Mitchell P. Jones, Vienna University of TechnologyFungi — a scientific goldmine? Well, that’s what a review published today in the journal Trends in Biotechnology indicates. You may think mushrooms are a long chalk from the caped crusaders of sustainability. But think again.
Many of us have heard of fungi’s role in creating more sustainable leather substitutes. Amadou vegan leather crafted from fungal-fruiting bodies has been around for some 5,000 years.
More recently, mycelium leather substitutes have taken the stage. These are produced from the root-like structure mycelium, which snakes through dead wood or soil beneath mushrooms.
You might even know about how fungi help us make many fermented food and drinks such as beer, wine, bread, soy sauce and tempeh. Many popular vegan protein products, including Quorn, are just flavoured masses of fungal mycelium.
But what makes fungi so versatile? And what else can they do?
Fungal growth offers a cheap, simple and environmentally friendly way to bind agricultural byproducts (such as rice hulls, wheat straw, sugarcane bagasse and molasses) into biodegradable and carbon-neutral foams.
Fungal foams are becoming increasingly popular as sustainable packaging materials; IKEA is one company that has indicated a commitment to using them.
Fungal foams can also be used in the construction industry for insulation, flooring and panelling. Research has revealed them to be strong competitors against commercial materials in terms of having effective sound and heat insulation properties.
Moreover, adding in industrial wastes such as glass fines (crushed glass bits) in these foams can improve their fire resistance.
And isolating only the mycelium can produce a more flexible and spongy foam suitable for products such as facial sponges, artificial skin, ink and dye carriers, shoe insoles, lightweight insulation lofts, cushioning, soft furnishings and textiles.
For other products, it’s the composition of fungi that matters. Fungal filaments contain chitin: a remarkable polymer also found in crab shells and insect exoskeletons.
Chitin has a fibrous structure, similar to cellulose in wood. This means fungal fibre can be processed into sheets the same way paper is made.
When stretched, fungal papers are stronger than many plastics and not much weaker than some steels of the same thickness. We’ve yet to test its properties when subject to different forces.
Fungal paper’s strength can be substituted for rubbery flexibility by using specific fungal species, or a different part of the mushroom. The paper’s transparency can be customised in the same way.
Growing fungi in mineral-rich environments results in inherent fire resistance for the fungus, as it absorbs the inflammable minerals, incorporating them into its structure. Add to this that water doesn’t wet fungal surfaces, but rolls off, and you’ve got yourself some pretty useful paper.
Some might ask: what’s the point of fungal paper when we already get paper from wood? That’s where the other interesting attributes of chitin come into play — or more specifically, the attributes of its derivative, chitosan.
Chitosan is chitin that has been chemically modified through exposure to an acid or alkali. This means with a few simple steps, fungal paper can adopt a whole new range of applications.
For instance, chitosan is electrically charged and can be used to attract heavy metal ions. So what happens if you couple it with a mycelium filament network that is intricate enough to prevent solids, bacteria and even viruses (which are much smaller than bacteria) from passing through?
The result is an environmentally friendly membrane with impressive water purification properties. In our research, my colleagues and I found this material to be stable, simple to make and useful for laboratory filtration.
While the technology hasn’t yet been commercialised, it holds particular promise for reducing the environmental impact of synthetic filtration materials, and providing safer drinking water where it’s not available.
Perhaps even more interesting is chitosan’s considerable biomedical potential. Fungal materials have been used to create dressings with active wound healing properties.
Although not currently on the market, these have been proven to have antibacterial properties, stem bleeding and support cell proliferation and attachment.
Fungal enzymes can also be used to combat bacteria active in tooth decay, enhance bleaching and destroy compounds responsible for bad breath.
Then there’s the well-known role of fungi in antibiotics. Penicillin, made from the Penicillium fungi, was a scientific breakthrough that has saved millions of lives and become a staple of modern healthcare.
Many antibiotics are still produced from fungi or soil bacteria. And in an age of increasing antibiotic resistance, genome sequencing is finally enabling us to identify fungi’s untapped potential for manufacturing the antibiotics of the future.
Fungi could play a huge role in sustainability by remedying existing environmental damage.
For example, they can help clean up contaminated industrial sites through a popular technique known as mycoremediation, and can break down or absorb oils, pollutants, toxins, dyes and heavy metals.
