The most recent attempt by Australian governments to bring order to the increasingly acrimonious debate about the future of Australia’s water resources is the National Water Initiative (NWI) approved by the Council of Australian Governments in June 2004.
The NWI has been designed as a framework for the management of modified hydrological systems where there are competing social, cultural, economic and environmental priorities. But the NWI is not above the fray. It should be seen as just the latest episode in a long battle between contending groups for the control of the country’s water resources.
Since the release of the NWI, most of the attention has been on its economic elements, but the policy will not be successful unless much more research is done to develop the biophysical knowledge and institutional capacity needed to make Australian water management sustainable. The NWI recognises that sustainability must be the first priority in principle but underestimates the complexity involved in achieving it.
The need to remedy this weakness is a responsibility and opportunity for institutions such as universities which have the resources and skills to assess major policy initiatives with more detachment from short-term economic and political priorities than most other sectors of society.
Recognising this need, the Australian National University recently launched its cross disciplinary, university-wide ANU Water Initiative.
Reaction to the NWI since it was released has focused mainly on its economic significance. This is understandable because it appears dominated by a determination to promote water markets. Most of the official commentary, provided at the time of the release of the NWI, concentrated on its supposed economic benefits and the bulk of the policy itself is taken up by material related to the establishment of water markets.
Similarly, when the Treasurer, Peter Costello, recently requested that the Productivity Commission undertake research to aid implementation of the NWI, his description strongly implied that it is primarily a policy designed to promote increased water trading.
Even a quick reading, however, shows the NWI is fundamentally a policy designed to achieve environmental sustainability. Although much of the NWI focuses on the promotion of economic activity, there are many sections that stress all water bodies, no matter what level of modification is accepted as the appropriate balance between production and the environment, must be maintained in, or restored to, an environmentally sustainable condition as the first priority of management.
Without management to achieve sustainability the resource will eventually be degraded to the point where it is no longer useful to anyone, including those groups whose interests are predominantly economic. That premise is fundamental to the NWI. In practice, however, and as bon mots such as “you can’t be green if you are in the red” suggest, it is not widely accepted in rural Australia that sustainability must be achieved first before provision can be made for extractive demands.
But there is reason to be hopeful as many sections of the NWI make it explicit that environmental sustainability is the primary goal and not merely a desirable objective to be taken into account if and when production systems can afford the cost. When it comes to implementation, the core of the NWI is its requirement that all competing tensions - irrigation development, surface and groundwater interactions, the impact on stream volumes of new forms of dryland agriculture such as farm-forestry, the demands of expanding urban centres, Indigenous claims, tourism and recreation, environmental concerns, and most of all the need to achieve environmental sustainability - are to be resolved by the preparation of comprehensive water plans for all significant water bodies subject to significant modification.
Clause 23, in listing the aims of water plans, states that they are to “complete the return of all currently over-allocated or overused systems to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction”. Clause 48 states that diverters should carry the risk of reduced supply caused by drought, regrowth after bushfire or climate change. Clause 49 explains that until 2014, diverters are to bear the costs of ‘any reduction or less reliable allocation’ that may result from the use of the best available science to determine an environmentally sustainable level of extractions.
Indicating that this is not meant to be merely an aspirational goal, Schedule A of the NWI sets out a demanding time table by which environmental sustainability must be achieved. The same order of priorities is present in a number of other sections of the NWI. This does not mean a return to pre-development conditions but it does require that water systems be in a stable environmental condition, not in a state of continuing decline as is the case in many Australian catchments, according to the National Land and Water Audit and a number of surveys of environmental conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin.
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