Economic development, stream ecology and human well-being

Posted on March 10, 2014

Economic systems are embedded in social systems, which are in turn embedded in ecological systems. For this reason, integrated, multidisciplinary approaches can be helpful when assessing the impacts of economic development. Such an analysis has been carried out for Northern Australia’s Daly River catchment , where the agricultural sector has been expanding rapidly. The study combined economic, hydrological and ecological models developed in 2006-2011. The economic model was used to calculate the amount of water needed for different activities, and the hydrological model was then applied to predict stream flows once water needs were met. Ecological modelling examined the impacts of altered stream flows on fish species, including large-bodied fish such as barramundi and black bream, which are important to indigenous and recreational fishers. The integrated model was used to compare the outcomes of three different development scenarios: growth in the agricultural sector at a rate of 5% / year, and growth in the government sector at rates of 1.5 and 5% / year. The last two scenarios were relevant because over 35% of the region’s workers are employed in the government, education and health sector, and there is interest in diversifying this narrow base. The main finding was that agricultural growth would have significantly adverse ecological impacts, with optimum fish habitat being reduced by up to 81%. In contrast, growth of the government sector would involve lower hydrological and ecological costs and generate much higher incomes for indigenous and non-indigenous people and for industry. Because the connection of indigenous people to the market economy is relatively weak, the financial returns from agricultural development to this group would be up to five times lower than those for non-indigenous people. Agricultural development would therefore widen the economic gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people, with the risk of worsening indigenous unrest, crime and health problems. Integrated models that incorporate environmental and social feedbacks can provide a more complete perspective on the impacts of development. In the present case, it seems that conservation land uses may better promote the well-being of both indigenous and non-indigenous residents than more orthodox types of development.

Reference: Stoeckl, N. et al. 2013. An integrated assessment of financial, hydrological, ecological and social impacts of ‘development’ on indigenous and non-indigenous people in northern Australia. Biological Conservation 159, 214–221.

Posted in: fish, flow, hydrology, social