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What’s next for Australia’s water management?


Australia’s water management futures are again under discussion as drought impacts and bushfires hit communities. Water and ecological system limits are being reached resulting in fish kills and dwindling water levels in storages. Awareness is also rising around the inequities in current water governance regimes for First Peoples across the Australian continent and beyond*.

Analysing the challenges of a country short of water with Katherine Daniell, PhD and academic at the Australian National University, member of the Australian National Committee on Water Engineering and IFGR member.


Over the past few months Australia has undergone extreme heatwaves combined with wildfires, before the arrival of heavy rain. In what way is this situation exceptional and what is happening today?

This summer was very difficult. Australians are used to droughts and dust storms, but this year’s situation was quite exceptional with a very harsh drought and fires across the continent lasting from September until February, followed by heavy storms, hail and flooding. The catchments are now burnt, many rivers very polluted, and populations are at a loss trying to cope. The rains are washing away all the ash and silt into the river systems, meaning that the fish can’t survive. Wildlife has also been severely affected.

Many of our major cities were also very affected by smoke from the bushfires and dust. For example, in Canberra where I live, in the middle of the Murray Darling Basin, the atmospheric pollution was often at a hazardous level. At times Canberra was surrounded by fires on three sides. On New Year’s Eve Canberra registered the worst air quality in the world – over 20 times the hazardous level.

People have lost their lives, homes, cars and livelihoods in these disasters; and families have had to move to avoid smoke or fire danger areas. Over 50% of the whole Australian population was affected directly in some way. The situation is still dramatic for many people. They have not had time to work through this trauma, and now they’re faced with another threat from the COVID-19 pandemic.

What, according to you, are the lessons that can be learned for managing the water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin?

The Murray Darling Basin is one of Australia’s largest rivers systems**. It’s where most of the agricultural activity in the country takes place. It’s been affected by drought over the past few years. Some towns have almost completely run out of water, especially in the Basin’s north. The question now is whether there will be enough water resources to distribute in the future. Luckily, water has arrived with the floods, but the situation is unstable as many water storages remain quite low. The Murray Darling governance structures were changed at the end of the last big drought—the Millenium Drought—to tackle really extreme weather. There have been massive deaths of fish, especially in the Darling River in the last two years.

There are many types of value that are not included in the market.

Thus reforms are needed. The water market*** is functioning well to some extent. When farmers didn’t have enough water for their crops, they sold their water rights to improve their finances – so in some ways it was beneficial. However, there are many types of value that are not included in the market. Indigenous water values, cultural values, town community values are not included explicitly. Before the floods, water prices were very high. This meant that a lot of small agribusinesses couldn’t afford to purchase water and had insufficient allocations to grow their crops. Only those with enough financial capacity are getting through. So, the smaller businesses sold their rights to keep afloat in the hope that things will improve. The environment can get a bit of water as a lot of water was purchased by the Government for the environment. That was one of the reasons for the reforms. Exactly how much is being allocated is vague and needs to be examined. The whole river basin has been under stress and the river and river-dependent ecosystems, businesses and communities haven’t had enough water.

Here one of our biggest challenges is to understand how the water systems across the basin work, especially now they have been altered by a range of technologies and community practices. The Indigenous people have adapted their water technologies and practices over thousands of years, learning how to move around their countries to make the best of the ‘booms’ and ‘busts’. One of the challenges in current Australia is that there are still strong efforts to try to make everything conform to averages. We still believe in the assumptions of stationarity in our statistics and develop water designs and risk management systems based on these. So one of our opportunities is to go beyond averages and take into account extreme variability in order to adopt different rules and statistical understandings for wetter and drier periods, as will as underlying climate change trends including temperature and sea-level rises. The Murray Darling Plan doesn’t yet deal with these additional challenges effectively. It’s still very stressed. We have to look at the design of the market and figure out what we can do to it so it can work better for us.

