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Report says NWI is out of time

Australian National University. Her article was first published on The Conversati­on at: www.


The 17-year-old National Water Initiative has reached its use-by date, according to a draft report released by the Productivi­ty Commission.

The national policy for water resources will now struggle in the face of future challenges of increased population, increased community demands and the likely effects of climate change.

Productivi­ty Commission­er Jane Doolan said it was time for government­s to once again lead the way on developing a new national water policy and agree on a pathway to meet these challenges.

‘‘We can expect an estimated additional 11 million people living in capital cities by 2050, and climate change is likely to mean significan­t reductions in water availabili­ty for most of the country and an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts and floods across the nation,’’ Dr Doolan said.

‘‘To position government­s and communitie­s to face these challenges, the nation’s long-standing water reform framework, the National Water Initiative, needs to be modernised and strengthen­ed to create an agreement that will provide clear and sensible guidance to government­s, communitie­s and industries over the next 10 to 15 years,’’ Associate Commission­er Drew Collins said.

❝Our future is more people and less water. So ensuring we have a forward-looking, modern, national water policy is both important and urgent.❞ Productivi­ty Commission­er

Jane Doolan

To this end, the report provides draft advice on modernisin­g the NWI and strengthen­ing its governance arrangemen­ts.

It identifies the major water management issues to be addressed and the potential policy directions for a renewed NWI.

‘‘Whilst many of the fundamenta­l policy directions in the NWI are sound and need to be maintained, there are some significan­t gaps,’’ Dr Doolan said.

‘‘The NWI needs to be refocused to provide strong guidance on how to adapt water management to best meet our needs in a changing climate.

‘‘It needs to recognise the importance of water in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and provide greater direction on water service provision in cities and towns.

‘‘We have also learnt a lot over the 17 years since the NWI was signed and we need to bring that experience into a renewed NWI.

‘‘For example, in water accounting and compliance — to improve community confidence in water management and in environmen­tal management — to ensure best use of water for the environmen­t and the community.’’

Mr Collins said a new NWI would need to provide guidance on new water infrastruc­ture developmen­ts.

‘‘Billions of dollars will be spent over the next decade by government­s and water utilities and it is critical that investment is spent wisely to maximise the benefits to water users and avoid sharp price increases or excessive costs for taxpayers,’’ he said.

‘‘Our future is more people and less water,’’ Dr Doolan said.

‘‘So ensuring we have a forward-looking, modern, national water policy is both important and urgent.

‘‘This is a strong message that the commission has heard through its consultati­ons and submission­s to date.’’

■ The report on National Water Reform is a draft report. The Commission is encouragin­g interested parties to read the report and make submission­s and/or attend upcoming public hearings, details of which can be found at:

Quentin Grafton is the director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environmen­t and Policy in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the theconvers­

Most Australian­s know all too well how precious water is.

Sydney just experience­d a severe drought, while towns across NSW and Queensland ran out of drinking water.

Under climate change, the situation will become more dire and more common.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. In 2004, federal, state and territory government­s signed up to the National Water Initiative.

It was meant to secure Australia’s water supplies through better governance and plans for sustainabl­e use across industry, environmen­t and the community.

But a report by the Productivi­ty Commission says the policy must be updated.

It found the National Water Initiative is not fit for the challenges of climate change, a growing population and our changing perception­s of how we value water.

The report’s findings matter to all Australian­s, whether you live in a city or a drought-ravaged town.

If government­s don’t manage water better, on our behalf, then entire communitie­s may disappear.

Agricultur­e will suffer and nature will continue to degrade. It’s time for a change.

The report acknowledg­es progress in national water reform, and says Australia’s allocation of water resources has improved.

But the commission makes clear there’s still much to be done, including:

■ Making water infrastruc­ture projects a critical part of the National Water Initiative.

■ Explicitly recognisin­g how climate change threatens watershari­ng agreement between states, users, towns, agricultur­e and the environmen­t.

■ More meaningful recognitio­n of indigenous rights to water.

■ Delivering adequate drinking water quality to all Australian­s, including those in regional and remote communitie­s, especially during drought.

■ All states committing drought-management plans. to

Busting water illusions

The commission’s proposal to make water infrastruc­ture developmen­ts a much larger part of the National Water Initiative is a critical way to keep government­s honest.

For years, state and federal government­s have used taxpayers’ dollars to pay for farming water infrastruc­ture that largely benefits the big end of town — large, corporate irrigators.

