Acceptable risk and social values: Struggling with uncertainty in Australian water allocation

Document Type

Journal Article


Springer Verlag


Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science


School of Law and Justice / eAgriculture Research Group




Syme G.J. (2014). Acceptable risk and social values: Struggling with uncertainty in Australian water allocation. Stochastic Environmental Research and Risk Assessment, 28(1), 113-121. Available here


While people support long term sustainability and intergenerational equity in water allocation in Australia it is hard to get agreement on how that should be achieved especially when water is taken away from some users and either given to others or to the environment. Governments hope that this difficulty will be alleviated by uncertainties being dealt with by improved science and evidence based decision making. This paper suggests that while it is true that acceptance of plans relies on judgments of certainty in issues of sustainability, uncertainty can come from social, institutional and economic as well as from ecological and biophysical uncertainty. It is likely that the human based uncertainties significantly exceed those of science, certainly in terms of developing water reform. This is particularly the case when intergenerational issues are at stake. Human tendencies to discount the future and moral obligations to those not close to their interests are universal. Thus even when considering future generations self motivated judgments of what is fair are likely. Nevertheless, some delegation to others (including the government) can be achieved when the ongoing procedural justice of decision making allows groups to activate trust and fairness based heuristics. These heuristics create a diminution of uncertainty in relation to complex issues such as water allocation. How uncertainty could be managed through collaborative planning is discussed. Without attention to these basic human uncertainties the conflict observed in relation to Australian water plans is likely to continue with likely negative outcomes to all concerned.



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