Nonpoint source (NPS) water pollution is increasingly recognised both within Australia and globally as a critical issue for managing and enhancing ecological health, water quality and availability, and human wellbeing linked to waterways. However, it is a very difficult issue to understand and manage, and remains under-researched, especially its social and institutional dimensions. Managing NPS pollution is a ‘wicked problem’ that involves: multiple actors, perspectives, values and goals; multiple levels of social, institutional and ecological organisation; complex social-ecological interactions; multiple drivers and outcomes; and uncertain, ambiguous and changing understandings over time. A major challenge is enabling and enacting ‘practical action’ at local levels within multi-level catchment situations.
This investigation has studied the problem of enabling and enacting practical action for managing NPS pollution in catchments. It adopts a theory-informed empirical research approach, centred on a case study investigation of ongoing efforts to manage NPS waterway pollution in South East Queensland (SEQ), Australia. Within the SEQ region, waterway health has been recognised as a key social-ecological issue, and over the last two decades there have been substantial collaborative and multi-level efforts to manage waterway health and its impacts on the adjacent Morton Bay marine environment. Although management action for point source pollution (e.g. sewage treatment effluent) has had some success, enabling and enacting practical action (i.e. purposeful and concerted collective action in catchments) for NPS pollution remains a major and increasingly urgent challenge. Thus the central research problem explored in this study was: ‘how can we better understand, enable and enact practical action for the wicked problem of managing non-point source water pollution in catchments?’
Addressing this research problem involved the dialectical development of an analytical framework for understanding practical action in catchments. The framework was applied within the case study region, which allowed a systemic analysis of enabling capacities and cross-level interplay. The empirical investigation focused on three contrasting local catchment cases embedded within the broader SEQ region. The local cases spanned a mix of rural and urban settings, and were places that have seen considerable efforts over several years to generate practical action to manage NPS pollution. A qualitative theory-informed, mixed-methods approach was developed, involving 53 semi-structured key informant interviews (10 scoping and 43 in-depth), as well as review of academic and grey literature, field observation, and report-back workshops. Collectively this enabled an in-depth study of local level practical action, its linkages and embeddedness within the broader multi-level regional governance system, and identification of implications for better addressing NPS pollution in SEQ and elsewhere.
The key finding is that a diverse range of enabling capacities and their interplay, at and across multiple levels of organisation, can influence practical action. Important enabling capacities identified were: prior experience and contingency; institutional arrangements; collaboration; engagement; vision and strategy; knowledge building and brokerage; entrepreneurship and leadership; resourcing; and reflection and adaptation. Capacities and their interplay across levels were analysed in the empirical cases to understand their roles in enabling and enacting practical action. This uncovered a range of experiences across different catchment contexts within the same broader region. The empirical findings highlight the interactive importance of the various capacities for enabling and enacting practical action, and for shaping adaptive and evolving management responses over time. Collective efforts to generate practical action were embedded and nested within complex, multi-level contexts which also influenced the management responses that arose. Moreover, practical action was found to be an ‘emergent property’ of the combined interplay of enabling capacities within particular catchment situations.
This research implies a critical need to ‘manage for emergence’ through focusing on enabling capacities that are important for practical action. It also highlights the need for multi-level management and governance arenas that can support the emergence of practical action in contextually-appropriate ways within catchments. This has implications for management efforts to shape change in catchments, as well as in other ‘wicked’ water and natural resource governance settings requiring diverse actors to ‘work together’ in purposeful and concerted ways. A further contribution is the development of non-traditional transdisciplinary methodologies for investigating complex forms of collective action for wicked natural resource problems.