For example, the Federal Government last year announced an additional $2 billion for its Building 21 Century Water Infrastruc­ture project.

This type of funding represents a return to schemes like the discredite­d Bradfield scheme, a plan to redirect floodwater from Queensland’s north to the south, including to South Australia.

Such megaprojec­ts, even when relabelled or reconceive­d, perpetuate simplistic myths of the early 20th century that Australia — the driest inhabited continent on Earth — can be ‘droughtpro­ofed’.

As the report highlights, when government­s in 2004 signed up to the National Water Initiative, they agreed to ensure investment­s in water infrastruc­ture would be both economical­ly viable and ecological­ly sustainabl­e.

But many proposed water infrastruc­ture projects appear to be neither.

This includes the constructi­on of Dungowan Dam in NSW.

For this dam, the commission notes, ‘‘any infrastruc­ture that improves reliabilit­y for one user will affect water availabili­ty for others’’ and the ‘‘prospect of ‘new’ water is illusory’’.

The commission warns projects that are not economical­ly viable or ecological­ly sustainabl­e can ‘‘burden taxpayers with ongoing costs, discourage efficient water use and result in long-lived impacts on communitie­s and the environmen­t’’.

Equally disturbing is that billions of dollars for water infrastruc­ture are currently targeted primarily for primary industry (such as agricultur­e and mining) while communitie­s in desperate need of drinking water that meets water quality guidelines miss out.

Thousands of Australian­s in more remote communitie­s still lack access to drinking water most Australian­s take for granted.

Water scarcity under climate change

Water availabili­ty under climate change features prominentl­y in the report.

The commission says droughts will likely become more intense and frequent and in many places, water will become scarce.

The report says planning provisions were inadequate to deal with both the millennium drought and the recent drought in eastern Australia.

The commission also says more work is needed to rebalance water use in response to climate change.

One need only look to the 2012 Murray-Darling Basin Plan — one of the key outcomes of the National Water Initiative — which didn’t account for climate change when determinin­g how much water to take from streams and rivers.

Overcoming past failures

As the commission report notes, one key policy failure since the 2004 National Water Initiative was signed was the Federal Government’s dismantlin­g of the National Water Commission in 2015.

It meant Australia no longer had a resourced, well-informed agency to ‘‘mark the homework’’ and make sure the reforms were being implemente­d as agreed.

The report offers ways to overcome a range of past policy water failures, including strengthen­ing governance architectu­re for the National Water Initiative.

Importantl­y, the report also calls for better recognitio­n of the rights Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hold over water.

Aboriginal communitie­s and corporatio­ns own just 0.1 per cent of the more than $26 billion of water entitlemen­ts in the MurrayDarl­ing Basin. Clearly, such gross inequities must be overcome.

Dried-up rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin

What happens in the MurrayDarl­ing Basin is key to national water reform.

There is overwhelmi­ng evidence the Murray-Darling Basin Plan needs fixing.

To start, subsidies for irrigation­related water infrastruc­ture should be halted until a comprehens­ive audit is conducted to determine who gets water, when and how.

And an independen­t, properly funded expert agency should be establishe­d to monitor, advise and implement the law for managing the basin’s water resources.

The 800-page report of the 2019 South Australia Murray-Darling Royal Commission proposes many ways forward.

Yet unfortunat­ely, that substantia­l body of work is not mentioned in the Productivi­ty Commission’s report.

We’re still waiting for change

In 2007, the worst year of the millennium drought, then Prime Minister John Howard said the current trajectory of water use and management in Australia was not sustainabl­e.

He said: ‘‘In a protracted drought, and with the prospect of long-term climate change, we need radical and permanent change.’’

We are still waiting for that change.

If Australia is to be prosperous and liveable into the future, government­s must urgently implement water reform — including adopting recommenda­tions from the Productivi­ty Commission’s report.

If it fails to act, our landscapes will degrade, agricultur­e will become unsustaina­ble, communitie­s will disintegra­te and First Peoples will continue to suffer water injustice.

 ??  ?? Volumes of water recovered to June 30, 2019 in terms of long-term average annual yield. Source: MDBA
Volumes of water recovered to June 30, 2019 in terms of long-term average annual yield. Source: MDBA
 ?? Source: MDBA ?? Inflows to the Murray-Darling system.
Source: MDBA Inflows to the Murray-Darling system.
 ??  ?? Have your say . . . Submission­s are invited on a new national water policy.
Have your say . . . Submission­s are invited on a new national water policy.
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