Future-proofing Australia’s water

Announced in 2008, the Water for The Future program is a decade-long, A$12.9 billion investment in improving water management across the nation, delivering a range of bold water policy reforms, administered by Australia’s Federal Government.

In 2007, when Australia was experiencing the impacts of its longest and most severe drought on record, political leaders from the state and federal governments came together to future-proof the long-term water supplies of the world’s driest continent. They agreed to work together to develop a stronger, coherent national framework to better manage water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s most important agricultural region.

With Australia’s population growing and water shortages reaching alarming levels, the Water for the Future program was based on four key priorities: taking action on climate change; using water wisely; securing water supplies; and supporting healthy rivers.

A key element of Australia’s new approach to water management was the establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, tasked with setting an environmentally sustainable level of water for Australia’s “food bowl” in the Murray-Darling Basin–a 1,061,469 sq km area spanning four states and the Australian Capital Territory.

The Murray-Darling Basin is home to more than two million people and produces over one-third of Australia’s food supply. It is also an important environmental asset, and is home to several Ramsar-listed wetlands as well as a range of nationally significant wildlife.

The development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was one of the programs that were put in place to encourage Australians from all walks of life to make better use of water.

Australian Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Mr Tony Burke says, “Governments in Australia have historically been grappling with how to manage our water resources. In the past, our river systems have been managed according to state boundaries leading to over-allocation and severe impacts on the environment.

“Through Water for the Future, the Australian Government is recovering water for the environment to reverse the historical over-extraction and restore the balance.

“The Government is rolling out significant investments to upgrade irrigation infrastructure to reduce the amount of irrigation water lost to leakage and evaporation and it is buying back water entitlements from Basin irrigators who are relinquishing them on a voluntary basis,” says Minister Burke.

The Water for the Future program comprises of a number of initiatives. A key feature is the recovery of water for the environment to rebalance the Murray-Darling system through water saving infrastructure projects. These investments are ensuring that new lower limits on water use in the Basin can be met.

The Government has also put the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in charge of water pricing and regulation of Australia’s ground breaking water markets in the Murray-Darling Basin.

On the urban water front, a National Rainwater and Greywater Initiative provides funding to households to install rainwater tanks to capture water and systems to re-use greywater.

The Urban Water and Desalination Program encourages cities and towns to develop new sources of water less reliant on rainfall, providing funding towards innovative water supply projects in desalination, recycled water and stormwater harvesting. Money is also being provided to improve water security in small rural communities, including remote indigenous communities, ensuring the right of all Australians to safe drinking water.

The National Water Market System is creating a faster, more efficient and nationally focused water market system with quicker cross-border water trades and reduced transaction costs.

Australia’s national weather and climate change agency, the Bureau of Meteorology, was charged with accurately monitoring, assessing and forecasting the availability, condition and use of the country’s water resources and delivering high quality, national water information – including water resource forecasting – to government, industry and the community. The Improving Water Information Program is presenting water data gathered by 200 organisations spread throughout Australia in a standardised way, which is freely accessible online.

There has been significant international interest in the Water for the Future program and the development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Around the world, governments and communities are grappling with balancing extractive use and environmental flows of major rivers, for example the Nile, the Mekong and the Colorado.

As Australia embarks on a once in a generation modernisation of the irrigation systems that account for around 70 per cent of water use in the Basin, international delegations have visited Australia to see the projects upgrading irrigation distribution systems and improving water efficiency on farms.

The drought that focused everyone’s minds on the severe ramifications of low water availability has broken, but as Minister Burke says, “Better management of our water resources will not prevent future droughts, but it can make the environment more resilient so it can better withstand future droughts”.