in Cambodia, Laos and Bangladesh.

One of the highlights was organising a policy dialogue in Phnom Penh on ‘rice futures’ at the end of the program. I edited a collection of short papers from the dialogue, which was published as ACIAR proceedings. The dialogue process coupled with the proceedings was widely thought to be a pretty successful outcome for ACIAR and others in the region.

More recently, I’ve worked with AWP as a synthesis writer for the 2017 Ayeyarwady State of the Basin Assessment, which was a really challenging exercise involving a multitude of actors and technical reports at different stages of completion. It was a team effort and there were smiles all round when the report was launched by Myanmar’s Vice President at the Asia–Pacific Water Summit.

Apart from the Greater Mekong Region, Indonesia is my other main focus area. While working with ACIAR in the Mekong, I moved to Indonesia with my husband in 2012. For 2 years we lived in the city Bogor on the outskirts of Jakarta. I’ve continued with Indonesian language studies since that time, including Skype classes with Sri, my guru, who’s based in Denpasar.

During that time I did some short-term contract work for the Centre of International Forestry Research, including co-writing and editing the 2012 annual performance report for CGIAR Research Programme 6 ‘Forests, Trees and Agroforestry’ and a few other synthesis and publishing-related projects.

I also worked for DFAT’s Indonesia-Australia Forest Carbon Partnership during its final year to identify lessons learned for policy and practice.

On returning to Australia in mid-2014, I worked remotely with the Global Green Growth Institute to develop large-scale district-level project proposals on climate change mitigation and green growth interventions in Central Kalimantan.

Through the ANU, I’ve also contributed to DFAT’s Indonesia Knowledge Sector Initiative through writing clinics for mid-career academics, including some remote tutoring of participants to help them publish their research in international journals.

At the moment, I’m participating in a long-term ACIAR project that’s focused on improving community-based management of peat fires and peatland restoration and identifying associated sustainable land management practices and livelihoods. My involvement in the project is very much focused on knowledge management and stakeholder engagement.

Stemming from another ACIAR project led by the University of the Sunshine Coast, I’ve written a journal paper on megatrends influencing change in Indonesia’s economy and society and eliciting possible implications for the status of forestry for smallholders, which I’m hoping to get published this year.

Strengthening Water Governance: lessons from Australia and the United Kingdom

My presentation will draw mostly from the paper ‘Making Water Policy Work in the United Kingdom: a case study of practical approaches to strengthening complex, multi-tiered systems of water governance’.

The paper arose from a 3-month sabbatical in 2016 at the University of Durham in northeast England as a visiting fellow at Hatfield College, which included convening a 1-day deliberative dialogue on water sustainability, with a particular emphasis on integrated catchment management.

My four co-authors are professors from the universities of Durham, Oxford and Dundee.

In outlining the ten propositions to you today, I’ll also provide a practical example for most from either Australia or the UK so as to make the point more tangible.

It’s worth noting that overlap exists between some of the ideas put forward, but that each point was deemed amongst my co-writers to be sufficiently distinctive to warrant separate discussion.

Proposition 1: put in place a system-wide water policy

The first of ten propositions for improving and reinvigorating water policy in contexts characterised by complex, multilayered arrangements for water governance is the need for an overarching policy to effectively and efficiently guide the use of water resources.

The idea of putting in place some form of long-term water policy is to step back and take a systemic, long-term view of water resource management, and make sure that the national compass for water resource management is pointing in the right direction.

It can provide a vehicle for articulating a much broader, whole-of-nation vision for water management. And in doing so, it might be more clear how the raft of specific water-related projects, initiatives, plans and regulations fit together, and where the important gaps and inefficiencies lie.

An example

By way of example, a simple form of such a policy might be a national charter for water, akin to the UK Woodland Trust’s initiative, shown here, to define a ‘Charter for Trees, Woods and People’. This charter sets out 10 high-level principles developed on the basis of extensive consultation with more than 70 partner organisations and 300 community groups and was released in 2017 to mark the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest (1217).

Proposition 2: fully embrace community-led nested river basin planning and management

Community-based planning and management of water and other natural resources at the river basin scale is a core feature of governance arrangements in many parts of the globe. In many countries, including the UK, the potential for catchment-level ‘thinking’ and ‘action’ is yet to be fully exploited.

The second proposition, therefore, is that river basin planning and management that is community-led and nested at appropriate scales should form the centrepiece of nation-wide water policy.

Once devised and agreed, all relevant institutional arrangements need to be aligned to fit with this overarching water policy and complementary river basin plans, not vice versa.

