Reinstating water reform and research to the top of the political agenda

Thursday, 30 January, 2020

An opinion piece by Darryl Day.

As we reach the half-way mark of the devastating bushfire season in Australia and see the impact of the prolonged drought on existing water supplies on regional and rural communities, it is time to commit to new measures for water security. There needs to be a short term focus on recovery addressing water quality and quantity in catchments impacted by the bushfires, with a medium to longer term focus on water reform, research and implementing a portfolio approach of “all options on the table” in providing sustainable and resilient water supplies for our regional and remote communities.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission recently highlighted the impact of drought on regional and remote communities (How long until drought-stricken towns run out of water?), but it does not have to be a case of waiting for “day zero” where these communities run out of water.

Australia has been amongst the global leaders in water research, out of necessity, in adapting to changing climate, extreme events and water security. In the decade proceeding and throughout the millennium drought, Australia invested wisely in science, innovation and, to a limited extent, adaptation of traditional knowledge. However, the last decade has seen an ever-diminishing investment in research and development (R&D) to the level that we are not able to adequately respond to our current crisis, nor are we prepared for future climate driven challenges. In addition, Australia’s much praised water reform agenda under the National Water Initiative has stalled.

In a paper “Research investment in the Australian urban water industry” in the Australian Water Association Water e-Journal (Vol 3 No 4 2018) and published, Peter Dillon, Neil Palmer, Rob Vertessy and John Radcliffe argue that:

“Only WSAA, Water Research Australia, CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, the Goyder Institute and National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT) remain as syndicated water research brokers, whilst CSIRO and multiple universities retain only modest urban water-related research portfolios. …… The large and simultaneous decline in R&D investment has had an immediate and continuing detrimental impact on Australia’s urban water R&D capacity. Unless rectified, this will seriously impact the future performance, cost and resilience to risk of Australia’s urban water systems”

The loss of investment by the Australian and state governments, and public and private water utilities, in water R&D, coupled with the delay in implement national water reforms, have both contributed to the water challenges faced by many regional and rural communities. This does not need to be the “new normal” as new knowledge in groundwater science, advances in forecasting droughts and innovations in water-waste-energy technologies increase the water portfolio options.

We must address recommendations from the Productivity Commission’s National Water Reform Inquiry report, publicly released on 31 May 2018, and the Australian Government response. It is time for water reform to be reinstated to the top of the political agenda for the Commonwealth of Australian Governments. Water security underpins our economy in agriculture, mining and energy and is critical for our communities to be sustained and thrive. The reform agenda for water must be supported by all governments.

There are two standout organisations mentioned earlier, progressing critical research and knowledge sharing. Firstly, Water Research Australia (WaterRA) will be hosting the 2020 Catchment Forum in Brisbane from 18-19 March. The Forum will explore key issues related to catchment management and will have a significant focus on bushfire impacts and recovery for catchments. With the unprecedented fires in Australia, catchment management is a key topic of interest right now. It is a timely reminder that risk management approaches that enable water utilities to assess and mitigate the impacts of extreme events, need to be identified and evaluated to ensure the continuing health of our catchments.

Many utilities are facing long-term implications and impacts from recent events in Australia. As responses to bushfires requires tailored actions depending on the location and circumstances, there are many effects which need to be discussed and potential courses of action which can be taken. WaterRA is looking to aid water utilities in their recovery planning at 2020 Catchment Forum by providing a platform to share and learn from one another and past experiences. As well as highlighting expert research which can further support catchment management decisions in challenging times.

Secondly, the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) has been working with members and governments to encourage new thinking about options for regional and rural communities. In their publication “All options on the table” WSAA presents lessons from the journeys of others, with options including community education and purified recycled water for drinking.

Adoption of new options which are sustainable and provide resilient water supplies for our regional and remote communities, require reform which addresses policy, governance, capability and skills. In addition, it requires Australia to restart investment in R&D, and developing water solutions for the future.