They can also compost some synthetic plastics, such as polyurethane. In this process, the plastic is buried in regulated soil and its byproducts are digested by specific fungi as it degrades.
These incredible organisms can even help refine bio fuels. Whether or not we go as far as using fungal coffins to decompose our bodies into nutrients for plants — well, that’s a debate for another day.
But one thing is for sure: fungi have the undeniable potential to be used for a whole range of purposes we’re only beginning to grasp.
It could be the beer you drink, your next meal, antibiotics, a new faux leather bag or the packaging that delivered it to you — you never know what form the humble mushroom will take tomorrow.
Before we knew it, autumn rolled in bringing more rain. Tragically, it led to widespread flooding across New South Wales, but elsewhere it helped to create more puddles. In our urban environments puddles are inconvenient: they can damage property and block our paths. But from a biological perspective, puddles are very important components of microhabitats and biodiversity.
We know for many animals — including birds and pets — puddles are a ready source of drinking water and provide a much-needed bath after a hot and dusty day. They’re also well known for providing water-reliant species such as mosquitoes with opportunities for breeding, and many of us may remember watching tadpoles developing in puddles as children.
But puddles make more nuanced and subtle contributions to the natural world than you may have realised. So with more rain soon to arrive, let’s explore why they’re so valuable.
Puddles are a diverse lot. They can be small or large, shallow or deep, long lasting or gone in a matter of hours. If you look closely at a puddle you will often find it is not even, especially on a slope.
Puddles consist of small, naturally formed ridges (berms) and depressions (swales). The berms form from silt and organic matter like leaf litter, which act as mini dams holding back the water in the swales behind them.
Berms and swales can be hard to see, but if you look closely they’re everywhere and contribute to the retention of water, affecting the depth, spread and the very existence of the puddle.
All of this means they meet the needs of different species.
On rainy days you may have seen birds such as magpies feeding on worms that wriggle to the surface. Worm burrows can be two to three metres deep and many species might come to the surface to feed on leaf litter.
Worms emerge during and after heavy rain when water floods their burrows and soil becomes saturated. The worms won’t drown but they do need oxygen, which is low in very wet soils.
Often in drier weather, getting a worm is not as easy as you might think — not even for the legendary early bird. So when heavy rain drives worms to the surface, it’s party time for birds that feed on them, and they make the most of the opportunity.
Swales in puddles often persist for days, which allows water-dependent insects to breed. Mosquito larvae, for instance, live in water for between four and 14 days, depending on temperature (so if you’re worried about mozzies, then remember puddles have to persist for days before the pesky pests emerge).
Tadpoles take between four and 12 weeks to develop into frogs, and requires a deeper, long-lasting puddle. But these puddles are becoming rarer in urban areas, and so it’s not often you see tadpoles or frogs in our suburbs.
Puddles also provide small, but important, reservoirs where seeds of many plant species germinate. In some cases, the seeds have chemical inhibitors in them, which prevent the seeds from germinating until after a period of heavy rainfall.
Then, the inhibitors are leeched from or diluted within the seeds, allowing them to germinate. Many desert species have this adaptation, including Australian eremophilas (emu bush).
In other cases, plants that grow all year round (annoyingly, weeds among them) need the dose of water puddles provide to kick start their very rapid growth and reproduction.
Easily germinated plants (such as tomatoes and cabbages) and ornamental flowering plants (such as hollyhocks and delphiniums) often require just a little extra water to trigger the whole germination process.
Puddles also provide more subtle opportunities for wildlife. Take Australia’s iconic river red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) as an example. River red gums are water-loving trees that can withstand up to nine months of inundation without getting stressed.
What’s not so well known, however, is river red gums produce chemicals that rain washes from their leaves, accumulating beneath the tree. These chemicals can inhibit the growth of plants, such as weeds, under the canopies.
This effect — where chemicals produced by one plant have an effect on other plants — is called “allelopathy”. Many wattle species produce allelopathic chemicals and so do some important food plants, such as walnuts, rice and the common pea.
River red gum allelopathic chemicals can prevent the trees’ own seedlings from growing near them. So river red gums require floods to wash the chemicals from the soil away. This mechanism allows river red gums to germinate and regenerate when the soil is wet, and in places away from the competition of mature trees.
