By Katie Lahey
Business Council of Australia
Recent heavy rains across much of the east coast of Australia have brought welcome relief for many farmers and urban residents.
Water catchments in many parts of rural and regional Australia are receiving good flows, while levels in dams that service our major population areas have been climbing from historic lows.
Despite hopes the drought has finally broken, many Australians – particularly those living in major cities – will live with water restrictions for years to come.
That’s because the underlying reason for our recent water woes has as much to do with man-made problems, as opposed to shortfalls in water supply caused primarily by nature.
For too long, the main response by governments and water authorities to periods of drought and insufficient water supplies has been water restrictions.
This reflects the lack of planning and investment in urban water infrastructure over previous decades.
This is also despite population increases demonstrating the need to depart from the traditional water restriction paradigm, and instead actively tap new and innovative sources of supplies.
Water shortages not only impact on lifestyle and amenity as we go about our daily lives, they ultimately limit growth and prosperity.
Due largely to political, economic and community pressures to address the problem over the past year, governments have started to plan for and invest in additional water supplies with new dams, pipelines, desalination plants, expanded recycling efforts and other water sourcing projects.
The number of new and varied water projects around the country is belated recognition that the volume of water made available by nature is there to meet all our needs, provided we have the foresight to act on all options on how to collect and secure it. However, given the long lead time involved in getting up and running many of these new water projects, it will take years for this recent spate of action to start to tip the balance from chronic water shortages to a sustainable level of water availability.
Even then, we can’t be certain these projects will solve our water crisis in the long term.
What is needed is a more than knee-jerk reactions by governments in response to short-term angst.
We need a fundamental shift in how we plan, secure and price a resource that is still subject to significant waste and ad hoc planning.
In September last year, the Business Council of Australia exposed the man-made nature of water scarcity and outlined the steps required to ensure supplies into the future in its publication Water Under Pressure.
The BCA believes it is time for governments, through forums such as the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) representing federal and state leaders, to develop a national strategy for ensuring reliable and adequate water supplies in the long term.
This view was echoed at the recent National Water Commission Stakeholder Forum in Canberra where participants, including those from industry, state governments, environment and the water sector, highlighted the need for a national policy framework for water and a stronger focus on urban water supply and management.
All options to increase water supply should be considered and evaluated on their relative merits.
It is essential that there is a transparent and thorough process to review all water source options along with their economic and environmental costs.
Picking a solution without a long-term strategic review and assessment process will only lead to further problems in years to come.
Allowing market forces rather than political expediency to determine the best use of water, we can allocate water for environmental preservation and guarantee our human water supplies into the future.
A commitment by COAG to expand the current National Water Initiative, which has worked effectively in rural areas, to include a renewed effort on urban water reform for the long term is required.
If agreed to by COAG, this would mean improved planning and assessment of water sources, greater competition, opening up opportunities for private sector investment and include timelines and incentive structures to ensure Australia’s economic growth is not constrained by the perception of unavoidable water scarcity.
Despite growing awareness within the community about the need for a fundamental rethink on how we source and use water, the flawed frameworks that led to our recent water crisis are still largely in place.
Nature can only do so much to alleviate shortages. The rest is up to us.