Driving Adaptation: Changing the Narrative of Water in Victoria

by Lynette Smith

This piece appears in the May 2023 edition of Science Victoria magazine. All issues can be read online for free at rsv.org.au/Science-Victoria.

A lot must go right for us to have water for people and the environment here in Victoria.

It’s got to be the right amount, of the right quality, at the right time and place. It’s something that many of us take for granted.

The systems and institutions that get that water to us—the infrastructure, governance, maintenance practices, and demand management—are largely invisible to us.

If we do think about water at all, that’s where we often stop: infrastructure and operations. However, we also depend on factors that are even less visible, but just as material in their impact. These factors are the attitudes, norms of practice, habits, and biases that drive our decisions and behaviour relating to water.

It’s often called the ‘soft stuff’, but it isn’t. It’s what makes us not leave the tap running when we brush our teeth. These factors motivate a farmer to manage chemical use, stock movements, and waste disposal, so that they don’t damage the waterways. They are what shape the decisions of the manager of a paper plant who wants to use water more productively.

And it’s not just the ‘end users’. That ‘soft stuff’ also drives policy makers in the water sector to design programs that may or may not produce undesirable outcomes— such as externalising costs onto the environment or communities, and ignoring Indigenous water rights.

The problem for us here in Victoria, and for much of Australia, is that the ‘soft stuff’ we’ve got in our heads now is not suited to a sustainable way of life. It belongs to a way of life that assumes that water is there for the taking and that there will always be enough.

Changing what we think and do… before we’re forced to.

Even in the climate we’ve been used to for the past 200 years, our maladaptive behaviours have taken us into periods of extreme scarcity and to the brink of ecosystem collapse.

It’s not to say that we did nothing. Households all over the country have repeatedly responded to the call to save water during periods of drought. In fact, most research over the decades have shown that Australians are on board with a strong norm of saving water in those circumstances.1

We should also mention the Murray-Darling Basin Plan here, brought into being during the Millennium Drought (1997 – 2009). This was a massive systemic response intended to re-balance the needs of the economy and the environment.

But with rainfall patterns already changing in each of Victoria’s three climate zones,2 and projections of less water overall,3 we need to start the change before we’re forced to— i.e., before we see an obvious reason to do it, and before it’s clear what the best course of action is.

What we need is a transformation of everything that we take for granted—all the attitudes, norms, habits, and biases that drive our decisions and actions in relation to water and our way of life, whether we’re a water user or a water planner.

That change is adaptation.

It’s a communication problem.

You might think that it will be ‘no worries’. We’ll get the messaging right, and roll out a marketing communications campaign that will convince people to ‘value water’.

Unfortunately, our go-to technique is not the right one to use in this context. It’s great when the context is stable and understood by everyone, and everyone knows what the required action is, but this is not how it’s going to be as we adapt. No clever messaging is going to sort that out for us, because it’s baked into the marketing comms methodology.

An even bigger issue is that it maintains the attitudes, norms, biases, and habits that must change if we are to really adapt—by reinforcing, for example, the narrative of water as a commodity and us as consumers. The stakes are high. When a marketing campaign flatlines, it can trigger narratives of conflict with government, or its incompetence. We’ve seen the damage caused “in a number of failed water projects (where) consumer group campaigns against the project successfully subjugated official government marketing efforts”.4

Even when a water project is delivered despite resistance, it can come at a heavy social cost. We saw this with the desalination plant in Wonthaggi, which was experienced by people there as an unjust imposition of the State government,5 and is still tagged as a ‘white elephant’.6

Are we stuck?

The recent story of water in Victoria does have bright spots: a net zero emissions sector by 2035,7 and Water is Life, the roadmap for partnerships, legislation, and governance for managing waterways as living beings and using water to heal Country.8

Both are examples of a conceptual and imaginative shift, which needs to become normal in our narrative of water.

But observers of the adaptation scene in Australia notice that we’ve arrived at an impasse, which they analyse as the inertia of ‘climate capitalism’—an ideological position, which is invested in political and economic theories and practices that have brought us to where we are now. They also point out that until now there has been “little consensus on what a well-adapted future might look like”.9

Could we come to a consensus—one that is strong enough to overcome the inertia—with water security right at the heart?

Getting unstuck: what genuine communication about the future of water in Victoria could do for us.

Coming to a consensus is an intrinsically communicative process, one that creates a rich context for the kind of change we need to accomplish individually and collectively.

For one thing, a consensus implies an equality of everyone at the table—greatly needed in a time of damaged social cohesion, where governments and other powerful organisations need to show us they are trustworthy. It’s also an opportunity to question ‘climate capitalism’—to make visible everything we take for granted about what we really want and need to live well and sustainably.

