Tuesday, February 12, 2008

EcoFlows and Spirit of Place

At the big international river event in 2007, a highly significant declaration was made to protect waterway flows along global river systems to ensure freshwater ecosystem health and human well-being.

The initial statement from the Riversymposium and International Environmental Flows Conference, acknowledges that 'freshwater ecosystems are the foundation of our social, cultural, and economic well-being.'

This is a massive change. The Declaration recognises the need for healthy freshwaterways to ensure the ongoing sustainability of society and culture as well as the economic bouyancy of the planet. The flourishing of the economy is inextricably linked to the ecology of rivers, lakes, floodplains, wetlands and estuaries. To me, this is a revelation but will it be enacted when governments are planning development, dams, mines, inappropriate agriculture, or wholescale logging?

While the government's ecological sustainable development (ESD) policy involves a balance beween the environment, the economy and the social, government decisions seem to prefer the economic over the ecological and the social. But not always, as the spread of marine protected areas (MPAs) in Australia has shown. Sadly action around MPA implementation is not a global change.

Of the three components that comprise ESD, the social seems to have the least action and interest directed to it. Thus a declaration that links social wellbeing with freshwater ecosystems is a real highlight from Brisbane's annual River Symposium.

Social impacts are well recognised as part of government planning and social impact assessments are often undertaken before development or policy implementation, but concern and action around potential social impacts after the event may be overlooked while social problems may be relegated to the welfare sector.

Yet one vital feature but one often neglected in ESD frameworks is the spiritual impact of decisions. Government decisions may follow the precautionary principle of when in doubt, don't. They may consider social concerns and likely social problems but they ignore the spirtual, and the impact on a community's, family's or individual's spirit.

An understanding of spiritual impacts might be incorporated into Aboriginal land rights cases or be included in projects affecting indigenous cultures and communities in developing nations and peasant or shamanic societies, but spiritual issues are not usually part of environmental or social impact assessments related to projects affecting non-indigenous cultures in the developed world.

An inclusion of the spiritual looks holistically. It embraces the spiritual as part of social health and wellbeing as well as ecological reverence. It honours the evironment and the fresh and saltwater ecosystems as 'persons' in their own right.

Psychological distress through loss of place, through upheavals in ecosytems from development, clearfelling, pollution of rivers and oceans, inappropriate agricuture, depletion of fisheries, loss of land and even natural disasters, has been demonstrated. I find it paradoxical that counselling may be offered after natural disasters but trauma around human-created loss of place and the effect on people's spirit, their resilience, their health and wellbeing, may neither be recognised nor acted upon.

The Brisbane River offers solace and peace. It's an icon for the city. At the moment its dark brown muddy colour is a reminder that the drought of a couple of weeks ago may now be a memory. The rain is flushing out the river and rushing through stormwater drains, local creeks and steep gutters and sadly causing flooding along its way. Wetlands, floodways, billabongs were once part of this vibrant river system but since European settlement these essential habitats have been over-channelled, filled in and changed - with a consequent loss of water quality in what was once a place of clear clear water.

The spirit of this city is related to environmental flows.

The River Symposium Declaration states that: 'Freshwater ecosystems are seriously impaired and continue to degrade at alarming rates. Aquatic species are declining more rapidly than terrestrial and marine species. As freshwater ecosystems degrade, human communities lose important social, cultural, and economic benefits; estuaries lose productivity; invasive plants and animals flourish; and the natural resilience of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and estuaries weakens. The severe cumulative impact is global in scope.

'Flow alteration imperils freshwater and estuarine ecosystems. ...The goal of environmental flow management is to restore and maintain the socially valued benefits of healthy, resilient freshwater ecosystems through participatory decision making informed by sound science. Ground-water and floodplain management are integral to environmental flow management.'

The Declaration concludes:
'Climate change intensifies the urgency. ... The progress made to date falls far short of the global effort needed to sustain healthy freshwater ecosystems and the economies, livelihoods, and human well-being that depend upon them.'