Water research and reform is on the boil: Australian Water Resources Project formed

Melbourne, 22 July 2010: CEDA, UniWater (a venture between the University Melbourne and Monash University) and Harvard University today announced the formation of the Australian Water Resources Project.

Media release issued Thursday, 22 July 2010


CEDA, UniWater (a venture between the University Melbourne and Monash University) and Harvard University today announced the formation of the Australian Water Resources Project. The project will conduct independent analyses into Australia's water shortages and policy solutions. Over two years the project will assess the priorities and options to address long-term water supply across Australia by engaging experts to deliver a series of policy related forums and a two-part research volume.

The research will aim to develop more efficient use and allocation of urban and rural water supplies through analysis of governance, trading, pricing, desalination, recycling, and efficiency issues in and between metropolitan and rural jurisdictions.

The project will also address issues faced by the new State and Commonwealth Environmental Water Holders (EWH), including the portfolio of existing water entitlements which should be acquired, what new types of assets should be developed and how the EWHs should engage with the water markets.

Australia will be expected to make a critical contribution to meeting increased global food production needs over the coming decades. Improving agricultural productivity through more efficient use of rural water resources and irrigation practices and the extension of water saving technologies will therefore be central to the project.

The Australian Water Resources Project will be led by Dr Michael Porter, CEDA Research and Policy Director; Professor John Langford, University of Melbourne and Director of Uniwater and Professor John Briscoe, Gordon McKay Professor at Harvard University and formerly the Senior Water Advisor at the World Bank. Publications and forums will be informed by the considerable expertise of the members of the CEDA Water Strategy Panel and the Uniwater community.

Dr Porter, Professor Langford and Professor Briscoe said they were excited by the project and confident that it would make a real contribution to finding better solutions to Australian water policy issues.

CEDA Chief Executive, David Byers, said the approach of harnessing Australian and international experts in the field and engaging the broader community through policy forums and broad communications will set this project apart from previous water research endeavours.

"It is founded on the conviction that governments can't do it all - collaboration between academia, business and government is needed to engage the broader community in understanding the challenges and opportunities," he said.

"The critical nature of water policy reform is demonstrated by CEDA members having ranked water as the number one policy priority area for the last three years in our annual Big Issues Survey," David Byers explained.

David Byers acknowledged that the project has been made possible by generous financial support from the Yulgilbar Foundation; Harvard, Melbourne and Monash Universities; and donors to CEDA's general research fund. The Victorian Government has also provided support through access to technical advice, knowledge and expertise in the project's formative stages.

Dr Porter noted that the project will build on an outstanding existing knowledge base in Australia.

"In terms of the issues, we need institutional and market-based reforms, competition on the supply side between conventional water sources, plus desalinated and recycled supplies, and aquifers recharged using wastewater. We need increased water trades and arrangements between regions and metropolitan areas across grids, like those being implemented in Melbourne and south east Queensland."

Dr Porter highlighted that a virtue of desalination and recycled water supplies is that they are climate invariant, and amount to an insurance against weather-based shortages as experienced in recent years.
"The cities have no long term reason for having to use rationing and other heavy handed controls."

Professor John Langford of University of Melbourne and Director of Uniwater said regardless of whether Australia is experiencing a 'federation drought' or climate change, the time to act is now.

"Australia has one of the most variable water resources in the world but the recent report by the National Water Commission indicates reforms and institutional changes are lagging."

"Our independent and objective research will provide a clear reference for the implementation and challenges of new institutional arrangements and will aid sound water outcomes," he said.

Harvard Professor John Briscoe explained that Harvard University has a long history of multi-disciplinary engagement with the challenges of water management.

"Recognising that water is one of the great challenges facing mankind, Harvard is pulling together faculty from across the university to work with partners in focus countries around the world. The initial focus countries are Brazil, Pakistan and Australia. Australia is a priority because they have developed by far the most sophisticated and effective system for managing scarcity - a system which has meant that the economic impacts of the devastating decade-long drought has been far less than would have been the case had Australia not had such an effective water market," he said.

"Furthermore, Australia is a world leader in integrating the practitioner and research communities on water. We have just had a group of faculty (from the Schools of Engineering, Public Health, Government, Biology and Law) visit Melbourne and start the process of designing a joint research and education program with the University of Melbourne and Monash University. We are confident that we will develop not only a strong bilateral partnership, but that the Australian experience will be enormously valuable to our partner universities in other countries."

Professor Briscoe was pleased to see new and more assertive engagement of the private sector in water as one of the major emerging issues which holds great hope for the future throughout the world.

"We were delighted to meet with government and business leaders in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, and to have the very exciting CEDA-supported Australian Water Resources Project as a tangible and strategic first engagement in Australia."

Professor Briscoe also said that he was excited by the potential synergies between the Australian Water Resources Project and groundbreaking work of the 2030 Water Resources Group.

"Over time, we aim to form an association with the 2030 Water Resources Group, which brings together public agencies (led by the World Bank's International Finance Corporation and the Asian Development Bank), the World Economic Forum and a range of private sector companies who have a commitment to both develop innovative technologies and to support governments who undertake water reforms."

The 2030 Water Resources Group is engaging in transformation programs which are led by committed political leaders, engage the private sector in new ways, and which are designed to improve water-related outcomes in a number of countries, including China, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Mexico and South Africa.

"The Water 2030 Group, recognising Australia's global leadership and relevance for other countries, is committed to engaging with Australia, in part through the CEDA Australian Water Resources Project," he said.

The project will lift the national level of understanding of potential water policy options and their benefits. Communication is one of the major challenges of the water issues identified by our Water Strategy Panel, CEDA Research and Policy Director Michael Porter said.

"Water is often viewed as an engineering and technical or volumetric problem, rather than as a matter of incentives, competitive tendering, new technology, risk allocation and trading arrangements."

"Through our meetings and publications we will address some of the communication challenges by sharply distinguishing between the myths and the realities on the causes of, and solutions for water scarcity," he said.