This will necessitate a serious structural (and cultural) shift to catchment-level thinking and action, including internal arrangements for planning, works programmes, budgeting and reporting.

The justification for water-related initiatives and activities proposed by any actors or entities, whether public or private, should demonstrate alignment with the relevant-scale basin plan.

An example

This map shows Australia’s 56 formally designated natural resource management (NRM) regions across its 6 states and 2 territories (the equivalent of a province in other parts of the world). All of these regions are confined within the boundaries of their parent state or territory and many are delineated by catchment boundaries, where it makes sense to do so.

Each of these 56 regions has its own regional NRM organisation, which is governed by a ‘community-based’ board of management.

These organisations have diverse histories and contexts. They have been progressively devolved responsibilities for NRM planning and implementation from both federal and state/territory levels of government.

Their primary emphasis is on more sustainable land and water management – this is reflected in the predominance of farmers on those governing Boards in rural settings.

The federal government has increasingly used tied-funds to drive their agendas. These funds aim to tackle land and water issues of national importance (such as water quality, soil and water salinisation, soil erosion, and the like).

Over time, federal government funding has shifted from being directed to local-level groups for small-scale projects to these regional-level organisations for targeted, larger-scale projects based on agreed regional strategic plans.

Proposition 3: properly fund river basin planning and management

The third proposition is that river basin planning and management must be properly resourced. If long-term planning and sustainable management of water resources is to be done seriously, then it requires secure streams of funding commensurate to the task.

An example

The UK Government has adopted the so-called ‘catchment-based approach’ (CaBA) policy, which sounds fine in theory but for which the funding provision is paltry in absolute terms. It provides no certainty for forming lasting collaborative partnerships and related institutional structures.

For 2013/14 financial year, the sum of £1.6 million was provided as start-up funding to establish catchment partnerships, of which £0.2 million was for training support and up to £0.4 million for investment as seen fit by a national level steering group. Of the remaining £1 million, each catchment partnership, comprising 25 pilots and 37 locally-organised initiatives, received about £15,000 each.

To put this in perspective, Australia’s 56 regional NRM organisations were each allocated ‘base-level’ funds of A$5.25 million in 2009/10 financial year, totalling almost A$300 million; equivalent to approximately £170 million. So that’s a massive 202-fold difference compared to the UK arrangements, without accounting for the 4-year difference in the funding timeframe. In addition, Australia’s 56 regional NRM organisations source significant funds from a range of entities and programs beyond these start-up resources from the federal government.

Proposition 4: re-focus the policy framing

The fourth proposition is to “re-focus the policy framing” because how water or any other policy is framed matters greatly.

To quote from Entman (1993), ‘frame’ means to:

  • ·define problems,
  • ·diagnose causes,
  • ·make moral judgments, and
  • ·suggest remedies.

On that basis, who gets to frame a whole-of-nation water policy or a river basin management plan at different scales is paramount. The result has the potential to be greatly swayed by differing world views, dominant paradigms, vested interests, and unequal power relations.

An example

Here’s an advertisement in October 2017 calling for applications for 25 positions on the governing boards of 8 regional NRM organisations in the state of South Australia. In this state, as in most other jurisdictions in Australia, the appointment of board members requires the approval of the responsible minister. Thus, regional NRM organisations across the country are not independent of political interference. When new governments are elected, it’s not unusual for the chairs of NRM Boards, if not entire committees, to be replaced by appointees aligned with the prevailing government’s ideology.

Proposition 5: use the best available data and information

Proposition 5 contends that formulating a system-wide water policy that is both progressive and long-lasting requires access to the best available data and information.

If a diversity of stakeholder interests are to participate effectively in water policy, it is incumbent on governments to free up access to data and information and to make concerted efforts to enable the collection and utilisation of best-available science and local knowledge.

This will require government agencies to explore what constitutes evidence and how to incorporate local, site-specific knowledge to co-produce shared understandings of the environment, as well as to engage more actively and openly with academic and research institutions.

An example

The Australian Geoscience Data Cube is a good example of efforts by the government to make data more readily available. The data cube comprises more than three decades of satellite imagery spanning Australia’s total land area at a resolution of 25 m2 and has been used to map observations of surface water for all of Australia between 1998 and 2012 at that resolution.

Proposition 6: create conversational spaces and become a more water-literate society

Simply providing best-available information, however, is not enough. Proposition 6 contends that structured fora and processes are needed that enable open, honest and wide-ranging conversations amongst the multiplicity of actors and their competing interests.

Such conversations will yield more meaningful results when those who participate have a high level of ‘water literacy’.A more water-literate society will better enable water managers to shift from reactionary, crisis-driven approaches to long-term, agenda-driven plans in line with agreed strategic goals.

