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Navigating From Abundance To Scarcity: Three Decades Of Water Governance Reform In The Murray-darling Basin

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Gary Jones (Bruce, Australia)
Prof. Gary Jones
Chief Executive, eWater Australia
Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra
Visiting Professor, University of New South Wales

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 7: Global challenges for water governance,

1. Introduction

It is exactly one hundred years since the first agreement to share the waters of Australia's Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) between the fledgling basin states. Even reaching that agreement in 1915 took well over four decades of meetings and discord, much of it caught up the maelstrom of negotiations amongst the then British colonies leading up to Australian Federation in 1901. The management of the MDB's water resources has been steeped in a dynamic interplay between dispute and accord, conservatism and innovation, ever since.

For decades after, there seemed no bounds to the economic thirst for water, and governments were eager to meet that demand, fuel it even, through the building of dams, development of new irrigation infrastructure and the, often ill-considered, allocation of new water licences. All of this in a flat, arid landscape where problems with salinity were both inevitable and avoidable, and where hydrologic extremes -- droughts in particular - were seen as rare events to be endured, rather than as part of a naturally variable and unpredictable climate.

It was thus both foreseeable and inevitable that the latter decades of the twentieth century saw serious symptoms of water scarcity and environmental degradation emerge. These have required controversial and expensive adjustments by successive generations of politicians, technocrats and irrigators to bring the MDB back into some level of long term economic and environmental sustainability.

Of course, this story of over-use is not unique to the MDB. Great rivers elsewhere have followed similar paths from water abundance to water scarcity and from ecologically productive river systems to those beset by poor water quality and loss of biodiversity. But there is one important feature about the recent history of water management in the MDB which makes it stand out from almost all other river basins in the world. That is, in how the basin's member states, their politicians, bureaucrats and communities have responded over time to the enormous challenges of over-allocation and environmental decline. At the core of the MDB water experience lies many (mostly) wise decisions, hard fought but ultimately agreed, about necessary water governance reform over the past three decades.


2. Results and Discussion

2.1 Identifying key steps in the MDB water governance reform journey:

* Building the political and public commitment needed to act -- to address major problems, identify interests and resolve conflicts

* Acquisition and sharing of data and knowledge of past and current conditions and for planning and analysing future scenarios - to ensure decisions were evidence-based and grounded in 'best-available' science

* Strategic pathways for reform - including new policies, legislation, strategies and plans, coordinated at National and State levels as necessary

* Development of instruments and tools required for policy implementation - including new economic, legal and regulatory approaches for delivering 'on-ground' outcomes (eg. water rights & trading, salinity cap and trade schemes, environmental water rights)

* Government institutions realigned and strengthened, obtaining new powers as required, with greater cross-organisation cooperation, trans-disciplinary technical collaboration and new skills developed

* Monitoring and reporting of policy implementation and on-ground works: to ensure plans were enacted, and adjustments could be made in an adaptive management framework, that agencies were held accountable and, ultimately, that the expected benefits are realised


2.2 Analysis of the role of critical events and other influencing factors:

* Extreme climate events especially drought: most notably in 1967 and 1983, and then again more seriously through the first decade of the new century - these revealed underlying water supply and environmental stresses and were key drivers of policy reform

* Environmental catastrophes: notably land and water salinisation, toxic algal blooms, sedimentation, and ecological biodiversity losses -- these helped build public awareness and galvanise the case for change in the minds of politicians

* Political and organisational leadership: the critical role of leaders from the public and private sector who built State and National agreement and drove broad stakeholder consensus for reform plans and actions,

* National-State deliberations and processes at the river-basin level -- in particular between politicians and senior officials, preceding and leading to major agreements and change

* Need for a better cooperation: across government agencies, with research and technical organisations, and with key private industries (eg. irrigation, hydro-power)

* Major financial investment: from the national government which catalysed and funded reform plans, developments and programs

* Adoption of a holistic approach --to management and planning, including integrated analysis and decision-making at the river catchment/basin scale, and the development and sharing of the latest research knowledge, models, tools and data

3. Conclusions

Water governance reform in the MDB is a journey still in progress. But, a long and largely coordinated series of governance reform changes have been agreed and implemented to deal with both policy- and climate-induced water scarcity. Some, such as the salinity management scheme initiated in the 1980's and water markets & trading in the late 1990's have proven their worth already. Others such as conjunctive surface and groundwater use and environmental water recovery are yet to fully reap the benefits of more recent policy reforms.

Throughout all this, the role of Federal-State dialogue and cooperative decision-making has been paramount to success, all the more so in Australia's federal system where the constitutional rights to manage water lie with the states, but where the primary ability to fund, and hence drive, major water governance reform programs lies with the Federal government.

2011 IWRA - International Water Resources Association - - Admin