Puddles can do the same thing, on a small scale, ensuring trees have plenty of opportunities to persist in the wild. This pattern of regeneration is important to provide a mosaic of species and trees of different ages, making up a diverse range of habitats for other wildlife.
As property developers iron the creases from our created landscapes with much less open space and more paved surfaces, puddles are becoming harder to find close to home.
Taking away puddles removes a whole range of microhabitats, jeopardising the chances of a diverse range of species to breed and persist, especially in urban areas. These days, any loss of biodiversity is worrying.
So when you’re next out and about after or during heavy rain, keep an eye out for puddles.
Remember the life that depends on them and, if you can, try not to disturb them. Perhaps capture the joy of jumping over — rather than in — them. They are not just a nuisance, but a key to a nuanced and biodiverse local community.
Water markets have come in for some bad press lately, fuelled in part by the severe drought of 2019 and resulting high water prices.
They have also been the subject of an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry, whose interim report released last year documented a range of problems with the way water markets work in the Murray-Darling Basin. The final report was handed to the treasurer last week.
While water markets are far from perfect, new research from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) has found they are vital in helping the region cope with drought and climate change, producing benefits in the order of A$117 million per year.
To make the most of water markets, we will need to keep improving the rules and systems which support them. But with few “off-the-shelf” solutions, further reform will require both perseverance and innovation.
Australia’s biggest and most active water markets are in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, which covers the Murray River and its tributaries in Victoria, NSW and South Australia.
Each year water right holders are assigned “allocations”: shares of water in the rivers’ major dams. These allocations can be traded across the river system, helping to get water where it is most needed.
Water markets also allow for “carryover”: where rights holders store rather than use their allocations, holding them in dams for use in future droughts.
Our research estimates that water trading and carryover generate benefits to water users in the southern Murray-Darling, of A$117 million on average per year (around 12% of the value of water rights) with even larger gains in dry years. Carryover plays a key role, accounting for around half of these benefits.
Together water trading and carryover act to smooth variability in water prices, while also slightly lowering average prices across the basin.
One of many issues raised in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission interim report was the design of the trading rules, including limits on how much water can move between regions.
These rules are intended to reflect the physical limits of the river system, however getting them right is extremely difficult.
The rules we have are relatively blunt, such that there is potential at different times for either too much water to be traded or too little.
One possible refinement is a shift from a rules-based system to one with more central coordination.
For example, in electricity, these problems are addressed via so-called “smart markets”: centralised computer systems which balance demand and supply across the grid in real-time.
Such an approach is unlikely to be feasible for water in the foreseeable future.
But a similar outcome could be achieved by establishing a central agency to determine inter-regional trade volumes, taking into account user demands, river constraints, seasonal conditions and environmental objectives.
While novel in Australia, the approach has parallels in the government-operated “drought water banks” that have emerged in some parts of the United States.
Another possible refinement involves water sharing rules, which specify how water allocations are determined and how they are carried over between years.
At present these rules are often complex and lacking in transparency. This can lead to a perceived disconnect between water allocations and physical water supply, creating uncertainty for users and undermining confidence in the market.
Although markets in the northern Murray-Darling Basin are generally less advanced than the south, some sophisticated water sharing systems have evolved in the north to deal with the region’s unique hydrology (highly variable river flows and small dams).
Governance failures in the water market have led to understandable frustration.
But it is important to remember how vital trading and carryover are in smoothing variations in water prices and making sure water gets where it is needed, especially during droughts.
The ACCC’s final report (due soon) will provide an opportunity to take stock and develop a roadmap for the future.
To limit the spread of disease and reduce environmental pollution, human waste (excreta) needs to be safely contained and effectively treated. Yet 4.2 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, lack access to safe sanitation.
In developing countries, each person produces, on average, six litres of toilet wastewater each day. Based on the number of people who don’t have access to safe sanitation, that equates to nearly 14 billion litres of untreated faecally contaminated wastewater created each day. That’s the same as 5,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
This untreated wastewater directly contributes to increased diarrhoeal diseases, such as cholera, typhoid fever and rotavirus. Diseases such as these are responsible for 297,000 deaths per year of children under five years old, or 800 children every day.
