The Australian water reform journey

Dr Jane Doolan of the University of Canberra speaks about the Australian water reform journey at the 2016 World Water Congress and Exhibition, Brisbane, Australia.


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The journey encompasses 30 years of Australian water reform, and Dr Doolan describes the purpose, direction, key reflections of the Australian water reform journey. Following from building dams and irrigation systems in order to promote regional economic growth and development, a range of new issues needed to be addressed, including: debt and high costs for ongoing maintenance and renewal; the financially unsustainable operation of infrastructure; the low quality of service; widespread environmental damage evidenced by massive algal blooms; and inefficient infrastructure.

Australia’s water reform journey started in the 1980s. The National Water Initiative (2004) focused many of its programs on the Murray Darling Basin, where all of the water management problems and challenges faced by Australia could be found.

Four key reform areas emerged:

  • Improving environmental management;
  • Transforming water allocation;
  • Reforming water pricing; and
  • Modernising institutional arrangements.

These four reform areas were underpinned by improving information and knowledge; and community and stakeholder engagement.

Fast forward to today, where legally defined secure entitlements are now in place, as are water markets, and water entitlements totalling $6.9 billion last year in southern Murray Darling Basin. The turnover in the water market accounts to $1.4 billion. Legal shares of water for the environment are provided in all systems, in every state, with 2000 GL of water entitlements held by environmental water holders. Full cost recovery happens in all metro systems, and at the same time, household consumption has dropped.

Governance has improved: water authorities are financially sustainable and servicing local communities with a sustainable water supply. Annual benchmarking of these water authorities at happens at both the state and national level.

Water reform is a social transformation that requires that small steps are taken and politically achievable solutions need to be identified at each stage. It takes time and is an evolution of continuous improvement. Doing so requires being opportunistic, taking advantage of windows of opportunity that open up to take steps in the right direction.

Covering the details of the water reform journey, two publications are now available, including one that details the experience of the Millennium drought.

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