At a time when the World Economic Forum continues to urge that water be given high-level strategic attention as one of five global issues, it appears our Australian governments are walking away from water reform and its strategic management and reverting to myths and delusions.
Yet for over a quarter of a century, Australia has been at the forefront of progressive water reform from policy to implementation and the evolution of institutional governance. Not any more.
With global freshwater demand projected to exceed current supply by over 40% by 2030, increasing competition and stress on water poses a significant risk to food, energy, and industrial and human security around the world. Australia is not exempt.
Here on the driest inhabited continent with the most climatically variable water supply on the planet, future economic development and ever-increasing competition for water will require ongoing commitment to water reform and sustainable operating principles.
Why did Australia retreat from water reform?
It is perplexing to see the Australian government abolish the National Water Commission in 2015 without any replacement for its strategic, knowledge-based leadership along with critical audit and review functions. At the same time, Australia disbanded essential Council of Australian Governments (Coag) arrangements to manage water planning and implementation across the nation. Both actions crippled Australia’s capacity to build on hard-won water reform progress.
If anything, we should be driving further and faster momentum on Coag’s 2004 National Water Initiative — but why kill further development of the historic 2004 agreement that is recognised worldwide as a highlight achievement of the conservative government under prime minister John Howard and water minister Malcolm Turnbull?
So instead of building on and celebrating the landmark agreement’s achievements, current federal and state governments appear intent on trashing the Howard heritage and are retreating from its leadership legacy on national land and water policy and planning — offering little more than short-term kneejerk reactions; retreating into delusions of the past.
If ever there was a time to rekindle action on our water reform agenda, it is now.
All those with an interest in water management policy saw the National Water Commission’s final assessment of water reform progress go nowhere. It now sits on shelves gathering dust. There appears to be no Coag process to take and act on this important assessment. There appears to be no interest from governments to build a platform for a renewal of water reform in Australia.
As a consequence, we are now in terrible trouble.
Faced with another awful drought and climate change, we need policy and plans that give us water security for all Australians. Instead, we sit without appropriate policy and I see no national strategic plan for the difficult future we face.
Calling governments to account
There are huge and urgent unfinished water reform issues. I was there in the beginning and we saw state water policy and legislation reformed, but all that has stopped. Policy for water recycling and artificial groundwater storage and retrieval have all ground to a halt. The National Water Commission’s core responsibility was to assess progress by state and federal governments under their National Water Initiative commitments. It’s gone and there is an independent statutory agency to audit progress, no cop on the beat and no agency with national responsibility.
I do not see how, given the abolition of the National Water Commission and the Coag standing committee on the environment and water, governments can respond to the current predicament with policy and long-term sets of initiatives to deal with water security in our towns, cities and rural communities? Clamouring for more dams is no solution. Particularly in catchments like the Lachlan, which already sits on the Limit of Sustainable Diversions.
Are we as Australians OK with this?
Progress on water reform has therefore stalled for nearly 10 years. We are now in a crisis again and there is so much unfinished business as outlined in the National Water Commission’s comprehensive review of water reform progress undertaken in 2011. In the same year, the State Infrastructure Strategy of NSW drew attention to the urgent need for water reform, planning and action to deliver water security in regional cities and towns; towns that are facing some awful situations at this very moment.
Strategic leadership is crucial but where is it?
With the loss of the National Water Commission, who will step up to lead the way on future reform directions, develop innovative policy solutions and shine a light on mismanagement, political agenda and possible corruption?
In the past, the commission has provided this leadership. It made an early call on coal seam gas and water issues. It urged governments to apply tried and tested National Water Initiative principles to any decisions on developing northern Australia’s water resources. The commission has also championed Indigenous water engagement and access, bringing together Indigenous leaders and ensuring their voices are heard.
Where will this leadership now come from? How will we recreate a forum for bringing together the various governments, along with the industry, environmental and Indigenous leaders, who have a stake in water reform?
We need national leadership to bring the state agencies together, and to bring competing interests to the same table, so that we can look at the whole system. We need to rigorously audit water accounts, track progress, implement change and drive innovation in policy based on learning.
So who will now provide national oversight of water policy and water management in Australia? Are we afraid to audit our water management outcomes and the health of our rivers? Are we afraid what an audit may show?
We must live in the present and not play in the past but plan for the future.
• John Williams is an honorary professor at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy