Australia has joined countries around the world in attending the United Nations (UN) 2023 Water Conference in New York this week. As the first UN water conference in almost 50 years, this gathering has provided an opportunity for all nations to reflect on progress made and action still needed as we look towards meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
All nations participating in the conference have made commitments to deliver on the water actions in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A key outcome of the Conference is a compilation of these commitments in the Water Action Agenda.
What have we committed to?
The Australian Government has made four commitments on the Water Action Agenda – to renew our national water policy framework; deliver water infrastructure projects for First Nations communities and increase their holdings of cultural and economic water entitlements; and establish a national water quality monitoring information system, to safeguard our freshwater and coastal resources. The Australian Government is also supporting the call for a Special Envoy on Water.
Renewing Australia’s national water policy framework
A landmark agreement between all Australian governments, the National Water Initiative (NWI) is a policy framework for national water reform. It has driven sustainable management of Australia’s water resources for the past 19 years by balancing allocation of water resources between all uses, improving the health of river systems, reforming water pricing and improving service delivery.
While the NWI has had a strong positive impact, much has changed since its inception in 2004.
Renewing the national policy framework will provide a comprehensive and ambitious national water reform agenda and policy framework to assist communities, First Nations, industries, and the environment to respond to the challenges Australia is facing now and in the coming decades.
Priority areas for reform include ensuring climate change is incorporated into water planning, and accounting for First Nations peoples’ interests and influence in water resource management.
First Nations water infrastructure
Australia is allocating $150 million in National Water Grid funding to be used to deliver water infrastructure projects for First Nations communities, to ensure all Australians have access to safe and reliable water.
With a core tenet of engaging with First Nations communities, the National Water Grid Fund is an infrastructure investment program to improve water access and security by identifying and prioritising projects that deliver water security in First Nations communities.
Safe drinking water is fundamental to health and wellbeing for all people. Water insecurity can be caused by both limited water access and poor water quality. Providing water infrastructure that ensures safe and reliable water supplies for regional and remote communities will support progress towards SDG 6.
First Nations water entitlements
The Australian Government has committed to deliver the Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program, a $40 million investment to support Murray–Darling Basin First Nations communities’ to increase their holdings of cultural and economic water entitlements, and to carry out associated planning activities.
Water is central to the cultural, social and spiritual identity of Australia’s First Nations people, as well as to their livelihoods. However, First Nations people remain distant from the benefits of water ownership and participation in the water market.
While legislative reforms in Australia that have recognised First Nations peoples’ land rights and native title have enabled recognition of some First Nations rights across Australia, pathways to water access and ownership are not accessible for all First Nations people.
An investment in water entitlements will ensure that First Nations peoples have a secure option to maintain and grow their water rights in perpetuity, and will help support the cultural and economic benefits that arise from water ownership.
Developed by CSIRO, AquaWatch will establish an integrated ground-to-space national water quality monitoring information system to safeguard our freshwater and coastal resources.
Using Earth observation satellites and ground-based sensors to monitor the quality of Australia’s rivers and coastal and inland waterways with near real-time data provision and predictive analysis, AquaWatch aims to provide actionable information on the water quality of inland and coastal waters in Australia and in other countries.
The AquaWatch system will inform better water quality management practices, which in turn will increase the resilience of rural and regional communities that depend on water for agriculture and improve environmental outcomes. AquaWatch will also have potential application to monitor coastal wetlands, aquaculture farms, riparian vegetation and terrestrial biodiversity, desalination plants, mine sites, mangroves and coral reef environments.
Giving a greater voice to water issues
Australia, along with 150 other countries, has proposed the establishment of a Special Envoy on Water who could help to amplify these stories. An Envoy would be a powerful tool to raise political awareness of the importance of water in the lives of all people and other goals, such as food security, energy security, and climate. The Envoy could also help ensure water remains on the multilateral agenda beyond this week.
For more information on Australia’s commitments to the Water Action Agenda, visit the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals website.