World Water Day

Australia has been on a profound journey of water reform over the past 15-20 years. Today, March 22, being World Water Day 2011, is an appropriate occasion to reflect on the gains in smart water use and integrated water management that Australia has made since this journey began in the early 1990s.  The following is a selected list of some of those key steps along the way:

Policy & Legislation – COAG Water Reform Agreement 1994 and National Water Initiative 2004, taken together, have set out requirements for (in no particular order): economic and legal reforms to drive allocative efficiency; statutory water sharing plans for river basins/catchments; institutional reform; provisions of water for the environment; urban and rural demand management, and recycling and reuse. The Federal (Commonwealth) Water Act 2007 sets required policy actions in law, especially for the Murray Darling Basin. ‘Enabling’ water management legislation has been agreed in all states and territories ensuring a nationally consistent approach, at least at the broad policy level.

Institutions and Governance – mandatory separation of urban wholesale (bulk supply) and retail (end-user) water supply functions; establishment of semi-independent rural water authorities and irrigation areas (mostly as public companies, though with some of the latter being set up as private irrigator-owned companies); establishment of catchment and/or river basin management authorities to provide holistic oversight of land and water management; corporatisation of public (mostly municipal) water supply & drainage utilities.

Legal and Economic instruments – ‘unbundling’ of water title from land title; further unbundling of water title to grant separate water entitlement, use and delivery (and in some cases drainage) rights; irrigators given tradeable water entitlement; same legal and tradeable title provided to environmental water; water trading and water markets enabled (in selected basins/regions); true cost water pricing and independently regulated ‘price path’ for monopoly water suppliers; regional and national water accounting

Management and planning innovations  – Murray-Darling Basin cap on water extraction; Murray-Darling Basin salinity management strategy (salt cap and pollution offset scheme); conjunctive surface and groundwater management; water sensitive urban design widely adopted, environmental water managers created, integrated catchment management nationally , risk-based national water quality management strategy

Funding and Investment – $12.9 billion dollar Federal Government ‘Water for the Future ‘ program (not bad for a country of only 23 million people), billions of dollars in new urban water supply and treatment infrastructure, $500 million ‘Living Murray’ environmental water fund, and numerous smaller, though regionally significant, state water investment funds.

Public awareness and participation – very high levels of public awareness of water scarcity and support for most water savings measures including household water use restrictions; significant levels of public participation at a local and regional (non-urban) level in water and catchment lands management; recent growth of public (non-government) environmental water trusts; numerous wetland protection and river restoration community groups; several school-and community-based water awareness programs, WaterWatch being amongst the best known (Note: notwithstanding the good levels of public involvement, most ‘power’ over water still sits largely with governments and their agencies)

Science, engineering and technological innovation: new web-based national water data, information and accounting system; new national hydrological modelling system, break-through irrigation open-channel supply technology; new approaches to ecological engineering of floodplain forests and wetlands; desalination; water grids; aquifer storage and reuse; biofilters and wetland treatment of stormwater.

I apologise that this is, necessarily, a rather superficial and incomplete summary.  However, by any international benchmarks, I think it can be seen that Australia has made significant in-roads towards reaching the elusive goal of ecologically sustainable, efficient, equitable and integrated water management. 

Has Australia made mistakes in its water reform journey? Could we have done better? Does much remain to be done to reach this ultimate goal?

The answer would certainly be ‘yes’ to each of these questions, and I would need many blogs just to begin to respond to them. For now, it might be enough to remind regular readers of my previous posts on the ‘train-wreck’ that is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan development process.  And one can’t but help wonder if we did not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ in transforming the former MDB Commission, a state and federal government collaborative management entity, into a Federal authority. Or whether or not a Federal water act that puts the environment before all other users, as laudable as that might be, was politically astute or publicly tenable.

On World Water Day, I like to think that Australia’s water reform journey – a journey from abundance to scarcity – is a story the rest of the world might want to hear about!  It is my ambition to keep telling that story, warts and all, to whomever is interested enough to read about it!

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