Promoting change for the public good: rainwater tanks and sustainable farming

The tragedy of the commons is a well-known theory by Garrett Hardin, in which people acting individually in their own self-interest exploit a common resource to the detriment of the whole group. It’s a concept that has commonly been used when discussing sustainable development, and continues to be relevant today. Both of our project topics discuss private vs public cost and benefit and how to promote practices that generate a public as well as private good.

The tragedy of the commons is often used when discussing sustainable development and resource use. Image from


Emma’s research journey:

Many things intrigue me about the topic of agriculture – the connection to our cultural identity; the intensity of the land use conflicts between farmers and big coal; the politics of food security; the growth of foreign-owned farms; the plight of remote farming communities; the environmental degradation wreaked by generations of European farming practices – just to name a few.

Narrowing down on a topic for this project has thus been a challenge. A good starting point has been the PhD thesis of my supervisor, Dr Peter Ampt. His thesis looked at the integration of biodiversity conservation and agricultural production in rural landscapes and the complexities of landholder engagement.

From here I started to look at behavioural theory – what promotes and what stifles innovation, how are connections made and sustained between farmers, why do some communities exhibit greater levels of interconnectedness than others, how do farmers respond to new information? In turn, this research led me to the topic of ‘extension’ and the role it can play in shaping farming practice and bridging the gap between emerging science and on-ground application. It was disheartening to find then that there has been a significant withdrawal of government support for extension services in this state of late. The most recent reforms have reportedly reduced the number of extension officers employed by government to a quarter of their former amount.

This led me to question what, if anything, will take the place of these services? While there is growing activity in the private and non-government sectors, this is not filling the gap left by government. And why should anyone – government or non-government – invest in these sorts of services? What public good does our society derive from sustainable farming? These are the research questions that I will seek to answer in my research project, focusing particularly on the evolving role of public and private investment in the sector.


Candice’s research journey

Are rainwater tanks in Sydney actually reducing water main supply? The Building Sustainability Index (BASIX) certification, a legally enforced standard that new developments in New South Wales must achieve, aims to encourage sustainable residential development. In order to develop a property, homes must meet set criteria, including reducing mains-supplied water consumption. After the home has been built, however, there is no control over whether the implemented sustainable measures are maintained or used. As water supply companies such as Sydney Water consider the use of alternative water supplies such as rainwater, greywater and stormwater in their consumption forecast, it’s important to know whether these tools are actually being used.

Rainwater tanks are required by law to be installed, but are they actually being maintained and used? Image of blocked pipes and rainwater tank screen from Sydney Water


Starting my research I note that, following the Sydney Water rainwater tank rebate scheme that ran from 2002-2011, and BASIX, which commenced in 2004, there have been quite a few Sydney Water commissioned/conducted studies based on rainwater tanks. Several studies/surveys are based on the number of homes that have had their rainwater tank plumbed in for toilet and/or laundry use, the number of homes that have taken up the rebate, as well as water efficiency vs. energy efficiency. Whilst there is some data on rainwater tanks that were not in use at the time of the study, there have been no studies specifically on this topic, or looking into the root causes of this problem.

Exploring available relevant peer-reviewed journal articles, I find a particular article which explores the need for rainwater tank maintenance, and can determine that further research and review is well justified, but leads to other questions, such as what are the barriers to effective use of rainwater tanks? How do we increase people’s interest, and what kind of intervention might help improve this issue? Whose responsibility is it anyway? Sydney Water has a history of promoting water efficiency innovations to help their customers, but now that we are not currently in a drought and the threat of insufficient water has faded into the background, will anyone care?


Where are the similarities and differences?

It’s interesting to note that despite researching completely different areas, there are many similarities between our topics. Both examine intervention to promote behavioural changes for sustainable outcomes, involving both private and public benefits. They both ask the question of whose responsibility it is to support change and what the role of government / semi-government institutions should be. Does the broader public benefit justify their support? Additionally, both topics are affected by ‘visibility’ issues, in that they appear on the public radar when hardship such a drought and water scarcity or market fluctuations occur, but outside these times they can be neglected. This might partially explain why support from government / semi-government institutions is forever fluctuating.

There are however some notable differences between the projects. Whilst water saving initiatives such as rainwater tank installations generate immediate benefits, sustainable farming practices often have long lead times before the benefit is realised. Additionally, households can easily visualise and understand the benefit of water saving initiatives, whereas it can be difficult to communicate the benefits of sustainable farming practices to farmers.

Having said that, however, research has shown that the rainwater tank subsidies were only effective up until a particular point, and mandated BASIX requirements has been a far more effective method of getting rainwater tanks installed. The problem is that while people building new properties must implement an alternate water source, there is nothing to enforce its use or maintenance. It may be that similar to farming practices, the focus should be more on educating landholders.

As both alternative water supply and sustainable farming involve public and private benefits, it is difficult to draw the line on where external support should start and end. It is easy to say that every individual should support that which benefits the whole; however in practice our society is much more interested in the private costs and benefits. The question of how to get people to actively participate for negligible personal gain is thus difficult to face.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Alex Baumber says:

    Great to see your projects taking shape Emma and Candice. I liked the way you were able to link your projects together despite their differences. Nice use of images and links too.

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