The highest rates of diarrhoea-attributable child deaths are experienced by the poorest communities in countries including Afghanistan, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Given the global scale of this problem, it’s surprising sanitation practitioners still don’t know where exactly all the human excreta flows or leaches to, due to absent or unreliable data.
Inadequate sanitation is not only a human health issue, it’s also bad for the environment. An estimated 80% of wastewater from developed and developing countries flows untreated into environments around the world.
If an excess of nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorous) are released into the environment from untreated wastewater, it can foul natural ecosystems and disrupt aquatic life.
This is especially the case for coral reefs. Many of the worlds most diverse coral reefs are located in tropical developing countries.
And overwhelmingly, developing countries have very limited human excreta management, leading to large quantities of raw wastewater being released directly onto coral reefs. In countries with high populations such as Indonesia and the Philippines, this is particularly evident.
The damage raw wastewater inflicts on corals is severe. Raw wastewater carries solids, endocrine disrupters (chemicals that interfere with hormones), inorganic nutrients, heavy metals and pathogens directly to corals. This stunts coral growth, causes more coral diseases and reduces their reproduction rates.
The challenges of climate change will exacerbate our sanitation crisis, as increased rain and flooding will inundate sanitation systems and cause them to overflow. Pacific Island nations are particularly vulnerable, because of the compounding impacts of rising sea levels and more frequent, extreme tropical cyclones.
Meanwhile, increased drought and severe water scarcity in other parts of the world will render some sanitation systems, such as sewer systems, inoperable. One example is the mismanagement of government-operated water supplies in Harare, Zimbabwe leading to the failure of the sewerage system and placing millions at risk of waterborne diseases.
Even in more developed countries like Australia, increased frequency of extreme weather events and disasters, including bushfires, will damage some sanitation infrastructure beyond repair.
Improving clean water and sanitation have clear global targets. Goal 6 of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals is to, by 2030, achieve adequate and equitable sanitation for all and to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater.
Achieving this target will be difficult, given there is an absence of reliable data on the exact numbers of sanitation systems that are safely managed or not, particularly in developing countries.
Individual studies in countries such as Tanzania provide small amounts of information on whether some sanitation systems are safely managed. But these studies are not yet at the size needed to extrapolate to national scales.
A big reason behind the missing data is the large range of sanitation systems and their complex classifications.
For example, in developing countries, most people are serviced by on-site sanitation such as septic tanks (a concrete tank) or pit latrines (hole dug into the ground). But a lack of adherence to construction standards in nearly all developing countries, means most septic tanks are not built to standard and do not safely contain or treat faecal sludge.
A common example seen with septic tank construction is there are a lot of incentives to build “non-standard” septic tanks that are much cheaper. From my current research in rural Fiji, I’ve seen reduced tank sizes and the use of alternative materials (old plastic water tanks) to save space and money in material costs.
These don’t allow for adequate containment or treatment. Instead, excreta can leach freely into the surrounding environment.
A standard septic tank is designed to be desludged periodically, where the settled solids at the bottom of the tanks are removed by large vacuum trucks and disposed of safely. So, having a non-standard septic tank is further incentivised as the lack of sealed chambers reduces the accumulation of sludge, delaying costly emptying fees.
Another key challenge with data collection is how to determine if the sanitation infrastructure if functioning correctly. Even if the original design was built to a quality standard, in many circumstances there are significant deficiencies in operational and maintenance activities that lead to the system not working properly.
What’s more, terminology is a constant point of confusion. Households — when surveyed for UN’s Sustainable Development Goal data collection on sanitation — will say they do have a septic tank. But in reality, they’re unaware they have a non-standard septic tank functioning as a leach-pit, and not safely treating or containing their excreta.
Achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 6 requires nationally representative data sets. The following important questions must be answered, at national scales in developing countries:
for every toilet, where does the excreta go? Is it safely contained, treated on site, or transported for treatment?
if the excreta is not contained or treated properly after it leaves the toilet, then how far does it travel through the ground or waterways?
when excreta is removed from the pit or septic tank of a full on-site latrine, where is it taken? Is it dumped in the environment or safely treated?
are sewer systems intact and connected to functioning wastewater treatment plants that releases effluent (treated waste) of a safe quality?
Presently, the sanitation data collection tools the UN uses for its Sustainable Development Goals don’t answer in full these critical questions. More robust surveys and sampling programs need to be designed, along with resource allocation for government sanitation departments for a more thorough data collection strategy.
