Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth and water management is a constant challenge. 70% of Australia’s continent landmass is classified as arid which means it receives annual rainfall of less than 250 mm or 10 inches per year. In Australia, large dams are built to store up to 7 years’ worth of consumption. Construction of desalination plants has been one approach utilized but with so many odds against it including the lack of use of some plants for their intended purpose. Attitudes can be a bearer to adoption of water management in Australia. 10% of water is used for domestic use, hence if gray water can be recycled instead of dumping it that could relieve the burden on water resources within the households. Handling water consumption can also be approached from charging for wasting it, to the point that people do become conscious of not wasting water. In Western Australia, there are various restrictions on watering gardens, washing cars by hand with most people adopting semi-arid area gardens. What are the water management strategies in Australia? – the water management strategies used in Australia include conservation of water, water rights that are tradeable or sellable and desalination. This article addresses:

  • Drought and groundwater in Australia, 
  • History of water management in Australia, and 
  • Water management and sustainability in Australia

Why is drought an issue yet Australia has groundwater available? 

Groundwater isn’t always easily accessible for irrigation. The fact that towns exist in the outback is thanks to groundwater. They’re built where its accessible. Rivers in the outback exist because of groundwater. Trees grow because their roots can reach down low enough to access groundwater but, grasses or wheat can’t reach groundwater levels. So, irrigation is the only way. Just because there is a huge groundwater reservoir underneath the eastern half of Australia doesn’t mean its easily accessible. Some of it is 3000m deep. Irrigation often relies on rivers and dams, which are filled by groundwater. If it does not rain, groundwater levels fall too deep, and rivers and dams dry up. So, it’s no longer possible to grow things that solely rely on irrigation. Groundwater levels rise and fall, just like water levels in a lake or dam, and without rain the levels fall below existing wells. There’s a limit how deep you can still go for water, and with the drought in Australia the groundwater levels have fallen because people have used water too much. What does this all mean for the local consumer of water in Australia? Well, the cost of water will get more expensive in the long run. Let us rewind the story and dive into the history of water management in Australia. 

History of water management in Australia

Water management has been an ongoing contentious issue in Australia. Different priorities were placed on river-use by the colonies during negotiations to frame Australia’s Constitution, which was drawn up, then agreed to at Federation in 1901. South Australia’s economy was reliant on the connectivity that paddle-steamer trade enabled, whereas upstream, in NSW and Victoria, development through irrigation was a more pressing concern. As a result, water rights under Australia’s Constitution are only clarified once, in section 100, to explicitly prevent the Commonwealth Government from curtailing a State’s right to water for conservation or irrigation. This clause was included to satisfy concerns from the two upstream States that Commonwealth management would threaten the security of their water entitlement.  Australia is a very dry continent. Droughts are extremely common and have been in all or recorded history. Decades ago, it was not uncommon for farmers to succumb to the pressures of droughts due to lack of water and crop failure. Most of Australia is desert, hence it is in a permanent state of drought. Occasionally that state of drought extends to areas typically used for agriculture. 

Water management Current and Future Challenges

Australia has a massive challenge with water management. The responsibility of the past, present and future crises always points towards failure of government policies with regards to water management. The reality of the water management problem in Australia is that there isn’t enough potable water to supply a growing population in the southern east of Australia and a few coastal areas. Thus, most cities and regional centers along the Australian coast with a significant population have installed desalination plants. Inland they have had to drill deeper bores and demineralize the fossil waters. Inland, dams have been built to allow for irrigation of margin land, but this has been interfering in the river flows causing buildup of sulfides in the riverbeds, which is killing the rivers downstream. Upstream, overuse of irrigation has in some cases caused heavy salination of soils. Elsewhere, irrigation has caused leaching of contaminants such as iron, radium and lead into the water ways. In places like the Ord which is far from NW of Australia there is plenty of water and arable land, but no one wants to live there. The other pertinent factor is high evaporation rates, and because Australia has no significant mountain ranges apart from the eastern coastal range, deep water dams are not a storage option. Piping water from the far north, over 2000 or 3000 kms to the major urban centers is not economically viable. Growing populations tend not to be where abundant water is. 

Australia’s millennium drought, a 13-year dry period unprecedented in the instrumental record, inspired a change in the extant water management principles. The Water Act of 2007 was introduced and required the preparation of a Basin Plan to set environmentally sustainable levels of water extraction and to reduce the over-allocation of water entitlements that threatened water security. The Act was unusual in that environmental considerations were initially interpreted as a non-negotiable constraint on other water uses because of the legislative context in which it was written. This framing shaped subsequent negotiations during the development of the Basin Plan. The road taken from conception of the Act provides internationally important lessons in legislating for sustainable water management in inter-jurisdictional river basins. On the other side of the coin, it creates new opportunities for ongoing improvement, including the mutual benefits derived from managing environmental water and irrigation water cooperatively.

Are environmental regulations, health and safety concerns or potential profit loss a concern right now?

Water Management Best Practices

Then how does the best practice on water management happen in Australia? It must occur within a pre-existing framework of laws, policies and principles that dictate which mechanisms are available to achieve a specified goal. However, what should not be taken for granted is the complexity of decision making which is marred with uncertainty and multiple legitimate stakeholder perspectives. Water systems are made up of a complex of series of interactions with social and ecological interdependencies. 

To tackle future challenges whilst appreciating lesson from past experiences it is important to take multiple lines of evidence that are woven together to inform policy, rather than determine it. Sound policy and the reputation of the evidence base used to guide decisions to address water management challenges in Australia. Principles of negotiation towards a consensus, participative decision making and ensuring balance amongst environmental, social and economic impacts of policies should be core to the future of water management in Australia. 

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Cathcart, M. 2009. The Water Dreamers: The Remarkable History of Our Dry Continent. The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, Australia.

Kildea, P., and Williams, G. 2011. The Water Act and the Murray–Darling basin plan. Public Law Review 22(1), 9–14.

Skinner, D., and Langford, J. 2013. Legislating for sustainable basin management: the story of Australia’s Water Act (2007). Water Policy 15. 871-874.

Williams, J. M., and Webster, A. 2010. Section 100 and State water rights. Public Law Review 21, 267–284