The Australian freshwater study


In  August 2018, The Ian Potter Foundation and The Myer Foundation funded a study of major issues affecting Australia’s freshwater systems, which constitute the nation’s inland waters. The consulting firms Point Advisory and Alluvium were commissioned to undertake this study.

The study was undertaken in two stages.


Stage 1: Issues and opportunities 

Stage 1 was conducted over four phases:

  1.  Research to identify a long list of the most important issues affecting the management of Australia’s inland waters
  2. Consultation with a wide range of stakeholders to test the validity and importance of the issues identified
  3. Synthesis of the issues with the consultation results to establish the key problems and identify any gaps where philanthropic investment might catalyse change
  4. Evaluation of solutions with the potential for philanthropic investment to fill any of the gaps identified.

The fundamental water management challenges facing Australia are policy challenges.

Six issues papers were developed. The papers were developed with an expert panel and were subject to peer review. Draft issues papers were provided for comment to the land and water management sector. Final issues papers addressed the comments raised through stakeholder consultation. 

The study emphasised the major challenges of matching growing demand for water on a continent where fresh water is both scarce and its supply from rainfall and runoff so variable. These challenges will become more severe in future given the likely impacts of climate change.

However, the primary finding from the study is that the fundamental water and catchment management challenges facing Australia are policy challenges.

A major gap impairing Australia’s policy reform efforts is that Australia has no independent, trusted source of dedicated land and water policy advice big enough to catalyse such complex reform. Substantial resources and political capital are deployed by those with vested interests in particular policy outcomes, but the broader common good is not well-resourced or represented.

The study identified a role for philanthropic investment to fill this gap and catalyse transformative change by establishing a source of trusted, independent, non-governmental policy advice to identify, influence and monitor the policy reforms needed to protect, restore and maintain the ecological integrity and productivity of Australia’s lands and waters.

The study recommended a new water and catchment policy entity be created. 


Stage 2: Design of entity

Stage 2 focused on identifying the best design for a new entity to maximise its ability to catalyse change. The team was led by Point Advisory and included knowledgeable and prominent researchers and former board members of organisations involved in water management.

The study identified that a new, autonomous entity would have the greatest impact by acting as an independent honest broker able to bring experts, communities, policymakers and politicians together to focus on specific policy decisions. The new entity would have considerable opportunities to catalyse change if it prioritises processes of decision-making over the production of studies that advocate for preferred outcomes.

Good decisions cannot be made by poorly-informed stakeholders. Effective approaches to difficult water and catchment management decisions will always involve engaging deep technical expertise from a wide range of disciplines and building bridges between experts, policymakers and communities. While such approaches will always require considerable political nous, extensive networks, and a range of sophisticated ways to engage communities, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for all issues.

The study recommended establishing a new organisation, independent of any partisan, industry or government influence, focused on using and further developing innovative approaches to policy co-design and deliberative decision-making.

'For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong.'

H. L. Mencken