And importantly, we need a co-ordinated investment in sustainable sanitation solutions from all stakeholders, especially governments, international organisations and the private sector. This is essential to both protect the health of our own species and all other living things.
For the first time in Victoria’s history, the state government has handed back water to traditional owners, giving them rights to a river system they have managed sustainably for thousands of years.
The two billion litres of water returned to the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) this month means traditional owners can now determine how and where water is used for cultural, environmental or economic purposes.
The decision recognises that water rights are crucial for Indigenous people to restore customs, protect their culture, become economically independent and heal Country.
The hand-back to Gunaikurnai people is the crucial first step in a bigger, statewide process of recognising Indigenous people’s deep connection to water. It also serves as an example to the rest of Australia, where Indigenous rights to water are grossly inadequate.
Gunaikurnai people hold native title over much of Gippsland, from the mountains to the sea.
The water hand-back comes ten years since this native title was secured, and since Gunaikurnai people entered into the state’s first Traditional Owner Settlement Agreement with the government. Under this agreement, GLaWAC is a joint manager, with Parks Victoria, of ten parks and reserves in Gippsland, including the Mitchell River National Park.
Victorian water minister Lisa Neville said the hand-back was a key milestone in her government’s 2016 Aboriginal Water Policy. That plan aims to:
GLaWAC engages closely with government agencies that control how water is shared and used and these partnerships are highly valued. But it is only through owning water that traditional owners can really control how water is used to care for Country and for people.
For the moment, the water will be staying in the river. Its use will be decided after discussions between GLaWAC and Gunaikurnai community members.
In 2016, the Victorian government committed A$5 million to a plan to increase Aboriginal access to water rights, including funding for traditional owners to develop feasibility plans to support water-based businesses.
There are significant barriers to reallocating water to Victoria’s traditional owners. Water is expensive to buy, hold and use. Annual fees and charges can easily run to tens of thousands of dollars a year in some locations.
Using water to care for Country supports well-being, the environment and other water uses, including tourism and recreation. But, unlike using water for irrigation, there may not be any direct economic return from a water hand-back. This means water recovery for traditional owners must include ways to cover fees and charges.
Victoria’s water entitlement framework is also consumption-based – it is designed for water to be taken out of rivers, not left in. This can make it hard for traditional owners to leave water in the river for the benefit of the environment. So water entitlements and rules should be changed to reflect how traditional owners want to manage water.
Lastly, many traditional owners lack access to land where they can use the water. Or they may wish to use water in areas that, under natural conditions, would be watered when rivers flood, but which are now disconnected from the waterway. To help overcome this, traditional owners should be given access to Crown land, including joint management of parks. GLaWAC’s partnership agreements are a good example of how this might happen in future.
While significant barriers to water access remain, this hand-back shows how real water outcomes for traditional owners can be achieved when there is political will and ministerial support.
The water is part of six billion litres on the Mitchell River identified as unallocated, meaning no-one yet has rights over it. The remaining four billion litres will be made available on the open market, for use by irrigators or other industries. It can be extracted only during the colder months from July 1 to October 31.
The extraction and use of the water by Gunaikurnai people will be linked to specific locations, and the licence is up for renewal every 15 years. GLaWAC will work with state agency Southern Rural Water to ensure that the licence conditions match the water plans of traditional owners.
This step is crucial. There have been many instances in other states where traditional owners have obtained water, but been unable to use it due to barriers on how it can be used, and annual fees and charges.
Traditional owners across Australia never ceded their rights to water. Yet Aboriginal people own less than 1% of the nation’s water rights. Righting this wrong is the “unfinished business” of national water reform.
Even when political commitments are made, there has been little progress. For example, in 2018 the federal government committed A$40 million to acquire water rights for Aboriginal people in the Murray-Darling Basin, but no purchase of water rights has yet occurred.
This woeful and unjust situation is also reflected in Victoria. Before the Gunaikurnai hand-back, only a tiny handful of Aboriginal-owned organisations and one traditional owner, Taungurung, owned water rights in Victoria, and the volumes were small. In these cases, water recovery was not a formal hand-back from the state, and included a donation from a farmer.
Across Australia, Aboriginal people are watching the Victorian water reform process with great interest. The water returned to Gunaikurnai people builds momentum, and increases pressure on governments across Australia to take water justice seriously.
