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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
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: www.pc.gov.au
Quentin Grafton is the director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the theconversation.com/au
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.