Heterotic Water Futures from a Quixotic Water Past? Vernacular knowledge, transformative learning and syncretic governance in the Murray-Darling Basin

Dr Robyn Bartel
Senior Lecturer
Geography and Planning, UNE

Thursday, September 10, 1 – 2 pm

C02 Lecture Theatre, Earth Sciences Building 

The history of water management in Australia is one of resilience: of resilient colonial hopes and dreams of abundance, which have been nearly impervious to all evidence to the contrary; of resilient positivist approaches to water, which have been equally resistant to contingency and context-dependency; and of resilient environments, which are becoming less forgiving to (again resilient) anthropocentrism and anthroparchy. This paper will interrogate historic deficiencies and legacy issues in water management using multi-, pan- and post-disciplinary perspectives. In particular it will map historic practices and paradigms of water management against the backdrop of biophysical reality and alternative relational vernacular and Indigenous understandings of water. Ill-matched, to both biophysical reality and place-based experience, historic practices and paradigms include: raising supply to meet growing demand, instead of matching demand to meet natural supply; managing water according to jurisdictional boundaries rather than water catchments; using government instead of governance, and commoditisation and commensuration instead of de-binarized (non-dualistic human/non-human) communitarian appreciations. Irrigation schemes encouraged by government subsidies and an over-ambitious programme for “making the desert bloom” provide one of the more potent examples of what can happen when biophysical reality meets human hope and fallibility. Past approaches have not been without improvements, however these have arisen from single-loop learning rather than double-loop and triple-loop learning. The latter would (and in preference) draw on multiple perspectives, particularly vernacular and Indigenous knowledge and appreciations, recognize water within social-ecological and hydro-social systems, and re-connect water within place, the wider landscape and social institutions. Although often excluded from dominant water management practices, vernacular knowledge and local water stories demonstrate greater temperance and relationality. Transformative learning processes utilising different knowledge types at multiple scales may be used to build syncretic governance systems combining alternative perspectives and approaches to build a heterotic water future from Australia’s quixotic water past.