Troy McDonald, Chairman of Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Knowledge and Erin O’Donnell, Early Career Academic Fellow, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environment Law, University of Melbourne
Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES); David Galeano, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)
It’s been 13 years since the Australian Government set out to develop the Murray-Darling Basin Plan with the goal of finding a more sustainable balance between irrigation and the environment.
Like much of the history of water sharing in the Murray-Darling over the last 150 years, the process has been far from smooth. However, significant progress has been achieved, with about 20% of water rights recovered from agricultural users and redirected towards environmental flows.
One of the most difficult debates has been over how the water should be recovered.
Initially most occurred via “buybacks” of water rights from farmers. While relatively fast and inexpensive, opposition to buybacks emerged due to concerns about their effects on water prices and irrigation farmers and regional communities.
This led to a new emphasis on infrastructure programs including farm upgrades in which farmers received funding to improve their irrigation systems in return for surrendering water rights.
While these farm upgrades are more expensive, it was thought that they would have fewer negative effects on farmers and communities.
However, new research from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences finds that – while beneficial for their participants – these programs push water prices higher, placing pressure on the wider irrigation sector.
The Murray-Darling Basin operates under a “cap and trade” system. Each year there is a limit on how much water can be extracted from the basin’s rivers, based on the available supply.
Water users (mostly farmers) hold rights to a share of this limit, and they can trade these rights on a market.
To date 1,230 gigalitres of these water rights have been bought from farmers via buyback programs at a cost of about A$2.6 billion.
The other type of program is farm upgrades which offer farmers funding to improve their irrigation infrastructure in return for a portion of their water rights.
To date 255 gigalitres of water has been recovered through farm upgrades at a cost of about $1 billion.
Annual volume of water rights recovered for the environment since 2007-08
As would be expected, the dominant short-term driver of prices is water availability, with large price increases during droughts. The dominant longer-term drivers include lower average rainfall related to climate change and the emergence of new irrigation crops including almonds.
While water recovery has played less of a role, buybacks and farm upgrades have still reduced the supply of water to farmers and increased prices to some extent.
Our modelling suggests water prices in the southern basin are around $72 per megalitre higher on average as a result of water recovery measures, with the effects varying year-to-year depending on conditions.
Modelled water allocation prices with and without water recovery
Farm upgrades are often viewed as an opportunity to save water and produce “more crop per drop”.
But they can also encourage farmers to increase their water use as they seek to make the most of their new infrastructure: sometimes referred to as a “rebound effect”.
While there have been concerns about rebound effects for some time, there has been limited evidence until recently.
As would be expected, our study finds that upgraded farms have benefited in terms of profits and productivity. However, we also find large rebound effects, with upgraded farms increasing their water use by between 10% and 50%.
To get the extra water they need to buy it from other farmers, putting pressure on prices. We find the resulting price impact to be much more than the impact of buying back water. Per unit of water recovered, it is about double that of buybacks.
These higher water prices increase the risk that irrigation assets – including some newly upgraded systems – could become stranded as price sensitive irrigation activities become less profitable.
Recovering water through off-farm infrastructure is one alternative, however the most effective projects have already been developed, leaving cost-effective water saving schemes harder to find.
This brings us back to buybacks. Because buybacks are cheaper than farm infrastructure programs, there is more scope to combine them with regional development investments to help offset negative impacts on communities.
The challenge is that in a connected water market the flow-on effects on water prices and farmers can be complex and difficult to predict, making it hard to know where to direct development investments.
A potential middle ground is rationalisation, where parts of the water supply network are decommissioned, and affected farmers are compensated both for their water rights and for being disconnected from water supply. This approach has less effect on water prices and allows regional development initiatives to be targeted to the affected areas.
However, rationalisation can be hard to implement given it requires negotiating with all affected farmers and all levels of government.
Given the complexity of the Murray-Darling Basin, water policy is far from simple. While it is clear more water will be needed to put the basin on a sustainable footing, there are no easy options.
Further progress will require careful policy design to help ease adjustment pressure on farmers and regional communities.
Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES); David Galeano, Assistant Secretary, Natural Resources, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)
New Zealand’s government has been praised for listening to health experts in its pandemic response, but when it comes to dealing with pollution of the country’s waterways, scientific advice seems less important.
