The 'Tragedy of the Commons' in NSW
Associate Professor Will Glamore gave a compelling address at a recent forum on Building Drought Resilience in New South Wales, hosted by the UNSW Water Research Centre.
A/Prof Glamore was one of the opening panellists at the event, which was attended by over 100 industry and community representatives from more than 40 organisations.
He spoke of ‘The tragedy of the commons’—where everyone values something but no one is responsible for it—and how this applies to the natural infrastructure of Coastal New South Wales.
“Our 183 easterly flowing rivers, where 85% of our population lives, are the ‘commons’,” said A/Prof Glamore.
This is where we live, work and play. We love the recreational, commercial, heritage, aesthetic, and resource values but no one is responsible for their holistic management
A/Prof Will Glamore, UNSW Water Research Laboratory
“This is where we live, work and play. We love the recreational, commercial, heritage, aesthetic, and resource values but no one is responsible for their holistic management.”
A/Prof Glamore said that the current piecemeal management system affects the entire system, and results in its ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
“We focus on point sources while diffuse pollutants pour out the back door of one council and into the front door of another,” he noted.
“This is the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in our natural infrastructure of Coastal New South Wales. A death by a thousand cuts—and yet we remain surprised with every drought, flood, algal bloom, fish kill, acid plume or fire.”
A/Prof Glamore suggests that a total catchment solution is required where collective action addresses the common values and prioritises next steps.
“We need to advocate for the entire system, not it’s pieces, and someone must be responsible for herding the cats—using both carrots and sticks.”
In terms of immediate actions, he sees long-term, catchment-wide planning as a key priority, envisioning a single caretaker with a minimum 20-year vision for the forest, the floodplains and the urbanised coastal rivers.
He also emphasised the urgent need for the large-scale ecosystem restoration of priority lands, building resilience to drought and flood, improving ecosystem services and providing the natural infrastructure that society demands during extreme weather events.
In his concluding remarks, A/Prof Glamore shared a map demonstrating the human use of four local rivers, highlighting their importance to the community and challenging the audience to find four rivers that are more valued, more used and more part of a modern culture anywhere in the world.
“Now, let me finish by asking, who is responsible for their management?” he asked.
“No one and everyone. It’s a tragedy. And in New South Wales, it’s far too common.”
A/Prof Glamore’s persuasive sentiments were echoed throughout much of the Forum, as speakers called for more collaborative relationships.
Outcomes from the Forum will soon be incorporated into a new white paper and strategic plan that addresses the state’s most pressing drought issues, outlines recommended actions and defines responsibilities.