Happy World Water Day.

Though maybe less so for the 40 per cent of the world’s people affected by water scarcity – where water demand exceeds the available, affordable and reliable supply.

The scale of the water scarcity crises is arresting. More than 50 per cent of the world’s cities and 75 per cent of all irrigated farms are experiencing water shortages on a recurring basis.

The consequences of this are dire. Water scarcity limits economic growth, undermines political stability, prompts conflict, and causes continued and irreversible environmental degradation.

Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper identifies the increasing demand for water as a major political, economic and security disrupter. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum recently named ‘water crises’ as a top-five global risk by impact, for the eighth consecutive year.

It is no surprise then, that improved water management and use lies at the heart of the global development challenge and is fundamental to achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Australia has a role to play here and is actively involved. In 2015, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade established the Australian Water Partnership – recognising that it is in Australia’s strategic interests to share our water expertise.

From 2016 to 2018, Australia joined 10 other countries to form the High Level Panel on Water – co-convened by the United Nations and World Bank – to accelerate progress towards SDG 6.

Through its membership of the High Level Panel, Australia has been sharing its experience with the global community, including through the development and application of guidance and advice.

AITHER has been an active participant in this work. Contributing papers on valuing water, managing water for the environment, and developing WaterGuide – a framework for responding to scarcity.

Since its release, WaterGuide has been used in the design and delivery of bilateral water dialogues between Australia and Jordan, Mexico, Senegal and Iran. Each of these led by Aither.

In the process of engaging with these countries, some common problems are apparent. These include:

  • The pressure of growing demand – from population growth as well as migration – for example Jordan hosting approximately 1 million Syrian refugees in a country of 10 million people
  • Unsustainable surface water and groundwater use – including the accelerating extraction of fossil groundwater – with levels dropping more than 20m per year in some cases
  • Cities, towns and industries experiencing interrupted supply – 1 million plus residents of Amman generally receiving mains water only day per week
  • Environmental assets at risk or in terminal decline – witness the rapid shrinking of Lake Urmia in Iran, a repeat of the Aral Sea, with significant environmental consequences and health issues related to dust
  • Agriculture as a dominant user of water and under pressure to transform
  • And the complications of transboundary management – on the Colorado between Mexico and the US; on the Tigris between Iran and Iraq; or in the case of the Jordan River Basin, shared by Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

The extent of these problems supports the World Bank finding that if current water management persists, water scarcity will greatly worsen in regions where water is already scarce, and proliferate to regions where it currently is not. This is a crisis, the consequences of which are existential.

Despite these challenges, solutions are available and significant benefits stand to be gained. It has been estimated that in Asia alone, home to over half of the world’s population, the large negative effects of water scarcity on economic growth could be comprehensively reversed through the adoption of improved water policies.

In some countries, the net effect could be equivalent to more than a ten per cent boost in GDP growth over the next three decades. Without doubt, the benefits of strategic responses to water scarcity will be significant for national economies, national and human security, and global development.

So, in this context, how does Australia fare?

Over the last three decades, the Commonwealth and states have radically improved water policy and management in Australia.

Over this period, Australia has been successful in implementing fundamental elements of reform, which are reflected in the WaterGuide framework:

  • Confirming a vision for water management
  • Understanding changing water availability and demand over time
  • Having processes for allocating water between users
  • Ensuring effective water policies and institutions
  • Developing resilient water infrastructure and services, and
  • Pursuing increasingly efficient water management and use

Actions and initiatives underpinning this progress include:

  • Limits on total water use
  • Clear, secure water rights
  • Planning and regulation
  • Water data and information
  • Water registers and accounting
  • Monitoring and enforcement

These achievements should not be taken for granted. They are often lacking elsewhere.

Australia’s reform journey offers examples of how to overcome barriers still confounding others – water professionals like ourselves grappling with how to build and maintain political will, coordinate diverse actors, support institutions, and implement known solutions.

Australia has done this. Australia has recognised that the costs of action, while steep, are less than the costs of inaction, and we have been able to act.

There is no magic pudding when it comes to allocating scarce water resources. The reality involves competing demands, dealing with trade-offs, and hard decisions.

Understanding and communicating value is central to this, and to their credit, Australian governments have promoted this in a way that has made difficult decisions possible.

We now benefit from the information, control and incentive mechanisms to reveal value and include it in decision making – enabling better investment, management and use.

As a result, we enjoy tangible outcomes that others still seek. Increasingly productive irrigation. Urban water security. Water secured for the environment. A $23 billion water market where there was none.

And while our communities and industries still deal with challenges, they enjoy a distinct advantage as compared to those that don’t have the same opportunities for adjustment, or miss the prospects associated with high-value investment.

Of course, our journey is not perfect, nor done. In the Murray Darling Basin, significant work remains on the development of Water Resource Plans; implementation of the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism; the refinement of environmental water management, the water rights of Aboriginal peoples, and the development of appropriate Basin Plan monitoring and evaluation protocols over the next few years.

Added to this, recent events have served to compound the existing workload of the Basin Governments and the MDBA, and have placed the Basin Plan implementation and the broader Australian water reform process under considerable pressure.

At a national level, urban water management, compliance, and dealing with remote and Indigenous access are examples of areas where more work still needs to be done. But with the Productivity Commission, Infrastructure Australia and others having identified these issues, we expect them to receive attention in the next round of national reforms.

This is appropriate as part of an ongoing journey and brings me to my final points.

Identifying shortcomings in our approach does not indicate failure. Nor do fish kills, instances of water theft or a state Royal Commission. We need to maintain perspective. And we need ongoing champions, not just critics.

We owe it to Australia to get this right, and to others to provide an example. And, if we can avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we will get there.

Meanwhile, the imperfect and continuing implementation of reform in Australia only strengthens the case for sharing our skills and experience to improve responses to scarcity developed beyond our borders. The task is urgent, so other countries see learning our lessons as essential.

Helping others in this regard would make a significant contribution to achievement of the water-related SDGs, while promoting Australia’s broader strategic and foreign policy objectives, and adding a valuable perspective to our challenges at home.

On World Water Day, remember that criticism is easy and grandstanding does not equal debate. Consider the benefits of reform, tell this story as well, and stay the course to improve water management here and abroad, for our sakes and for others.

Thank you.