Monday, June 23, 2008

Living River on a Beautiful Day

The Brahminy Kite flies in slowly and settles on a branch overlooking the river. Tiny birds such as Wrens and Flycatchers hop chirpily through the undergrowth. Ravens caw overhead. It's just another beautiful day on the river. As Bono sings in the evocative U2 song Beautiful Day.

It's a beautiful day
Sky falls, you feel like
It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the Bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors came out

Here, in Bono's song, incidentally performed at the Live 8 megaconcert, beauty meets concern and care for global devastation. And, in a plea for action, it calls for peace and social and environmental justice.

U2 use their music to raise political issues. They use their celebrity status and moving lyrics to call for an end to poverty, to stop overfishing, to halt rapid overdevelopment and to bring peace to the world in the song's image of the peace dove. Hope springs eternal - after the biblical flood, the world was born new again, colours burst forth and it was, and is, beautiful.

Beauty, poetry and any mention of the spiritual seem to be anathema to river management and are are largely missing from the more clinical discussions on natural resource approaches. Passion for place is absent. Feelings of love or attachment are buried as if projects to protect, save or restore a beautiful place like the river domain have little to do with these emotions. Individuals and groups involved in NRM community consultations are referred to as 'stakeholders' who are encouraged to bring arguments about the merits or otherwise of the stakes they hold. Emotions may flare but feelings of love, joy and passion rarely hold sway with decision makers.

Places may get protected not because people love them and express their feelings of love openly but perhaps because we/they realise that to be heard and taken seriously, we/they need to voice our concerns in NRM speak - resources, impacts, allocations, assessments, scientific research findings and management measures. But what needs to be managed - is it human or nature?

But some of these narrowly framed NRM practices are being countered in an unsual way - using art and music to raise community awareness about environmental and social concerns in more creative and innovative ways. In many places across the globe, creativity has become a cornerstone for community action and involvement.

One powerful example of creative ecology is what's known as River Dialogues. In different localities around the US, communities are taking part in discussions about their river systems. The aim is to find a balance between the needs of residents and the needs of the river. For example, in Spokane, the River Dialogues project sourced and involved local residents 'passionate' about the river. They told stories about their relationship with the river and along the way created relationship and community capital.

One of the local residents, Mary Kunkel, started a small activist group called River Sisters, made of up of women who cared passionately about their region and were worried about the river. The river area was destined to become a 'condo' development but their concerted effort and committed action led to the creation of an open access river park instead.

This now very well-used and loved park began with passion and sharing stories about what the river meant to them.

Another Spokane group Friends of the Falls also encouraged locals to think about, and connect with the river. Says Steve Faust, the group's Executive Director:

'My relationship with the river was like a lot of people in this town. They sort of know it's there, but they don't really pay much attention to it. One of things we try to do as an organization is to change the way that people relate to this river. To really get them to engage with it in a positive way, with the expectation that if they engage with it, we will, as a city, have a higher degree of concern about what we do with the river.' (Spokesman Review, 2006).

Telling and re-telling stories of place is one way to keep the history and presence of a place alive and in people's hearts. It can also help raise awareness about how to improve and/or restore water quality and riverbank eco-aesthetics by sharing experiences of involvement in rivercare and recreation as well as knowledge of the river's ecology. Emerging out of this process of sharing stories, suggests Linda Burnham (2001), founder and director of the Community Arts Network, come innovative ways of managing and improving the water environment.

Another River Dialogues project, this time in Pennsylvania, set out to engage local residents in 'issues of water quality, riverbank diversity, stream restoration, and river advocacy'. Using a multi-disciplinary team of artists and scientists known as 3 Rivers, 2nd Nature, the project assessed water quality and the state of urban riverbanks and questioned the 'blue and green infrastructure of a recovering landscape' by asking the following questions:

'1. Can artists working as cultural agents affect the public policies and private economic programs, which mark and define urban places and ecosystems?
2. Given the issues of scale, the power of private interests and the state both invested in the development/growth model, can the artist develop a public realm advocacy that expands the creative act beyond the authorship of the artist?
3. Finally, can (and should) artists create verifiable social change?'

Blending ecology with art, the research team arranged river tours and gathered residents, artists and ecologists together to tell stories and brainstorm ideas in groups referred to as charrettes. Through these active and engaged focus groups the research team devised a set of Living River Principles.

Living River Principles is a set of guidelines for caring for local waterways and also designed as a 'challenge' to communities, governments and residents about the urgent need to ensure healthy water quality for rivers and streams, and to do something about it, especially at the local level.

The Living River principles state:
'1. Each community should monitor and care for water quality in rivers and streams
2. Upstream community water problems should not impact downstream communities
3. Water problems should be solved at the source, addressing cause, not effect
4. Public rights to waterways and wetlands should not be compromised by private interests
5. Wetlands and streams should be treated as economic and ecological assets
6. Wetlands and streams should not be lost, and should be restored where possible
7. Public access to and from the water, and along the water's edge, should be restored
8. Riverbanks should be preserved or restored to their natural form wherever possible
9. Pre-industrial connections between water and communities should be restored
10. Redevelopment should accommodate public access to water and riverbanks
11. Redevelopment should restore community, culture, ecology and economy.'

These principles are part of a wider program to encourage action towards protecting riverine ecosystems at all levels. They are based on the presumption that water needs to be a common access resource. But in many regions, water is also a privatized resource, and thus the cost of what is a basic right can become, and has become, way too expensive for individuals who simply can't afford it.

The rationale of the Living Principles states that:'All citizens should be able to have a direct relationship to water; All rivers and streams should meet the water quality standard for swimming; and Rivers and streams should support an increasing diversity of plant and wildlife.' These recommendations are not dissimilar to the water quality reports from SE Queensland, and more widely, rivers throughout Australia.

But in a field of rapid development and lack of action on Living River Principles, coupled with the severe drought, creating healthy river systems and restoring environmental damage seems a long way off...but still possible. It requires passion, certainly, and commitment, and perhaps a shift in resource management practices to hold consultations as conversations where stories can be shared and in the process, both the environment and the local community can be regenerated.

Burnham LF, 2001, Telling and Listening in Public: Factors for Success, Reading Room, Community Arts Network,
Spokeman Review, 2006, Spokane River Dialogues,