Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth and has some of its most highly variable rainfall and runoff. Successfully managing our waters and catchments is critical for human flourishing, agricultural productivity, environmental sustainability, regional development, successful industry, reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and adapting to a changing climate. It is a challenge which will determine Australia’s future prosperity and the survival of many iconic Australian ecosystems.
The unfinished business of water reform
More than 35 years of extensive and expensive (over $13 billion in the Murray–Darling Basin alone) policy reform effort has delivered only qualified successes. While productivity of water use has increased and water has been recovered for the environment, much remains to be done.
Australia continues to struggle with the good decision-making and the long-term collective action required for effective water and catchment management. Without effective approaches to decision-making, water allocation decisions risk becoming mired in zero-sum competitions for what is likely to be a diminishing resource in some parts of Australia.
Polarisation and stagnation
The water policy space is riven by deep division and polarisation, loaded with weaponised data and rife with duelling certitudes. Water policy processes are often characterised by rancorous debates that overlook the considerable hydrological, ecological, cultural, economic, historical, political and social complexities of catchment and water management in Australia.
Recent La Niña conditions have provided some reprieve from these debates, with mean storages across much of the country near capacity, and Murray–Darling flows into South Australia setting recent records. While this provides ‘breathing space’, a return to El Niño conditions looks increasingly likely. Furthermore, the evidence of very large reductions in water ‘yield’ in southern catchments is inescapable – by some estimates, 50% in the Murray–Darling Basin over the first two decades of this century, and even more in southwest WesternAustralia over a longer period. Under a changing climate, projections are for further reductions – alongside increased variability. This underscores the enormity, difficulty and urgency of further, more-robust, water policy reform.
Building bridges and breaking deadlocks
Among the myriad of challenges we face in managing Australia’s waters and catchments, one of the most important will be our ability to deal effectively with the tensions among water interests and make the trade-offs required for wise, long-term policy choices. Water policy making must find ways to overcome increasingly divisive partisan politics, interest group pressure and misinformation.
Enduring policy requires deep expertise, extensive community and stakeholder engagement and deliberative methods capable of working across entrenched values. Too often those with knowledge (scientific, Indigenous, sectoral or local) have little power in decision-making and those with power do not have the knowledge required to make good, integrated and enduring decisions. The gap between knowledge and power needs to be bridged to overcome divisive politics, pressure from special interest groups and misinformation and engage successfully with communities and stakeholders who feel excluded from decision-making processes.
A new approach
To meet the water and catchment management challenges of the 21st century, Australia needs a renewed focus on how we make decisions and better ways to bring all interests to the table to work together effectively. We need new approaches to engage experts, stakeholders, policymakers, politicians and communities to help make the difficult trade-offs and compromises required for enduring water policy.
Restoring faith in the institutions needed to manage our waters and catchments requires policy-making innovation that better engages all stakeholders and available evidence. More inclusive approaches to decision-making across the policy cycle – from issue identification to implementation – will be essential for finding enduring policy solutions.
Dr Nicholas Austin FTSE
CEO, Watertrust Australia
Dr Nick Austin is a hydrologist by training, bridging agriculture and engineering in the critical area of water. From his earliest appointments in water policy reform, Nick has shown an exceptional ability to build partnerships between government, businesses and society for the common good.
In 2021, Nick became the inaugural CEO of Watertrust Australia, an independent policy centre helping improve how water and catchment policy decisions are made in Australia.
He is recognised internationally and domestically for delivering innovative solutions to complex technological and political challenges. He has worked to improve the lives of smallholder farming families, having led the agricultural development program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and, nationally, as CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.