Cosmos Briefing: Water Policy in Australia

Water is the most vital resource on Earth and underpins all areas of survival. Over the next 10 years, we will need more fresh water to sustain us – even as drought and contamination make our current resources dwindle.

In yesterday’s Cosmos Briefing, three water experts discussed how we can protect our most precious resource.

The session, hosted by Dr Deborah Devis of The Royal Institution of Australia, featured Erin O’Donnell from the University of Melbourne, Bradley Moggridge from the University of Canberra, and Warwick Ragg from the National Farmers’ Federation.

O’Donnell, water law and policy specialist, points out that water planning in this country tends to happen at a seasonal level, but says we must plan into the future as the climate changes.

“We tend to struggle with mapping things out into the future and actually making those long-term decisions,” she says.

Moggridge, a Kamilaroi man with over 20 years’ experience in Aboriginal engagement, water and environmental science, says that there is 65,000 years of evidence of how to live sustainably with water in this country, but many Indigenous communities don’t have access to the water they used to.

“The challenge for a lot of the communities – especially Aboriginal communities – is that their knowledge of country is there, their value of water is there, but they don’t actually have the security of water itself,” he says.

“In a Western term, water is a commodity, and I suppose the challenge is that it’s not perceived or seen as a life force – you know, without it, you die. I suppose the challenge for us in the water space, especially for me, is how can we bring in the value of water, from a cultural point of view, to sit alongside the economic value.”

O’Donnell builds on this point, saying that we are beginning to reshape our relationship to water. The Yarra River in Melbourne, for example, is recognised as a living entity.

“That is genuinely starting to change conversations about how we think about rivers, how we relate to rivers and how we manage and protect water sources.”

Ragg discusses the importance of managing the water from an agricultural perspective, including the ability of the industry to adapt to climate change.

“Yes, it’s going to be hotter and drier. But when it’s wet, it’s probably going to be wetter,” he says. “From a farmer perspective, it’s kind of new and it’s not – I mean, climate variability has been something that the sector has dealt with. Evolution of species in different geographic zones has been on foot for a considerable time.”

He says that regulating and managing catchments into the future will be a complex task, using the Murray-Darling Basin as an example.

“There’s no magicking up of extra water. It’s there. It’s a discussion of how – if you do – how you rebalance it.”

O’Donnell agrees that this rebalancing will be challenging, and the law has a role to play.

“One of the things that we need to look at in a climate-changed future is the role that the law plays in actually shepherding the best available evidence into the corridors of power, into the decision makers’ minds, and the requirements that the law can place around the need to use that best available evidence,” she says.

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