Freshwater Thinking: Australia's Water Conservation Schemes

Recent floods aside, Australia is no stranger to water shortages that are damaging to agriculture and the economy. Chris Lo looks at the country's Water for the Future initiative, which aims to re-energise Australia's water policies.

The recent flooding in Queensland, which has forced thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes and devastated towns and cities in the region, stands in stark contrast to Australia's history of water shortages. As arguably the driest inhabited continent in the world, sustained periods of drought have been a major problem for the country since records began in the early 19th century.

The last decade saw some of the most severe drops in rainfall recorded for more than a century. Believed by many scientists to be indicative of the environmental problems brought about by climate change, the droughts of 2006, during which rainfall in South Australia and the vital agricultural region of the Murray-Darling basin was the lowest since 1900. As a result, water conservation has become one of the main priorities for government policymakers.

Introducing water for the future

Australia's Water Act of 2007, along with its amended version in 2008, kicked off a new era of proactive, progressive water legislation in the country, superseding the outdated River Murray Water Act of 1914. The new Water Act created the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) to manage and enforce regulations to protect the region's hard-pressed water resource. The authority was also tasked with preparing a plan for implementing sustainable water practices in the basin.

"The last decade saw some of the most severe drops in rainfall recorded for more than a century."

However, the Australian Government had something broader in mind than tougher legislation. Water for the Future, a long-term strategy for meeting Australia's water goals over the next 10 years, aims to overhaul the country's water infrastructure and pump huge amounts of money into new strategies to make the most of a scarce resource.

Water for the Future is built on four core strategic pillars: tackling climate change, using water wisely, securing water supplies, and supporting healthy rivers. A$12.9bn has been set aside for the task. The money will be distributed for a wide range of uses, from investing in more efficient rural irrigation methods to working on alternative water sources like desalination and storm water harvesting for urban areas.

The Australian Government is committing A$5.8bn to fund rural water efficiency programmes. For example, A$300m is being put towards the On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program to encourage irrigators in the Lachlan and southern connected system of the Murray-Darling basin to modernise irrigation infrastructure and return water to the environment. The money will help irrigators who are installing new, more efficient irrigation systems and techniques. A$100m has already been awarded to delivery partners after the first round of bidding, with up to A$150m available for the second round, which has just begun.     

Rehydrating the Murray-Darling Basin

The Murray-Darling basin, an area covering over  1m km² and spanning the states of South Australia and Victoria in the south, through New South Wales to Queensland in the north, is Australia's most important agricultural region.

This huge area, crisscrossed by the intersecting Murray and Darling rivers, makes up an astonishing 14% of Australia's total land mass and encompasses more than 40% of the nation's farms, producing wool, wheat, dairy produce, cattle and wine among many other products. The health of this region is important not only to the thousands of Australians whose livelihoods depend on it, but also to the Australian economy on a larger scale.

The Australian Government is beginning to take a more proactive environmental approach to improving the health of the basin. The MDBA is responsible for implementing the Basin Plan for the environmental protection of the region. The primary lynchpin of this plan, due to be taken up later in 2011, is the reduction of sustainable diversion limits (SDLs), or the amount of water that can legally be taken from the basin.

"One of the key features of Water for the Future is taking a variable climate into account."

The MDBA has been conducting research to decide on environmental water requirements, which in turn inform the limits set for the many SDL areas that have been designated within the Murray-Darling basin (the basin has been split into 29 surface water SDL areas and 78 groundwater SDL areas).

The MDBA's intention is to revive wetlands and other environmentally important areas through cutting down on the amount of water that is removed from the basin, buying back an extra 3,000-4,000 gigalitres of water for the environment.

One of the key features of Water for the Future is taking a variable climate into account and incorporating flexibility into water management policy. After the Queensland floods of December 2010 confirmed the basin's wettest spring on record, a number of environmental watering programmes have been put on hold as water stores are in good health and natural flows are providing enough water on their own. 

Industry vs. environment

Not all parties are welcoming the proposed plan with open arms, however. The new, tighter SDLs, coupled with state purchases of large amounts of water, looks set to hit the irrigation industry and agriculture, as a statement on the MDBA's website acknowledges.

"The MDBA know that many towns in the basin have grown throughout many years of government policy that encouraged water use and regional development. The dependence of many communities on the economic activity generated by irrigated agriculture means that the effects of reduced diversion limits would be felt well beyond the irrigated agriculture sector. We recognise the relationship between water diversions, individual business decisions, economic prosperity, social wellbeing, and community cohesion is complex and multi-faceted."

The release of the MDBA's Guide to the Basin Plan in October 2010, which sets out the plan's intentions before being adopted later this year, is being pilloried by many of the basin's residents and businesses for its potential socio-economic impact. An MDBA meeting to brief the residents of Griffith, New South Wales saw angry protests by nearly 5,000 people.

Griffith's Mayor Mike Neville stated unequivocally that increased water trading and reduced SDLs would "obliterate" local communities. "This is driving down the business confidence of the basin and mainstream Australia," he told rural newspaper the Weekly Times.

"Larger organisations such as the Victorian Farmers Federation are also taking a stance against the plan."

Larger organisations such as the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) are also taking a stance against the plan. VFF has established a "Fair Go Fund" to help challenge the plan's proposals, and in a statement highlighted the human cost of these changes.

"The guide outlines a number of socio-economic impacts: a 13% to 17% drop in the gross value of irrigated agriculture and a basin-wide employment loss of 800 jobs. The VFF, along with many other organisations, are questioning the validity of these findings. The VFF estimates that there are 132,000 irrigation dependent jobs in the basin. The suggestion that a one third cut in water diversions will result in only 800 job losses is grossly understating the impacts."

With environmental groups equally vociferous in their support for a progressive plan that aims to secure the basin's long-term future and productivity, a sensible balance must be struck between the ecological health of Australia's most important agricultural resource and the economic health of the communities that depend on it.