Today, the government released a long-awaited NZ$700 million package to address freshwater pollution. The new rules include higher standards around cleanliness of swimming spots, set controls for some farming practices and how much synthetic fertiliser is used, and require mandatory and enforceable farm environment plans.
But the package is flawed. It does not include any measurable limits on key nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) and the rules’ implementation is left to regional authorities. Over the 30 years they have been managing the environment, the health of lakes and rivers has continued to decline.
For full disclosure, I was part of the 18-person science technical advisory group that made the recommendations. Despite more than a year of consultation and evidence-based science, the government has deferred or ignored our advice on introducing measurable limits on nitrogen and phosphorus.
The declining state of rivers, lakes and wetlands was the most important environmental issue for 80% of New Zealanders in a recent survey. It was also an election issue in 2017, so there was a clear mandate for significant change.
But despite years of work from government appointed expert panels, including the technical advisory group I was part of, the Māori freshwater forum Kahui Wai Māori and the Freshwater Leaders groups, crucial advice was ignored.
The technical advisory group, supported by research, was unequivocal that specific nitrogen and phosphorus limits are necessary to protect the quality of people’s drinking water and the ecological health of waterways.
The proposed nutrient limits were key to achieving real change, and far from being extreme, would have brought New Zealand into line with the rest of the world. For example, in China, the limit for nitrogen in rivers is 1 milligram per litre – the same limit as our technical advisory group recommended. In New Zealand, 85% of waterways in pasture catchments (which make up half of the country’s waterways, if measured by length) now exceed nitrate limit guidelines.
Instead, Minister for the Environment David Parker decided to postpone this discussion by another year – meaning New Zealand will continue to lag other nations in having clear, enforceable nutrient limits.
This delay will inevitably result in a continued decline of water quality, with a corresponding decline in a suite of ecological, cultural, social and economic values a healthy environment could support.
The other main policy the expert panels pushed for was a cap on the use of nitrogen fertiliser. This was indeed part of the announcement, which is a positive and important step forward. But the cap is set at 190kg per hectare per year, which is too high. This is like telling someone they should reduce smoking from three to two and a half packets a day to be healthier.
I believe claims from the dairy industry that the tightening of environmental standards for freshwater would threaten New Zealand’s economic recovery are exaggerated. They also ignore the fact clean water and a healthy environment provide the foundation for our current and future economic well-being.
And they fly in the face of modelling by the Ministry for the Environment, which shows implementation of freshwater reforms would save NZ$3.8 billion.
Excess nitrogen is not just an issue for ecosystem health. Nitrate (which forms when nitrogen combines with oxygen) in drinking water has been linked to colon cancer, which is disproportionately high in many parts of New Zealand.
The New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine and the Hawkes Bay district health board both made submissions calling for a nitrate limit in rivers and aquifers to protect people’s health – at the same level the technical advisory group recommended to protect ecosystems.
Our dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is unsustainable, and it is adding to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas footprint through nitrous oxide emissions. There is growing evidence farmers can make more profit by reducing their use of artificial fertilisers.
Continued use will only further degrade soils across productive landscapes and reduce the farming sector’s resilience in a changing climate.
The irony is that for a century, New Zealand produced milk without synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Instead, farmers grew clover which converts nitrogen from the air. If we want to strive for better water quality for future generations, we need to front up to the unsustainable use of artificial fertiliser and seek more regenerative farming practices.
Michael (Mike) Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington
Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Matthew Colloff, Australian National University; Paul Wyrwoll, Australian National University, and Virginia Marshall, Australian National University
The last bushfire season showed Australians they can no longer pretend climate change will not affect them. But there’s another climate change influence we must also face up to: increasingly scarce water on our continent.
Under climate change, rainfall will become more unpredictable. Extreme weather events such as cyclones will be more intense. This will challenge water managers already struggling to respond to Australia’s natural boom and bust of droughts and floods.
Thirty years since Australia’s water reform project began, it’s clear our efforts have largely failed. Drought-stricken rural towns have literally run out of water. Despite the recent rains, the Murray Darling river system is being run dry and struggles to support the communities that depend on it.
We must find another way. So let’s start the conversation.
Sadly, inequitable water outcomes in Australia are not new.
