Challenges, successes and priorities in Australia's water management
Over the past decade, Australia’s Commonwealth Government has prioritised investment in water management, research, infrastructure and policy development, which continues to the present day.
While state Governments, under the Australian Constitution, have responsibility for land and water— and the Commonwealth’s work often tends to fly under the radar—the Commonwealth plays an important role in providing coordination across state borders, facilitating national standards for water quality, investing in water and providing national leadership in the water space.
Mr Richard McLoughlin, Assistant Secretary for Water Resources with the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, was the guest speaker at UNSW-GWI’s latest seminar on 8 June, providing insight into the breadth and scale of the Australian Government’s activities in water, and touching on its upcoming priorities.
Mr McLoughlin stated that while Australia faces multiple challenges with its water resources, including the massive disconnect between the location of water versus the location of people, it is seen as a global leader in water management thanks to its science-driven policy, innovative water markets and forward planning – much of which came in response to a looming disaster.
“In the early 2000s, Australia experienced a 10 year drought. The combination of impending economic and environmental disaster and ensuring the economic stability of the agricultural industry and communities was a catalyst for much of Australia’s major water reform in the first decade of this century to manage our water resources effectively,” said McLoughlin.
In 2004, the National Water Initiative was introduced—a commitment by governments to increase the efficiency of Australia's water use and management and ensure enough water for the environment by addressing over-allocation issues. A particularly important example of the National Water Initiative in practice is through implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and allowing for the development of water markets where appropriate in other major water using regions in Australia.
McLoughlin says that often there is the perception that Australia has privatised its water, when in actual fact that is not the case. However, one of the reasons that Australia’s water markets are so successful is the fact that once sufficient water has been allocated for the environment, Governments are able to step back a bit and let the market decide where the water goes; that is, allowing water to be transferred to its highest value use.
“We’re not the only country in the world that does water markets but we’ve got the most experience and we’ve probably got the most efficient water markets in the world,” said McLoughlin.
Over the past decade, the Commonwealth has also invested significant resources into the capping of free-flowing bores in the Great Artesian Basin, groundwater research and assessments, condition assessments of the Lake Eyre Basin, completing a 15-year update to Australia’s water quality standards, and many other initiatives including international engagement with major regional partners and the United Nations.
The most recent commitment has been $2.5 billion for the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund and National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility, targeting major water infrastructure projects over $100 million.
However, when it comes to planning for the future, the Commonwealth has sustainability top of mind, already using sophisticated climate change modelling to predict how much water will be available in 2030.
“Sometimes it’s a real shock for people that that level of science is already being looked at, but we understand this knowledge is critical for sound decision-making on infrastructure investment,” said McLoughlin.
Also thinking long-term, McLoughlin reiterated that the World Economic Forum has flagged water crises in its top 5 global risks for nearly a decade now. With agriculture globally using about 80% of the managed freshwater, but urbanisation increasing, cities may eventually become a higher priority for water allocation. This may then mean that the ability to irrigate decreases at a time when, by 2050, our global population will need about 30% more food.
“If we don’t get more efficient with water use, particularly in agriculture, over the next 20 years then we will potentially see, on current predictions, serious food shortages going on all over the place,” says McLoughlin.
“This of course has a big impact on global stability and all that comes with serious economic disruption.”
McLoughlin sees this being one of the most complex and urgent challenges for many nations including Australia to prepare for over the coming decades, and encourages research institutions such as UNSW-GWI to continue their multi-disciplinary focus, particularly when it comes to socio-economic research on water.
“It’s not too hard to find people who can do physical water assessments, hydrology, environmental assessments, and those sorts of things—it’s the socio-economic assessments of changes to water management where we need to further develop our expertise."