An example

Environment Links UK is a good example of a forum and a conduit for networking amongst organisations with an interest in the environment. It comprises four ‘link’ organisations for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which regularly exchange information and meet to discuss priorities and best practice. These organisations also campaign together on issues of common interest under the name Environment Links UK. Taken together, Environment Links UK members have the support of over eight million people in the UK and manage over 750,000 hectares of land.

Proposition 7: mobilise people

Everyone has a stake in how water resources are managed and needs to be engaged through active participation and collaborative effort. Proposition 7, therefore, emphasises the need to mobilise people.

In the UK, citizen science approaches to collecting, processing and sharing data and information are quite developed in fields like wildlife surveys, but examples in aspects of water science are much more limited.

Some examples

Australia, on the other hand, has some long-term success stories, like WaterWatch, which has programs to support communities to monitor the health of waterways; to learn through environmental education, and to participate in projects to protect, rehabilitate or restore the health of waterways.

More recently, in 2014, the Australian Citizen Science Association was formed “to advance citizen science through the sharing of knowledge, collaboration, capacity building and advocacy.”

It is a member-based community that supports, informs and develops citizen science. Membership is open to citizen science project managers, volunteers or anyone with an interest in citizen science.

Proposition 8: support and sustain core community networks

The eighth proposition contends that core community networks need to be supported and sustained. Embedding a nested approach to river basin planning and management that is community-led should build upon existing networks of community-based organisations with strong connections to water issues.

The UK has an existing network of more than 70 catchment-based river trusts or equivalent entities. However, they vary greatly in capacity and in the types and levels of activity in which they are engaged.

Some employ staff, tap into a variety of funding sources and are highly active, while others are without paid employees and only able to engage in a narrow range of activities.

As such, the network of rivers’ trusts isn’t firmly embedded and genuinely empowered in current institutional structures, including financially.

An example

In the case of Australia’s network of 56 designated regional NRM organisations, you can see that there are significant differences both within and between jurisdictions, amongst other things, in the size of the area and population they serve, in their corporate form, and the number of employees and board members. This reflects, amongst other things, their different histories and socio-political settings.

I note that these figures are somewhat out-of-date, but they nevertheless paint an accurate-enough picture for our purposes.

Although diverse, these organisations represented a far more recognisable and persistent set of institutional and management entities than existed previously at the regional scale in Australian land and water management.

Proposition 9: underpin river basin plans with regulatory provisions and effective monitoring and enforcement

Proposition #9 contends that good legislative foundations backed up by effective systems of monitoring and enforcement are critical to successful integrated catchment management.

An example

In recent months in Australia, there’s been great controversy with respect to water management in the Murray-Darling Basin, a catchment which occupies 10% of the continent and is Australia’s main breadbasket. There is community uproar further to alleged large-scale water theft by irrigators in the northern part of the Murray-Darling Basin, together with alleged collusion by some state bureaucrats, at the expense of environmental water flows to the river and to southern communities and environments. In response, the Government of South Australia has launched a royal commission of inquiry. This rift has put monitoring and evaluation procedures and enforcement fair and square in the public and political spotlight.

Proposition 10: address systemic institutional amnesia

Finally, proposition 10 gives attention to the need to address systemic institutional amnesia. For water institutions to be effective, they need smart and dedicated people and the ‘corporate’ memory that they embody.

In both Australia and the UK, water governance suffers greatly from systemic amnesia, as people move from job to job, including within individual organisations, often in response to short-term contractual arrangements. The 1 to 3 year duration of most projects creates a significant barrier to long-term thinking and action.

In the field, the churn of local ‘knowledge keepers’ translates to dwindling memory of existing data and past events, and tenuous local relationships and networks.

For successful integrated catchment management, strident efforts are needed to plug these knowledge leaks across the whole system.


In this presentation, ten proposals have been advanced for improving and reinvigorating water policy in contexts characterised by complex, multi-layered arrangements for water governance, with some practical examples in the cases of Australia and the UK. In selecting these examples, I have made a point of presenting both best practice and bad practice. In doing so, I have conveyed a more general message that sustainable water management is perhaps best viewed as a journey more so than a utopian destination. The degree of success of any such journey will depend greatly on the scope for enacting continuous improvements informed by sharing and learning amongst the diversity of system actors.

Related articles

For those interested in learning more about Australia’s devolved arrangements for natural resource management, these two articles are a good starting point.

Lisa also gave this presentation to the “Nature for Water” conference and presentation in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia in 2018.

This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN.

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