The first water “reform” occurred when European settlers acquired water sources from First Peoples without consent or compensation. Overlaying this dispossession, British common law gave new settlers land access rights to freshwater. These later converted into state-owned rights, and are now allocated as privately held water entitlements.
Some 200 years later, the first steps towards long-term water reform arguably began in the 1990s. The process accelerated during the Millennium Drought and in 2004 led to the National Water Initiative, an intergovernmental water agreement. This was followed in 2007 by a federal Water Act, upending exclusive state jurisdiction over water.
Under the National Water Initiative, state and territory water plans were to be verified through water accounting to ensure “adequate measurement, monitoring and reporting systems” across the country.
This would have boosted public and investor confidence in the amount of water being traded, extracted and recovered – both for the environment and the public good.
This vision has not been realised. Instead, a narrow view now dominates in which water is valuable only when extracted, and water reform is about subsidising water infrastructure such as dams, to enable this extraction.
In the current drought, rural towns have literally run out of fresh drinking water. These towns are not just dots on a map. They are communities whose very existence is now threatened.
In some small towns, drinking water can taste unpleasant or contain high levels of nitrate, threatening the health of babies. Drinking water in some remote Indigenous communities is not always treated, and the quality rarely checked.
In the Murray-Darling Basin, poor management and low rainfall have caused dry rivers, mass fish kills, and distress in Aboriginal communities. Key aspects of the basin plan have not been implemented. This, coupled with bushfire damage, has caused long-term ecological harm.
Rivers, lakes and wetlands must have enough water at the right time. Only then will the needs of humans and the environment be met equitably – including access to and use of water by First Peoples.
Water for the environment and water for irrigation is not a zero-sum trade-off. Without healthy rivers, irrigation farming and rural communities cannot survive.
A national conversation on water reform is needed. It should recognise and include First Peoples’ values and knowledge of land, water and fire.
Our water brief, Water Reform For All,
proposes six principles to build a national water dialogue:
- establish shared visions and goals
- develop clarity of roles and responsibilities
- implement adaptation as a way to respond to an escalation of stresses, including climate change and governance failures
- invest in advanced technology to monitor, predict and understand changes in water availability
- integrate bottom-up and community-based adaptation, including from Indigenous communities, into improved water governance arrangements
- undertake policy experiments to test new ways of managing water for all
As researchers, we don’t have all the answers on how to create a sustainable, equitable water future. No-one does. But in any national conversation, we believe these fundamental questions must be asked:
who is responsible for water governance? How do decisions and actions of one group affect access and availability of water for others?
what volumes of water are extracted from surface and groundwater systems? Where, when, by whom and for what?
what can we predict about a future climate and other long-term drivers of change?
how can we better understand and measure the multiple values that water holds for communities and society?
where do our visions for the future of water align? Where do they differ?
what principles, protocols and processes will help deliver the water reform needed?
how do existing rules and institutions constrain, or enable, efforts to achieve a shared vision of a sustainable water future?
how do we integrate new knowledge, such as water availability under climate change, into our goals?
what restitution is needed in relation to water and Country for First Peoples?
what economic sectors and processes would be better suited to a water-scarce future, and how might we foster them?
These questions, if part of a national conversation, would reinvigorate the water debate and help put Australia on track to a sustainable water future.
Now is the time to start the discussion. Long-accepted policy approaches in support of sustainable water futures are in question. In the Murray-Darling Basin, some states even question the value of catchment-wide management. The formula for water-sharing between states is under attack.
Even science that previously underpinned water reform is being questioned
We must return to basics, reassess what’s sensible and feasible, and debate new ways forward.
We are not naive. All of us have been involved in water reform and some of us, like many others, suffer from reform fatigue.
But without a fresh debate, Australia’s water emergency will only get worse. Reform can – and must – happen, for the benefit of all Australians.
The following contributed to this piece and co-authored the report on which it was based: Daniel Connell, Katherine Daniell, Joseph Guillaume, Lorrae van Kerkoff, Aparna Lal, Ehsan Nabavi, Jamie Pittock, Katherine Taylor, Paul Tregoning, and John Williams
Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Matthew Colloff, Honorary Senior Lecturer, Australian National University; Paul Wyrwoll, Research fellow, Australian National University, and Virginia Marshall, Inaugural Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University