Australia, it’s time to talk about our water emergency



Dean Lewins/AAP

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.

It’s time for a new national discussion about water policy.
Joe Castro/AAP

How did we get here?

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.




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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.

The National Water Initiative has failed.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Why we should all care

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.

How do we fix the water emergency?

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:

  1. establish shared visions and goals
  2. develop clarity of roles and responsibilities
  3. implement adaptation as a way to respond to an escalation of stresses, including climate change and governance failures
  4. invest in advanced technology to monitor, predict and understand changes in water availability
  5. integrate bottom-up and community-based adaptation, including from Indigenous communities, into improved water governance arrangements
  6. undertake policy experiments to test new ways of managing water for all
The Darling River is in poor health.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Ask the right questions

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:

  1. who is responsible for water governance? How do decisions and actions of one group affect access and availability of water for others?

  2. what volumes of water are extracted from surface and groundwater systems? Where, when, by whom and for what?

  3. what can we predict about a future climate and other long-term drivers of change?

  4. how can we better understand and measure the multiple values that water holds for communities and society?

  5. where do our visions for the future of water align? Where do they differ?

  6. what principles, protocols and processes will help deliver the water reform needed?

  7. how do existing rules and institutions constrain, or enable, efforts to achieve a shared vision of a sustainable water future?

  8. how do we integrate new knowledge, such as water availability under climate change, into our goals?

  9. what restitution is needed in relation to water and Country for First Peoples?

  10. what economic sectors and processes would be better suited to a water-scarce future, and how might we foster them?

Water reform for all

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.




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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 WilliamsThe Conversation

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

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why declaring a national climate emergency would neither be realistic or effective



The Greens and independent MPs are pushing for Australia to declare a national ‘climate emergency’, in line with several other nations.
Darren England/AAP

David Holmes, Monash University

Predictably, both major political parties are resisting calls this week for a parliamentary conscience vote to declare a climate emergency in Australia.

The resistance is unsurprising because both the Coalition and Labor are still captive to the fossil fuel industry. Both fear alienating voters who believe that a mining job is somehow worth far more than a renewables job, though this is perhaps more true for Labor than the LNP.

A majority of Australians accept that climate change is happening, although, like the minister for natural disasters, David Littleproud, a surprising number don’t necessarily believe it is caused by humans. Moreover, when climate change is made an economic issue, many voters are less likely to support tougher action if they perceive this is going to impact on their cost of living.

Despite the fact he lost his own seat in the recent federal election, former PM Tony Abbott said the Coalition’s overall victory made this point abundantly clear.

Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. But where climate change is an economic issue […] tonight shows we do very, very well.




Read more:
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Climate change vs the economy

There is no better illustration of Abbott’s zealous observation than in Queensland during the 2019 election.

Former Greens leader Bob Brown, believing he could turn the controversial Adani coal mine into another Franklin River dam, led a convoy of climate activists through Queensland towns. But pushing climate change as a moral issue became an insult to the coal communities there.

Bob Brown’s anti-Adani protests didn’t play well in some Queensland communities.
Rohan Thomson/AAP

Labor also talked tough on climate change, with former leader Bill Shorten declaring in the final week of the May campaign:

It is not the Australian way to avoid and duck the hard fights. We will take this [climate change] emergency seriously.

At the same time, Labor vacillated over Adani. The party’s prevarication over climate led to much confusion, and when the votes were counted, it did not win a seat north of metro Brisbane.




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Fast-forward to today, and the painful loss of the election has ensured that Labor isn’t taking any chances on coal.

In fact, shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong didn’t hesitate last month when she said,

coal remains an important industry for Australia and it remains part of the global energy mix.

And Labor may now be preparing to walk away from its ambitious climate target of cutting emissions by 45% by 2030, in favour of a focus on a net-zero pollution target for 2050.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale accused Labor of “caving in to the coal, oil and gas lobby” if it abandons its 2030 emissions reduction target, and added,

Labor will have lost whatever remaining credibility it has on the climate crisis.

