Turning the tide of water reform

Time to reignite Australia’s stagnant policy debate

John Williams

Government and governance, Science and technology, Food & water | Australia

8 February 2017

After more than two years of deafening silence from government on water reform policy, it’s time to turn the tide and reinvigorate plans to secure Australia’s water future, John Williams writes.

It is now over two years since the Chair of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) presented to the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, the National Water Commission’s fourth and final assessment of the 2004 National Water Initiative (NWI). This comprehensive independent analysis urged the Prime Minister to take the lead and drive the political process to initiate the next generation of water reform and delivered a 10-point blueprint for that policy reform. It is a policy fundamentally important to the Australian people who dwell in the driest continent with the highest climatic variability on the planet and which is now seen as the most vulnerable to climate change.

In these last two years, we have heard nothing and seen no action. There has been a policy silence on water reform from Federal and state governments. Absolutely nothing has happened to take matters forward. In fact, there is mounting evidence of not just policy stagnation but rather policy retreat.

In 2013, the COAG Standing Council on Environment and Water, the peak body for coordinated government action on water reform, was disbanded without replacement. Subsequently, in 2014 a decision was taken to abolish the National Water Commission, which took effect the following year.

Despite government silence since at least 2012, many voices from diverse quarters have expressed their dismay and concern, and have offered ways forward for the next generation of water policy reform and its implementation.

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The Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering (ATSE) prepared a 2014 Position Statement which called on the governments of Australia to develop and commit to a renewed, long-term national water reform agenda. ATSE proposed a way forward to “implement new arrangements for collaboration among all governments to develop and set the agendas for national water reform.” ATSE further called for the implementation of “new arrangements for the ongoing leadership, assessment and evaluation of reform progress.”

Meanwhile, the Australian Water Association published a 2014 State of the Water Sector Report with Deloitte that highlighted the readiness of the sector for renewed water reform to improve the operational efficiency of the water sector, drive investment in asset maintenance, upgrades and augmentation, while clarifying governance of the sector. The report also identified the sector’s preparedness to tackle the emerging issue of climate change.

The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists captured the mood when they wrote that “It appears our Australian governments are walking away from strategic water reform at the very time when we should be preparing for the next inevitable drought.” In their detailed 2014 statement, they outlined a way forward arguing that water reform must be treated as an ongoing effort rather than a once-off 10-year program. Essential to their plan was the establishment of “an independent organisation with sufficient skills and funding to drive the remaining reforms, including the authority to recommend financial sanctions for unsatisfactory performance and to publish regular, fearless reports of progress.”

In addition to voices in the water industry and from environmental advocates calling for renewed energy and activity to drive the next generation of water reform, there has been a maturing academic literature which has reviewed the learnings of 10 years of water reform (e.g. Carmody et al., 2016; Holley and Sinclair, 2016) and has set down a convincing case for an urgent rekindling of efforts toward a next generation of water reform.

Their work, while strongly endorsing the NWI principles and recognising that Australia has come a long way in water management under the NWI, claims that the design and implementation of this national reform do not appear sufficient to meet future water challenges. Their work concludes that there are cracks developing in some of the fundamental legal assumptions of current policy on water property rights requiring important revision and further reform to guarantee water security for all sectors of the community.

Carmody and the team provide a well-argued 10-point plan for a future water reform agenda which should be considered and addressed by governments, civil society and industries if we are to achieve a sustainable water future for Australia.

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It is abundantly clear that water policy reform has stopped in Australia.

Governments appear to be asleep at the wheel while we face major emerging issues that will determine how well we manage our scarce water resources into the future. Water security is critical to all of life and having a modern progressive policy platform that manages it with economic efficiency and with resilience against the shocks of droughts and floods under a changing climate is a cardinal foundation for us all.

The changing climate will have a major impact on both the availability of and demand for water across Australia. As the Wentworth Group argued, climate change “needs to be brought to the forefront of water planning and water use decisions so that water users, governments and investors can make long-term informed decisions on investments and adaptation options.”

The mining and petroleum industries, carbon sequestration methods and all energy generators must sit within new national water reforms so that water is consistently managed across all sectors. The nexus or interplay of food, water, energy and the environment are clearly emerging issues that need to be addressed in their entirety by progressive policy reform. Currently, they are not.

Over many years our water industry has generated the imaginative leadership, robust policy, operational principles and frameworks that have underpinned water reform progress to date. Therefore, I challenge us all not to sit on our hands and see our rich achievement in water reform evaporate.

Come on. Australians deserve better.

We have the knowledge and experience in our industry and institutions. What we need now is for our politicians to show courage and leadership. I urge all Australian governments to take the long view and guarantee our water security in this new climate regime by recommitting to water reform through a new, broader set of national agreements.

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