The importance of environmental water: is the national water initiative up to the job?

Apr 9, 2021

Momentous decisions are needed on water policy to ensure that life in Australia is sustainable when climate change is advancing and the natural environment is deteriorating rapidly. Is the National Water Initiative (NWI) capable of reform to ensure a sustainable future? 

A profusion of books on “Collapse” is being published, the writers are scientists, philosophers, historians and others who reflect anxiety that humanity is making little progress in addressing the current crises.

Most of this analysis centres on the life support systems of a stable climate and ecological services, but in this drying climate, water lurks mainly below the surface as a key life support system. Below groundwater use in Australia is supposedly guided by a legion of laws and regulations embodied in the National Water Initiative.

However few nations, including the economically advanced, are controlling water use sustainably. In the US the level of the vast Ogallala aquifer, which lies beneath eight US states, falls by nearly 1 metre a year. The question is whether the NWI can control similar unsustainable use. It is doubtful and the concerns are presented here.

The NWI agreement states that governments have a responsibility to ensure that water is allocated and used to achieve socially and economically beneficial outcomes in a manner that is environmentally sustainable and in the objectives state:

  • statutory provision for environmental and other public benefit outcomes,
    and improved environmental management practices;
  • complete the return of all currently over-allocated or overused systems to
    environmentally-sustainable levels of extraction;

The NWI did not establish a principle of priority for users, for example human need, nor did it define what is understood by sustainability.

In 2000 the Australian Government requested the Productivity Commission to undertake its second triennial assessment of jurisdictions’ progress towards achieving the objectives and outcomes of the NWI, and providing practical advice on future national water reform directions. A comprehensive Draft Report is available here.

The Productivity Commission is the Australian Government’s independent research and advisory body on a range of economic, social and environmental issues affecting the welfare of Australians. Its role expressed most simply, is to help governments make better policies in the long-term interest of the Australian community.

The Draft Report will increase the anxiety over its lack of understanding of both sustainability and progressive climate change.

The NWI and Sustainability

It is of concern that the Report says “The NWI continued a reform agenda focused on establishing the environment as a legitimate water user”, as though its legitimacy was still in question after 17 years. That governments still question this legitimacy is demonstrated by their actions.

Richard Beasley, former senior counsel assisting the Murray-Darling Royal Commission, recently revealed that the Authority received a recommendation of 4-7 thousand billion litres of water for environmental needs to sustain the integrity of the river system on the basis of CSIRO modelling for the impacts of climate change. Apparently, the CSIRO reduced this to 2.7 under
direction.

Now we know that there has been a 39% fall in river inflows in the Basin over the last 20 years compared to the long-term average flows, despite the Basin Plan being adopted in 2012 as noted by the Wentworth Group.

Similar scenarios are likely in many other river systems around Australia.

In the Draft Report, there are frequent mentions of “maintaining a balance” between water users. As climate change bites, the environment and its services need more water to survive. Their necessary share of the total water available will need to increase. Yet the Draft Report states “the environment will have to adapt to lower water”.

Environmental water must be prioritized, otherwise, we will reach a tipping point where whole regional environmental systems can collapse.

Currently, one has the impression that the government, the states and the Productivity Commission regard water as a “given” for all possible usage, whereas water must be prioritised as a life support system for humans and the natural environment.

Government transgressions into environmental water is characterised by ad hoc decisions for political purposes which favour users with economic benefit instead of environmental need. One such recent decision is the cancelling of water buybacks
which are vital to restoring flows to Australia’s most important river system.

The recent approval of Queensland’s Olive Downs coal mine despite the department’s concerns about waterways is a further example of sacrifice of an important water system for jobs and a forthcoming election. The mine will leave huge mine pits, called “voids” on the Isaac River floodplain. The Queensland government simply does not understand or disregard the role of floodplains as an ecological part of the healthy riverine function.

Climate Change Implications

The Federal Government chooses not to recognise that current efforts to mitigate greenhouse emissions are very likely to be insufficient to keep the world’s temperature rise below 1.5 and indeed below 2 degrees is now very doubtful. See here.

For Australia, this would bring confronting changes with more severe droughts and catastrophic fires and human inability to tolerate heat. However, taking into account the mitigation inactivity of governments, much scientific opinion recognises that a 3-degree rise is likely this century.

The Draft Report’s response to these likely scenarios is very disappointing. The failure of the NWI and the Productivity Commission to confront the problem with climate modelling and precautionary decisions is evident.

“A renewed NWI needs to identify the key issues that water management will need to deal with over the next 10 to 20 years to ensure proper stewardship of Australia’s water resources. These will be dominated by the effects of climate change, coupled with the needs of a growing population”.

The vision and preparedness on climate change should be for this century and as for population how does the government’s agenda for growth fit with expected climate change impacts on water? Climate change appears to be the major factor affecting river flows in all nations.

A Way Forward?

A change in the water governance system is urgently needed if Australia is to remain environmentally sustainable.

The Institute for Water Futures ANU believes the final report should recommend an Independent Statutory Authority, properly resourced, that would be responsible for strategic leadership and to support Australian governments to drive national water reform under a refreshed NWI.

It would be logical to expand this concept to embrace biodiversity and climate change. Presently we have a situation whereby the experts from these disciplines make submissions to a Productivity Commission whose recognised expertise is not wide enough to formulate solutions. This analysis should be much more relevant if encompassed in a Sustainability Commission of these experts.

The obstacles are formidable. The government would have to relinquish its ability to meddle with the regulations for political gain. The water resources of the Basin are owned by each of four States and a Territory. The Commonwealth has no clear constitutional authority to constrain extraction directly. A Statutory Authority has to be framed to overcome these rights not only in the Murray Darling Basin but for water resources around Australia.

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