On Monday, 7 December 2009, the Australian Financial Review ran
a news piece on the National Water Commission's
report-Australian water reform 2009: Second biennial assessment of
progress in implementation of the National Water Initiative. The
article highlighted the criticisms of state and federal government
agencies over slowness to deliver on a wide range of issues,
including water trading and a more integrated approach to planning.
The actual report was also critical of the lack of consideration of
climate change in planning for both. What is not contained in
either the newspaper piece or the report is any comment about
apparent conflicts in policy around water buybacks by the federal
government and Australia's climate change policies more
broadly. On the one hand, the view is that water in general has
been over allocated and the environment (in particular the Murray
Darling River System) is suffering. On the other hand, farmers and
water managers are collectively being urged to plan for the dire
impacts of climate change.
It would appear that, in these circumstances, a large amount of
money is being spent to acquire water to sustain an ecological
system that is under increasing threat from climate change impacts
that, by and large, we will not be able to arrest. The question
then is one of priority around expenditure and whether it should be
directed toward trying to sustain threatened ecosystems, or instead
on implementing measures to adapt to the changes being experienced.
Far too little is being done around adapting to both the impacts
that we have seen thus far and the ones that are being predicted by
more and more of the climate scientists in our country.
Local communities in these regions are suffering immense
hardship and are slowly dying. This, while debate still rages
around water trades, interstate rivalries, and federal government
initiatives that appear to not be addressing the really important
community elements, and a system that encourages inefficiency. The
National Water Commission report has highlighted a number of issues
that need to be addressed quickly. These are:
1. painting a clearer picture of the move to a more sustainable
level of extraction across the Murray Darling Basin (MDB)
2. embedding flexibility and robustness into water planning and
management to cope with uncertainty associated with climate
3. ensuring that lessons from the MDB are reflected in a
principled and proactive approach to water management
4. remaining focused on outcomes
5. addressing resource and capacity constraints within the
6. clarifying roles and responsibilities.
Of these, it is my view that items 2, 4 and 6 are the critical
ones. Additionally, there needs to be a review with an objective of
sorting out conflicting policy directions across the different
institutions and jurisdictions.
About the Author
Peter Fagan has more than 35 years of experience and is
MWH's Asia Pacific Sustainability Practice Leader. His
extensive experience spans the technical and organisational aspects
of sustainability through public and private sector roles,
including more than 30 years with New South Wales' largest
water provider. Mr Fagan currently serves as a member of the
Technology and Sustainability Standing Committee of the University
of Sydney's Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering.
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