April 9, 2013

Water Guides, Rules or Regulations?

In Australia's arid heartland, a water conservation revolution is under-way. Last November I spoke with Liz Locksley, Alice Water Smart (AWS) Homes and Business Program Manager, about the Alice Water Smart Guide, at that time called the “Community Water Rules”.

The Alice Water Smart Guide is part of AWS's multi-pronged approach to reducing the town's unsustainable water consumption. Concerned residents have worked for years to raise awareness about the problem and find solutions to it, culminating in the AWS program. Last year a diverse, voluntary, Citizen's Advisory Panel of 12 town residents got together and devised the Top Six Actions to save water in Alice Springs which form the Alice Water Smart Guide, launched in 2013 on World Water Day.

Prior to the launching, the initiative was changed from “Community Water Rules” to “Alice Water Smart Guide.” In a media release, panel spokesperson Michelle Cooper said “It was a unanimous decision. The name Alice Water Smart Guide is the right fit with our hopes for this initiative. We heard the community’s call for the working title of ‘Community Water Rules,’ to be changed.”

Listening to feedback is essential for the success of a bottom-up, community driven process. However, my initial outsider's reaction was disappointment. Had Alice lost its nerve? The idea of community-driven regulation is such a bold move. In contrast to “rules”, the word “guide” sounded, to my ear, to lack confidence. It brought to mind existing educational resources such as the WaterWise Action in Central Australia booklet, one of countless government sponsored brochures. A major difference is that the Guide was devised by the Citizen's Advisory Panel and launched in conjunction with a solid social marketing strategy, that includes, for example, the game Pass It On. The Top Six Actions will develop into new social norms that embody a high value for water. Essentially, water consumption will be reduced though social regulation, rather than enforcement.

Perhaps in a town as isolated, wild and fiercely independent as Alice, “Rules” were never going to stick. You want rules and regulations? Go to Canberra, the Nation's orderly capital. Go to Perth, which has been under government mandated water restrictions on and off since 1977. In November I'd asked Liz about why the initiative would create a set of Rules (as the Top Six Actions were called at that stage) rather than, hypothetically, lobby the government for water restrictions. Liz described Rules as are a more proactive community approach, “There's a lot people can do. We don't have to wait for the government [to take action such as implementing mandatory restrictions].”

The residents of Alice Springs won't wait for government led restrictions, nor, it seems, will they tolerate Rules. They've gone down another path. The town took a problem and saw an opportunity. Rather than accepting the status quo, Alice Springs filled the Northern Territory government's leadership void with a bottom-up process that allows genuine community participation and direction in water management. Top Actions, Guides, Rules or Regulations? The outcome might be the same, but the process is different.

It's still early days for the Alice Water Smart Guide. The real impact will only be known some time down the track. I asked Liz about her hopes for the process;“ I hope to come up with a useful, creative approach to how we manage water in Alice Springs...People can feel proud of the community they live in”. It's important for the town that receives, arguably, an unfair proportion of bad news stories in the media. “So we want to save water by people adopting the water Actions, and create a positive image for ourselves.”
In Alice, they do it their own way (Wedding 2010)

1 comment:

  1. Your blog is really interesting and helpful and so full of information. There is a dire need of this code of ethics on a precious resource like water.