National Water Commission calls on governments to stay the distance on their reform commitments

At a CEDA forum in Canberra, the National Water Commission has launched its third biennial assessment of water reform progress in Australia - "The National Water Initiative - securing Australia’s water future".

In launching the comprehensive report, Commission Chair, Chloe Munro said this report has special significance.

"It is not just an assessment of progress by governments in implementing the actions to which they committed when signing the Initiative," she said.

"It is also an assessment of the extent to which these actions have improved the sustainable management of Australia's water resources. In other words, it is an assessment of the impact of the National Water Initiative itself."

Talking to a diverse group, including legislators, policy advisors, Indigenous Australians, farmers, scientists, environmentalists and industry, Ms Munro said that the National Water Initiative remains robust and relevant and continues to enjoy broad stakeholder support.

The latest report lays out 12 recommendations to COAG to revive Australia's water reform agenda. Broadly they cover three elements: renewed leadership, a maturing of the water management agenda and a focus on the national arrangements that will make it happen.

In outlining the report, Ms Munro highlighted both the NWI's progress and openly discussed the disappointments and failures.

She said the implementation of NWI commitments has delivered tangible benefits to the environment, communities and individual water users. Including:

  • Water users in most areas of rural Australia  have a more secure and tradeable water asset
  • Environmental water needs are better recognised in law and in water plans
  • Many artificial barriers to trade have been removed
  • Markets have produced positive economic gains at the community, regional and national levels. Surface water, at least in the Murray-Darling Basin, is traded in an increasingly mature market.
  • Market mechanisms have allowed governments to step in and buy water for the environment
  • More certain water supplies in cities and towns
  • Major capital investments improved the security of water supply in urban centres
  • Better understanding of our natural water systems, rules and responsibilities nationally
  • Significant investment in accounting for water, in metering water use, and in the science behind water decision making

Of the "borderline" results, Ms Munro said many of the agreed actions were inherently difficult, and some of the deadlines were "unrealistic even at the time the National Water Initiative was signed. As a result, many important actions are not complete".

Ms Munro also said community confidence was damaged due to inadequate involvement of communities and inconsistent delivery.

"While there have been some examples of good practice in this area, the community reaction we saw to the release of the Guide to the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan last year highlights the importance of designing decision-making processes to build people's trust and confidence," she said.

Following the presentation a robust round of questions were put to Ms Munro and Commissioners, Elaine Gardiner, Sally Farrier, Laurie Arthur and NWC CEO James Cameron.

On questioning about the current review of the Commission and its future, Ms Munro said that she and the Commissioners welcome the review and it is part of the National Water Initiative Act.

She said if COAG continues with the reform as it should, then a role for a body such as the NWC would remain.

Touching on Indigenous involvement, it was said that some steps had taken place, for example the Indigenous water reserve.

Click for the transcript and audio of Chloe Munro's address.

Link to NWC media release, recommendations, and full report.

Upcoming CEDA research on water

CEDA is currently undertaking a major water initiative through a partnership with Uniwater (a joint venture between Monash University and the University of Melbourne), and Harvard University to explore water reform.

Two research reports will be released under the Australian Water Project, with the first volume to be release in November 2011.

This initial volume, Crisis and Opportunity: Lessons of Australian Water Reform, will examine the historical context in which Australia's water reforms have occurred and describe their consequences. The project will be an independent critical review of the recent and historical performance of the Australian reforms under the stress test of the recent drought. 

The second research volume will set out a practical reform agenda to inform further development of Australia's water policies. Planning for this volume is currently underway and CEDA aims to launch volume two in June 2012.