Radical plan to end Australia's water torture

Australia’s most important river network is on its knees from a decade-long drought and poor management. Now scientists are telling the government only bold action can avert a crisis

The Australian government is considering calls to overhaul key water policies in order to avert a looming economic and environmental crisis.

A senior water policy analyst said the government was taking seriously a submission made on Friday by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, which comprises 11 eminent scientists including former federal government advisers and climatologists.

The group said water consumption across the vast Murray-Darling Basin – covering 14% of Australia’s land mass and providing much of the nation’s food supply – may have to be cut in half. It warned that water in two parched lakes were fast turning into battery acid-like fluid as exposed soil and sediment allowed sulphides to oxidise.

Australia’s official scientific agency, CSIRO, has said global warming will bring average temperature rises across Australia of 1-5 degrees centigrade by 2070, causing more frequent droughts and greater water evaporation.

Murray-Darling Basin flows have been below average for the past decade, with the southern basin experiencing record lows. Average temperatures across the basin are up to 2 degrees above normal.

State governments have failed to peg consumption anywhere near sustainable levels – they have allowed irrigators and others to purchase more entitlements or licences to access water from the Murray-Darling Basin than the increasingly distressed system could deliver. Despite the basin’s average annual inflows barely exceeding 10,000 gigalitres since 2001, governments, as of July 2007, had sold off permanent rights to suck from it a collective 13,400GL each year.

In April, the federal government unveiled a A$12.9bn, 10 year programme to buy back water rights from those willing to sell and to boost water efficiency in the Murray-Darling Basin. The basin is home to one-third of Australia’s farmers – in the cotton, wheat, grazing, fruit and rice industries – and its industry and households account for over half the nation’s total water consumed.

The Wentworth Group said plans for water rights buybacks and ramped up efficiency were steps forward from the former government’s inaction, but wouldn’t save the river network. It also said the government’s 2011 target to finalise its action plan would be too late.

“These reforms will not deliver the water savings that the science says is needed, nor will they deliver them quickly enough to avert an economic and environmental crisis,” the Wentworth Group said in a submission to the Australian Senate.

Calls for less farming

Dr Karen Hussey, a Brussels-based international water policy expert who heads the Australian National University’s Water Initiative, says Australia is among the agriculture-heavy nations that must face up to the implications of increasing water scarcity.

“Australia is well advanced on using water rights. But our problem is we’ve no longer got enough water to deliver on those rights and the government’s current buyback plan isn’t enough to save the Murray-Darling,” Hussey said.

The Wentworth Group says an extra 4,000GL of water must be left in the basin’s waterways each year for there to be a “good chance” of the rivers’ survival.

Hussey argues that Australia should curb agricultural to conserve water. “As a country, we need to say to ourselves, do we need agriculture to the extent that it is destroying our environment? As a proportion of our industrial production, agriculture is diminishing in importance and yet it remains a huge consumer of this incredibly scarce resource, so a massive structural adjustment is now required.”

A fall in Australia’s 2007 agricultural production has already sparked a rise in global wheat prices.

Government package ‘inadequate’

A spokeswoman for Australia’s climate change minister, Penny Wong, said a balanced approach was needed to improving the health of the rivers while keeping irrigation-reliant communities viable.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has committed $3.1 billion for water rights buybacks, $5.8 billion for increased water efficiencies in the Murray-Darling and $3.7 billion for water projects in several states, subject to due diligence.

However, the Wentworth Group said the vast majority of those projects are likely to fail any cost-benefit analysis in terms of the environmental benefit achieved. It wants the government to suspend planned investment in water infrastructure and put those funds toward a massive water rights buyback worth $8-9 billion.

“This is the only way we will achieve the volumes of water required to meet the needs of our rivers and underpin the long-term viability of our industries and communities who rely on a healthy working river,” the group said.

It said its recommendations should be put into action during the next two years through an Interim Basin Plan, rather than wait until 2011 for a final programme. The group warned that the science suggests weather patterns have shifted to a “dry sequence”, which will be worsened increasingly in the next 20 years by climate change.

National management system

Australia’s water resources information gathering – and therefore efficient management – has been hindered by the complex task of pooling data from entities controlled by different governments and other bodies.

CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology are developing a national water management system that will be at the forefront globally when it enters service in late 2009. The system will bring together rainfall and streamflow supply with data on water quality, allocation and demand. Some of this data will be available in real time to managers and consumers.

“We’ve kept an eye on what’s happening elsewhere in the world and we think what we build will be at the forefront,” said Bruce Stewart, assistant director of the Bureau of Meteorology’s water forecasting unit. “We’re not aware of any who have been able to achieve the goal of this system.”

Consultants such as Sinclair Knight Merz are helping to develop the system. SKM senior hydrologist Phillip Jordan said it has been assessing the requirements of about 60 water authorities and expects to hand in the results by late October.

The Government failed to comment directly on the action plan of the Wentworth Group, though in the past its solutions have been adopted by both state and federal policymakers.

Key facts and statistics:

Australia’s food bowl drying up:

- The vast Murray-Darling Basin comprises 18 regions in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia
- 84% of basin land is owned by agricultural businesses
- Basin water flows have been below average for 11 years
- The federal government is stepping up water rights buybacks; scientists urge faster, more ambitious program

Water information strategy

- CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology jointly develop water management platform
- Sinclair Knight Merz works on meeting needs of 60 water authorities
- Platform would be most advanced in the world; launch scheduled for late 2009


http://wentworthgroup.org – Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists
http://www.mdbc.gov.au – Murray-Darling Basin Commission

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