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Water policy initiatives: final report

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 6 Dec 2006

This is an extremely important issue at an extremely important, critical stage. We heard today that ABARE has released its latest forecasts for December. We have heard again that our winter crops are down 62 per cent and the forecast for summer crops is very poor, likely to be down at least 33 per cent, so the issue of drought, climate variability and climate change is of critical importance and on everybody's minds. We have also heard evidence about various wetlands being degraded and suffering. We also heard that the Murray is receiving its lowest flows ever, month after month-I think October was the lowest on record-and that by April-May next year our storages will be empty. The Murray river system in particular is running on empty.

We also heard that dams around Australia-as I think we covered in the interim report-are suffering and most of them are carrying water below 50 per cent in all our capital cities. We heard significant evidence of overallocation and of the confusion that still exists over water entitlements, water allocations. We heard about the lack of data, the inconsistency in data between states, the way data is recorded and that some states do not have data. We also heard of states being unwilling to share their data.

While the Greens support the majority report, we also submitted additional comments because we would have liked to have seen some significant issues addressed in greater detail. We are fully aware that it is likely that reduced rainfall, increased temperatures and increased climatic variability are going to have a significant impact on our water resources and that there is an urgent need for appropriate forward planning. There is a need to develop appropriate adaptation strategies on the critical issues of water scarcity and water security in Australia.

All these things need to be addressed if we are going to ensure that Australia has a sense of security about water.

The Australian Greens believe that these issues are not being addressed with the degree of urgency and level of detail that is required. The clear consensus among the scientific experts in the areas of water resources, climate and agriculture is that climate change, in particular, poses a major threat to the security of our water resources and the ongoing viability of our agricultural zones. The evidence presented to the committee clearly demonstrates there is a pressing need to act decisively on these issues. We need to urgently re-evaluate our water resource security planning. We need to look at our priorities for water use, the way we allocate our water resources and the way we allocate risk. We need to take very seriously the issue of developing adaptation strategies based on the best science. The Australian Greens believe that we need to consider the flexibility and adaptation of our allocation systems to deal with the likely impacts of climate change.

The fundamental importance of factoring the impacts of climate change into our systems of water management and allocation was very clearly put to us by CSIRO in their submission to the inquiry. They stated:

Under the present water reforms, longer term water security is not guaranteed since these reforms do not explicitly take into account threats to water quantity and quality due to enhanced climate variability and change.

CSIRO suggests there are significant knowledge gaps in terms of the impact on climate change, irrigation, water management, regional planning and the economy. Further, they stated:

It is crucial to understand the impact climate change would have on water demand and potential land use changes as water is tied to the highest value product.

They further recommended:

... a multi-stakeholder national initiative is needed to consider climate change impacts on farm to regional levels, and to devise robust policy options for the viability of irrigated agriculture, hydroelectric power generation, rural industries and regional communities.

And they stated:

There is a need to incorporate climate variability and change scenarios into understanding the sustainable footprint of irrigation, irrigation demand management, whole farm planning and environmental management.

We also had some very interesting submissions from a number of farming organisations. In particular, the Queensland Farmers Federation noted that they recognise:

... responding to and managing for climate variability and change is fundamentally a responsibility of farmers and rural industries. It is also recognised that this management effort must also be supported by clearly defined government policy and targeted scientific research.
the Queensland Farmers Federation-
does not believe that current drought programs adequately address the needs of intensive agricultural industries, continuous production systems, and those impacted beyond the farm gate.

They also made a series of recommendations on how to deal with climate change. They suggest:

... that a national approach to drought preparedness and drought management is a preferred position to the present reactive and uneven approaches embedded in the 'Exceptional Circumstance' programs.

So we need to urgently address climate change and, as I said, I do not think that extreme sense of urgency was picked up. We recommend that this urgency needs to be dealt with.

As a committee we were also required to look specifically at the impact of rural water usage of recent policy initiatives and the possible role of Commonwealth agencies. The National Water Initiative has not been underway that long, and that was acknowledged. We did not get a lot of evidence on this. However, we must note that the NWI was signed by most parties on 25 June 2004, and this built on a previous COAG framework that had been in place for a decade. So the lack of progress on the initiative and the difficulty faced in identifying and assessing its major impacts, I believe, is cause for concern.

Given the increased risk to water security currently facing Australia, we should have gone further in the report in assessing and commenting upon the current impacts of the policy and had perhaps a much more detailed discussion on how we can ramp up the NWI to deal with the emergency situation that we are currently in. While it is acknowledged that many of the issues around water security are in fact a state responsibility, there is a requirement on the Commonwealth, I believe, to show leadership. Unfortunately, it has not been above politicising some of the water issues.

This was no more apparent than in Toowoomba, where pressure from the federal government did lead to politicising the referendum around the recycling of water there. This has now resulted in their not having a clear option for dealing with the water crisis there. It became a political issue-and I will not repeat some of the language that was used in the debate because I think it is probably unparliamentary-and it was very clear that the focus on securing water resources was not the focus of the debate. It became a political debate and unfortunately that has set back the issue of recycling around the whole of Australia.

The issue of the adaptation of Australia's agriculture to reduced rainfall, higher temperatures and increased climate variability is particularly important to regional Australia and its future. We are concerned that the implications of climate change and climate variability are not being adequately assessed in terms of the impact they are having on rural communities. There is a pressing need for further research and development of adaptation strategies and a need to look beyond some of the options that are suggested, such as GM cotton, drought-resistant wheat varieties and improved irrigation practices.

These alone are not going to solve the issue of our water security crisis-and I am deeply concerned that people may think that if we do these things we are going to deal with this issue when, clearly, we are not.

There is a very clear need for better data collection, for information generation and for decision-making tools that enable our farmers, our farming communities, the broader community and in particular our regional communities to make adequate decisions on water use allocations and on adapting to climate change. There is an urgent need to address the issue of overallocation in our systems around Australia but particularly in the Murray-Darling system. Unless we fix the governance process, the way we make our decisions, and deal with information and information generation, from now on we are always going to be running the Murray on empty. I believe the Australian community finds that unacceptable. We need to act collectively to address these issues.

I commend the report to the chamber, both the majority report and the additional comments.

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