Thursday, 22 August 2013

Water markets, ecosystem services, corporatisation and the role of NGOs in catchment management: perspectives from the University of Dundee’s IHP-HELP Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science

Thanks to the generosity of the British Council, I'm continuing my exciting adventure around the UK.

The University of Dundee’s IHP-HELP Centre for Water Law,Policy and Science is recognised as an international centre of excellence in water law and policy. I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last two days meeting with and speaking to academics from this centre and other parts of the University. I’m beyond grateful for the time these generous people made available to me; and I’m particularly grateful to Dr Sarah Hendry, who helped to arrange my visit and encouraged her colleagues to attend my presentation.

My first meeting with with Professor Chris Spray, who shared his insights into the role of the Tweed Forum, a non-government organization acting as an intermediary between local communities and government to implement environmental projects. Tweed Forum has been around since 1991, and is now a model for participatory catchment organizations around the world. I was fascinated to learn about this organization and the role it plays in connecting government to communities, and the trust it has built through its ongoing relationship with both. It reminded me of some of the environmental water trusts in the western USA, which help bring together government and individual water users and ranchers to deliver win-win environmental outcomes. I'm very interested to see whether this is a model we could explore in Australia, in addition to our government catchment management authorities.

Next, I met with Dr Sarah Hendry, who has a deep background in the legal and organizational structures for the industry in the UK. Sarah patiently answered my questions and helped me understand the historical differences that have underpinned the different policy approaches taken by Scotland, England and Wales, and the different legal forms used to manage water in each jurisdiction. I'm particularly interested in whether there's any evidence of a statutory corporation, or a state-owned corporation, demonstrating the attributes we associate with a privately owned, for-profit corporation (a corporation limited by shares). Can we use the corporate model in a state-owned capacity to obtain a commercial operating environment without losing control of the public services it's providing? Are there essential attributes of the corporate form that are common to all it's iterations, inescapable features of using this particular legal structure? 

As is often the case, I also met up with some fellow Australians. Dr Francine Rochford and I had some fascinating discussions around the nature of property rights in Australian water, how to engage with different water user groups and the nature of the public/private divide. Dr Michelle Lim, another Australian, is here in Scotland working on a project to examine the way that ecosystem services can act to alleviate poverty in Bangladesh. 

On Tuesday afternoon, I gave a seminar to about 15 highly engaged audience members. My presentation focused on my work on examining the way that environmental water organizations are emerging to manage environmental water in the context of water markets, and to use this as a tool to explore the tension between the need to extend environmental protection into the ‘everyday’ and the potential loss of the social norms that drive the need for that protection in the first place. Using markets to manage the natural environment runs the risk of replacing social norms (which stipulate for environmental protection) with market-based norms, which can put a price on the environment and perhaps weaken or erode the social norms. This topic is central to my thesis (and definitely worth a blog post of its own) so I’ll probably leave it at that for the moment – but more to come! If anyone is interested in seeing a copy of this presentation, please leave a request in the comments and I can email you. 

I really enjoyed this opportunity to speak with this audience. They were very interested and kept me on my toes with lots of intelligent questions during the presentation, and a broad discussion of both the content and my research directions afterwards. This presentation was tremendously helpful for me, as it gave me a chance to test some of my new ideas with an international audience, and to lift the level of discussion beyond the detail of Australian environmental water management. 

Following the seminar, I had a brief but interesting discussion with Professor Colin Reid about markets in biodiversity. Market-based tools can be highly effective, but one of the big limits for natural resources like biodiversity is that they are context specific - timing, location and scale are all important factors in defining the 'product', which can make finding appropriate trade-offs challenging. 

PhD students and staff who kindly invited me to lunch
I also managed to inspire some interest in Australian water law and policy more generally. Andrew Allan and I spent the afternoon discussing Australia's legal construction of water rights, water allocation policies and how the environment is operating within Australia's water markets. 

It was a fascinating two days. I'm only sorry that it was such a short visit, and I can't possibly do justice to the fantastic conversations in this blog. Thank you to everyone who spent time with me!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds very exciting and educational Erin! No doubt a fruitful exchange of ideas, (and an excellent lunch)!