The politics of a national emergency

In many city councils and certain electorates across Australia, declaring a climate emergency has been a clever strategy both for political consumption and to mobilise behavioural change on a local scale.

But on a national scale, where climate change is so heavily politicised, the declaration of a climate change emergency would be an unmitigated disaster for the major parties, and for the cause of effectively communicating climate change.

This is not to say that climate change isn’t anything short of an emergency. It absolutely is.




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The monstrous amounts of energy going into the oceans right now guarantees continued global warming that is fast heading towards the equivalent of the climatic violence of the Eemian period of 118,000 years ago.

And among the countless tipping points we are seeing unfold before us, the shock of a premature fire season in NSW and Queensland, with winter barely over, is just one way in which climate change is having an impact at a local level.

In some ways, there is no better time to raise awareness of climate change than during extreme weather events, as people are looking for explanations as to why they are occurring and how they can be so severe.

But to declare a national climate emergency, pushed so strongly by the Greens and independents, is not only politically difficult in Australia at the moment, it is also a hopeless communications strategy.

Communicating a climate emergency

Here are six reasons why declaring a climate emergency is so deeply problematic.

1) Without bipartisan support, which is likely to be the case, it will further entrench the politicisation of climate change in Australia. Australians are already divided on anthropogenic climate change, and are increasingly afflicted by issue fatigue. This is precisely because climate change is thrashed about as a political issue (which turns on opinion) rather than a matter of physics (which turns on facts).

2) If such a conscience vote fails in parliament, it will marginalise any well-intentioned instigators as a partisan minority.

3) If ever such a conscience vote succeeded, it would merely come to serve as a symbolic cover for inaction in the face of steadily rising emissions.

4) Without meaningful decarbonisation policies, such a declaration would become a twisted apologia for such inaction, as long as political parties are able to spin national accounting carbon emissions figures.

5) Recent research by the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub found that the term “climate emergency” didn’t resonate with Australians as much as other phrases, such as climate change, global warming, extreme weather, climate crisis, and complex weather. Only 6.93% of Brisbane respondents and 4.03% of Melbourne respondents preferred “climate emergency” to the other terms.

6) By far the most overwhelming problem with such a declaration is that politicians are the least trusted sources of information on climate change.

To regain trust on climate change, politicians need to lead with genuinely effective policies and decisions, rather than the foil of a hollow sentiment that has no legal or economic status.

In the meantime, there needs to be better public understanding of the science behind climate change, delivered by trusted sources, that allows people to come to terms with the true urgency of the crisis.The Conversation

David Holmes, Director, Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Environment laws have failed to tackle the extinction emergency. Here’s the proof



Koalas are among the threatened native species worst affected by habitat loss.
Taronga Zoo

Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Simmonds, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Rhodes, The University of Queensland, and Martin Taylor, The University of Queensland

Threatened species habitat larger than the size of Tasmania has been destroyed since Australia’s environment laws were enacted, and 93% of this habitat loss was not referred to the federal government for scrutiny, our new research shows.

The research, published today in Conservation Science and Practice, shows that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed in the 20 years since the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 came into force.

The Southern black throated finch, one of the threatened native animals worst affected by habitat loss.
Eric Vanderduys/BirdLife Australia



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Some 85% of land-based threatened species experienced habitat loss. The iconic koala was among the worst affected. More than 90% of habitat loss was not referred or submitted for assessment, despite a requirement to do so under Commonwealth environment laws.

Our research indicates the legislation has comprehensively failed to safeguard Australia’s globally significant natural values, and must urgently be reformed and enforced.

What are the laws supposed to do?

The EPBC Act was enacted in 1999 to protect the diversity of Australia’s unique, and increasingly threatened, flora and fauna. It was considered a giant step forward for biodiversity conservation and was expected to become an important legacy of the Howard Coalition government.

A dead koala outside Ipswich, Queensland. Environmentalists attributed the death to land clearing.
Jim Dodrill/The Wilderness Society



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The law aims to conserve so-called “protected matters” such as threatened species, migratory species, and threatened ecosystems.

