Water reform for all: a national response to a water emergency

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The following is an introduction to Water reform for all: a national response to a water emergency. Read the full report here.

Australia’s water reform project is failing to fully deliver for all Australians. With the COVID-19 pandemic, long-accepted approaches are being questioned in many areas of national policy. This also applies to water reform.

The Australian bush fires of 2019-20 mean that Australians can no longer ignore the devastating impacts of natural disasters in a dryer and warmer country. The new normal is that it will continue to get hotter and, where most Australians live, it will get drier. Rainfall will become more unpredictable and extreme weather events, such as cyclones, more intense. These conditions will make it even more difficult for water managers who, during repeated and prolonged droughts, are struggling to manage the intensification of Australia’s ‘boom and bust’ water availability.

To cope with Australia’s water emergency, we need to extract less water and ensure our rivers, lakes and wetlands have the water they need at the right time to deliver ecosystem functions and services: water supply for people and livestock; habitat for plants and animals; water quality and flood regulation; nutrient cycling; recreation; and, importantly, access and use of water by all Australians.

Here, we propose six principles to provide a foundation for Water Reform For All: (1) establish shared visions and goals that are community-based and co-produced; (2) develop clarity of roles and responsibilities, including an ability and willingness to revise adaptation plans, actions and visions; (3) understand adaptation as a means to respond to persistent escalation of stresses, including drought, climate change, bush fires and governance failures; (4) invest in advanced technology to monitor, predict and understand changes in water availability in a transforming Australian landscape and grow our shared knowledge as a basis for adaptive water reform; (5) integrate bottom-up community-based adaptation, including from Indigenous communities, into renewed arrangements for water governance; and (6) implement management actions as experiments for ‘learning to do things differently’.

These six water reform principles require national conversations, supported by our collective capacity to imagine alternative futures and apply this to decision-making, along with recognition and inclusion of First Peoples’ values and knowledge of land, water and fire. Without national conversations on water reform and deliberative processes, we expect that Australia’s water emergency will continue and, with climate change, get worse.

This is a future that we can, and must, change for the benefit of all Australians.

Originally published by the Australian National University, 5 May 2020.