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A qualitative systems methodological approach to environmental problems: The case of integrated catchment management in Western Australia

Hutchinson, W E (1996) A qualitative systems methodological approach to environmental problems: The case of integrated catchment management in Western Australia. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Environmental problems are generally regarded as being systemic in nature, yet few systemic management techniques are used in practice. This thesis reports on the application of qualitative, systems methodologies to these complex environmental problems, using integrated catchment management (ICM) in Western Australia as a case study. The major objectives are threefold: firstly, to show that the creative use of systems methodologies can produce useful outcomes when investigating coercive situations consisting of a complicated mix of social, economic, legal, engineering, and environmental factors; secondly, to dynamically develop a methodology, which suits the problem situation, by reflectively amending existing systems methodologies; and thirdly, to build feasible solutions for the specific problem of ICM in Western Australia (WA).

In 1988, ICM was initiated in WA as an holistic approach to catchment management in an attempt to harness the community and institutions to further the ends of sustainable development. After initial success in setting up some functioning catchment coordinating groups, the concept now appears to have developed a number of problems with its credibility and management. The ICM process has become fragmented with numerous participants, both institutional and individual, developing their own agendas and perspectives of the problem. Because of this organisational environment and the involved economic, social, and ecological features of ICM, it is studied in this investigation as a complex, coercive systemic problem.

The foundation of this research is a meta-methodology called Total Systems Intervention (TSI), which has as its basis the principles of critical systems theory. The position taken is that the research methodology should conform to the needs of the problem rather than the investigation conforming to the needs of a methodology. A methodology is developed, using the basic tenets of TSI, to meet the needs of investigating ICM in WA. It uses components from Critical Systems Heuristics, Soft Systems Methodology, Viable Systems Diagnosis, and System Dynamics. The research methodology developed provides outputs which supply holistic, conceptual foundations for developing plans for critical tasks, organisational structures, and implementable policies for ICM.

At the first stage of this study, data was collected from 40 interviewees representing different values, interests, and perspectives. They were asked their opinions about the existing problems with ICM, and the features of an ideal, functional ICM system. This information is then used to build a systemic picture of ICM requirements. At the next stage, a definition of the desired system is developed and from this conceptual models of the critical tasks and appropriate organisational structures are built. These models provide a series of conceptual, management solutions for ICM in Western Australia by supplying a design framework at the organisational and process levels.

The conceptual models developed show that the major perceived needs for ICM to succeed are in the areas of: social and institutional change, the development of acceptance of ICM with landowners, effective environmental management, and the maintenance of economic productivity. Each of these is examined in detail. A number of models at the state and catchment levels are offered to point to deficiencies in the control, coordinating, and auditing roles within the state system. Finally, a number of hard systems models are produced to show some of the implementation problems ICM might have, and also, how these models might be used to develop policy.

The research shows that systems methodologies can be creatively used to dynamically build a methodology suited to a particular complex/coercive, environmental management problem. These qualitative methodologies produce meaningful and useful output, and are well suited to the problem definition stage of contentious, environmental problems.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Marinova, Dora
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