This summer made Australians aware of the value of clean air. It’s the same with water. When you don’t have any, you realise how precious it is, so we have to start talking about the values to be included in the market design and find a better way of sharing resources. Technology can help us to understand what’s going on, including sensing technologies. If you look at air pollution in Australia, not only the government could measure it, but through our summer, many individuals bought or made their own sensors for measuring air quality and provided this data to the public through a smartphone app. This makes things more democratic since people can monitor what’s happening themselves in their local area. Many farmers now have their own meteorological stations and we have a lot of sensing technologies, including access to remote sensing for precision agriculture and to understand how water is circulating and being applied across the basin. A choice has to be made between privacy and access to information, and then there’s the issue of accountability.

It was not the first time that people had the awareness of the lack of water. The difference is that people across the country were aware at the same time of its value last summer.

I don’t think it was the first time people had this awareness of the importance of water. The difference is that people across the country were aware at the same time. Australians are used to droughts and extreme water restrictions in many large cities. In the Millenium drought most major cities in the South were on severe restrictions. In this drought, some small towns in the Northern Murray-Darling Basin had severe restrictions, so they couldn’t do any outdoor watering, wah cars or fill pools for example. The other change this year was that everyone saw how long and intense the fires could be – it’s unusual for them to burn for months around so many populated areas.

From my personal experience, I realised the scale through travel. From fires raging near, and thick smoke in, Canberra where I couldn’t see the end of the runway, to flying into Adelaide over 1300km away just near the Basin’s end where the whole of the Adelaide Hills appeared to be on fire with plumes of smoke. It seemed like the whole country was on fire. Only a little while later, I was supposed to head to Kangaroo Island in South Australia, but the day prior, nearly half of the entire 130km long Island was burnt out. The situation felt  very extreme for several days but then by staying in Metropolitan Adelaide, some of the anxiety faded away. Other areas are very affected by the aftermath. People in small towns that have been affected are convinced there’s a serious crisis but people in the cities forget very quickly once the air quality gets better. During the fire season, a survey across Australia showed that many people think that climate change is a serious problem, which is a change from a few years ago.

Adapting to climate change is a necessity for your country which has already faced water shortages for many years. Do you think that the relationship the Australia’s Indigenous peoples have with nature could be a source of inspiration?

I think there’s a lot to learn from Indigenous people who’ve lived here for thousands of years. They have very deep and sophisticated knowledge about how everything’s connected: the air, soil and water systems—what they call country landscapes, waterscapes and skyscapes—as well as the people and the animals.

The knowledge of Indigenous peoples around the world could allow us to live more sustainably than we have done in the past.

What we could learn is a different way understanding these connections. In Australia and many parts of the world, we tend to block and control systems. We build dams and storage facilities. Indigenous peoples have built small engineering structures and were the first technologists. Some of their systems are much more sustainable. The aim is not necessarily to block but to allow flows and continuous storage that can feed and sustain people to just the right level. There are a number of very good design principles that Indigenous people could help to develop in the new waves of water reforms. I think the knowledge of Indigenous peoples around the world could allow us to live more sustainably than we have done in the past. But this will require lots of listening and developing ways of working together that benefit Indigenous peoples and help to overcome the injustices they have faced, as a part of the upcoming reforms, rather than perpetuating a mentality of ‘extraction’ of knowledge, as we have also done for water and other resources on our planet. It is a very exciting time and opportunity for change. This time many Indigenous voices and positive collaborative spirit need to be evoked as a central piece of the national water dialogue and more sustainable forms of development in this climate changed world.

* See the full editorial in the Australasian Journal of Water Resources

** The Murray-Darling Basin covers an area of 1,072,000 km² (14% of the territory) and encompasses 70% of irrigated land and 40% of farm production. It is also home to over 2 million people.

*** Since the adoption of a Basin Plan in 2012, a market has been set up where water access entitlements (rights) could be bought or sold in addition to the existing water allocation markets. This new market was made possible by a regulatory change that disassociated water access rights from land ownership deeds.

For further information: read the latest issue of the Australasian Journal of Water Resources  published by Taylor and Francis for Engineers Australia. It includes six research articles, from expert practitioners and academics, on the Murray Darling Basin and beyond.

Read the articles

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