Clearing and land use change is regarded by ecologists as the primary threat to Australia’s biodiversity. In Queensland, land clearing to create pasture is the greatest pressure on threatened flora and fauna.

Any action which could have a significant impact on protected matters, including habitat destruction through land clearing, must be referred to the federal government for assessment.

Loss of potential habitat for threatened species and migratory species, and threatened ecological communities. Dark blue represents habitat loss that has been assessed (or loss that occurred with a referral under the EPBC Act) and dark red represents habitat loss that has not been assessed (or loss that occurred without a referral under The Act). Three panels highlight the southern Western Australia coast (left), Tasmania (middle), and northern Queensland coast (right).
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

The law is not being followed

We examined federal government forest and woodland maps derived from satellite imagery. The analysis showed that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been cleared or destroyed since the legislation was enacted.

Of this area, 93% was not referred to the federal government and so was neither assessed nor approved.

Bulldozer clearing trees at Queensland’s Olive Vale Station in 2015.
ABC News, 2017

It is unclear why people or companies are not referring habitat destruction on such a large scale. People may be self-assessing their activities and concluding they will not have a significant impact.

Others may be seeking to avoid the expense of a referral, which costs A$6,577 for people or companies with a turnover of more than A$10 million a year.

The failure to refer may also indicate a lack of awareness of, or disregard for, the EPBC Act.

The biggest losers

Our research found that 1,390 (85%) of terrestrial threatened species experienced habitat loss within their range since the EPBC Act was introduced.

Among the top ten species to lose the most area were the red goshawk, the ghost bat, and the koala, losing 3 million, 2.9 million, and 1 million hectares, respectively.

In less than two decades, many other imperilled species have lost large chunks of their potential habitat. They include the Mount Cooper striped skink (25%), the Keighery’s macarthuria (23%) and the Southern black-throated finch (10%).

(a) The top 10 most severely impacted threatened species include those that have lost the highest proportion of their total habitat, and (b) species who have lost the most habitat, as mapped by the Federal Government.
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

What’s working, what’s not

We found that almost all referrals to the federal government for habitat loss were made by urban developers, mining companies and commercial developers. A tiny 1.3% of referrals were made by agricultural developers – despite clear evidence that land clearing for pasture development is the primary driver of habitat destruction.

Alarmingly, even when companies or people did refer proposed actions, 99% were allowed to proceed (sometimes with conditions).

The high approval rates may be derived, in part, from inconsistent application of the “significance” test under the federal laws.

Hundreds of protesters gather in Sydney in 2016 to demand that New South Wales retain strong land clearing laws.
Dean Lewins/AAP

For example, in a successful prosecution in 2015, Powercor Australia and Vemco] were fined A$200,000 for failing to refer clearing of a tiny 0.5 hectares of a critically endangered ecosystem. In contrast, much larger tracts of habitat have been destroyed without referral or approval, and without any such enforcement action being taken.

Clearer criteria for determining whether an impact is significant would reduce inconsistency in decisions, and provide more certainty for stakeholders.

The laws must be enforced and reformed

If the habitat loss trend continues, two things are certain: more species will become threatened with extinction, and more species will become extinct.

The Act must, as a matter of urgency, be properly enforced to curtail the mass non-referral of actions that our analysis has revealed.

The left pie chart illustrates the breakdown of industries referring their actions by number of referrals; the right pie chart illustrates the breakdown of industries referring their actions by area (hectares). Both charts highlight the agricultural sector as a low-referring industry.
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

If nothing else, this will help Australia meet its commitment under the Convention on Biological Diversity to prevent extinction of known threatened species and improve their conservation status by 2020.




Read more:
Why aren’t Australia’s environment laws preventing widespread land clearing?


Mapping the critical habitat essential to the survival of every threatened species is also an important step. The Act should also be reformed to ensure critical habitat is identified and protected, as happens in the United States.

Australia is already a world leader in modern-day extinctions. Without a fundamental change in how environmental law is written, used, and enforced, the crisis will only get worse.The Conversation

Michelle Ward, PhD Student, The University of Queensland; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Simmonds, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Rhodes, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland, and Martin Taylor, Adjunct senior lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.