Australia: Reducing land based marine pollution by IWRM approach (#238)

Activities such as horticulture and tourism around the Great Barrier Reef create sediment, nutrient and pesticide runoff, placing increased pressure on the ecosystem. The World Wildlife Fund has taken action, predominantly by raising awareness. The key lesson is how a carefully orchestrated campaign can convince decision-makers of the importance of integrated river basin management as a means of reducing land-based marine pollution.


Thirty-four sub-basins form the basin of the Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site. These cover an area of 370,000 km2 and extend from the tip of Cape York, south to the Mary River near Hervey Bay. The region embraces a huge range of different habitats, from coral to mangroves, salt marsh communities to sea grass meadows and lagoons. Sugarcane is the major crop grown along the low-lying and ecologically sensitive areas adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef.

Horticulture is growing rapidly along the northern coastline, and also aquaculture is a fast-developing industry. The Reef is also a tourism ‘hotspot’ such that many people living in the coastal towns and cities rely on the Reef for their daily income. 

All these activities together create a sediment, nutrient and pesticide runoff that threatens the 200 inshore reefs. 28 mil. tons of sediment flow into the Reef on average every year. About 60-80% of freshwater coastal wetlands in the Queensland Wet Tropics have now been lost due to sugarcane growing and other coastal development, which has effectively removed the natural filtration mechanism for water flowing to the Reef. Pesticides from sugarcane are contaminating inshore sea grass meadows. 

Action taken

The World Wildlife Fund’s main roles have been to raise awareness of the threat to the inshore reefs and sea grass communities of the Great Barrier Reef from land-based pollution, and to be a catalyst for political action and policy reform.

Through combined information provision, awareness raising and active lobbying, WWF has been successful in gaining substantial commitments from the national and Queensland state governments for the development of a Reef Water Quality Protection Plan. 

Lessons learned

  • A combination of approaches accelerates the move to integrated river basin management, e.g. awareness-raising campaigns, lobbying decision-makers and key stakeholders, and carefully researched information and irrefutable evidence of impacts.
  • By running a number of initiatives at the same time, WWF and its partners were not forced to rely on a single process.
  • Forging strong links with the scientific community is an essential component, e.g. the sugarcane industry had previously run a campaign questioning the science underlying claims that sugarcane production was having adverse impacts on the Great Barrier Reef system.
  • There can be ‘win-win’ outcomes when conservation groups form partnerships with industries that are being impacted by land-based pollution e.g. in the case of the Great Barrier Reef, this involved the tourism and commercial and recreational fishing industries.

Importance of the case for IWRM

This case demonstrates how a carefully orchestrated campaign can convincedecision-makers of the importance of integrated river basin management as ameans of reducing land-based marine pollution. 

Photo credit: Bram Souffreau