It gives us time to think about that ‘soft stuff’, and bring to the surface knowledge that is not available through current methods.

Critically, it would help us find a new common ground—space in which we can work cooperatively and collaboratively, resilient to the pressures of vested interests and ‘fake news’.

This is communication in the proper sense of the word. It reduces uncertainty by sharing knowledge, building trust, and organising cooperative action to create collectively desired outcomes.

Making it happen: some thoughts from Euroa

Last year in Euroa, people got together to talk about the forces driving and stalling adaptation, with a focus on water.10

The workshop report shows that the citizens of Euroa understand the challenges of adaptation. They don’t need a marketing campaign. Instead, they need—and expect—local and state government, and its agencies, to take the lead on change they can be part of.11 For that, they—and all of us in Victoria—need “an appropriate governance structure to meet the adaptation challenges”. That structure is a context in which people can come to a consensus about the future and collaborate to make it happen.11

But someone has to create that structure. And the people of Euroa are right: governments are the only actors with the social licence to do so. That governance structure is not a new channel for fake consultation. Nor can it be a way for policy makers or elected representatives to impose ‘solutions’—as the Wonthaggi experience shows, that approach may deliver short-term gain, but with long-term pain.

Equality at the table is important. Governments have as much to discover about the path forward as the citizens do. That is the nature of adaptation. In these circumstances, the appropriate communication approach is deliberation, knowledge elicitation, foresight, social testing and collaboration, and, if people’s perceived or actual interests are in conflict, negotiation and mediation.

Communication, in this sense, is a way to drive change and reduce the uncertainty that goes with it. It may require more investment than a marketing campaign, but it’s in proportion with what we need to do. In short, it may be a way out of the impasse we find ourselves in.

Lynette Smith, director of gramma consulting, is a writer, analyst, and strategist focussed on using words and communication to its full capacity to get things done. She has worked for more than 20 years in the science-policy-society triangle, synthesising research, communicating science, and advising on strategies for change. With studies in linguistics and philosophy Lynette takes an empirical and ethical approach to these questions rather than stopping short at nudges, marketing techniques and knowledge transfer.


  1. Tolhurst, G., Hope, P., Osburn, L., & Rauniyar, S. (2022). Approaches to Understanding Decadal and Long-term Shifts in Observed Precipitation Distributions in Victoria, Australia. Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. doi.org/10.1175/jamc-d-22-0031.1
  2. Jakob, D., et al. (2020) Short-duration, heavy rainfall is intensifying, but not everywhere, and not all the time – A literature review. bom.gov.au/research/publications/researchreports/BRR-049.pdf
  3. Kemp, B., et al. (2012). Community acceptance of recycled water: can we inoculate the public against scare campaigns? Journal of Public Affairs, 12(4), 337–346. doi.org/10.1002/pa.1429
  4. King, T. J. (1970). Damming the Flow: Cultural Barriers to Perceived “Procedural Justice” in Wonthaggi, Victoria. Cultural Studies Review, 16(1). doi.org/10.5130/csr.v16i1.1453
  5. Dolnicar, S., & Hurlimann, A. (2010). Australians’ Water Conservation Behaviours and Attitudes. UoW Faculty of Commerce – Papers. ro.uow.edu.au/commpapers/718
  6. Victoria’s desalination plant to take 33 extra years to pay off under Melbourne Water plan. (2015, July 17). ABC News. abc.net.au/news/2015-07-17/victorias-desalination-plant-to-take-33-extra-years-to-pay/6626706
  7. A net-zero emissions water sector by 2035. (2022, September 2). Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action. water.vic.gov.au/climate-change/reduced-emissions-in-the-water-sector/net-zero-emissions-by-2050
  8. The Aboriginal Water program. (2020, October 26). Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action. water.vic.gov.au/aboriginal-values/the-aboriginal-water-program
  9. Waters, E., et al. (2023). Reimagining climate change research and policy from the Australian adaptation impasse. Environmental Science & Policy, 142, 144–152. doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2023.01.014
  10. Those people were local mayors, sustainability managers, representatives from Victorian Government agencies and the Country Fire Authority, leaders from businesses and environmental organisations, academics, a secondary school student and the members of the Taungurung Land and Waters Council.
  11. Spencer M., Stanley J., Wohlgezogen F., Zhu-Maguire I. (2022). Report on The Goulburn Broken Catchment/Workshop on Adaptation to Climate Change [Unpublished]. Produced by Melbourne Climate Futures, The University of Melbourne and Monash Business School, Monash University in collaboration with the Australia/China/US Adaptation Project