Saturday, May 17, 2008

Even without climate change there is a water crisis of global significance

The late 20th and early 21st century will undoubtedly be seen as the ‘tipping point’ in which human interference in, and demands from, the water cycle transformed it irreversibly. As a recent review of the ‘global water crisis’ points out:

For the first time in human history, human use and pollution of freshwater have reached a level where water scarcity will potentially limit food production, ecosystem function, and urban supply in the decades to come’.

These authors conclude that new forms of collective action are required which will probably demand a 'new global water ethic or some other system of incentives if collective action is to be effective'. The actions they point to include changes in dietary patterns, a conservation ethic and cooperative management of shared resources. Recognition of the need for cooperative management is consistent with investing in social learning as a new governance mechanism and as a set of practices that lead to concerted action in complex situations such as that of water management.

The recent example of water shipments for the city of Barcelona is further evidence of the water crisis that is now upon us. The situation is particularly severe in the Mediterranean.

In the state of Victoria, Australia it makes increasing sense to believe that climate change is already happening and that this presents particular challenges for the city of Melbourne. Some of these are described in this March 2007 article. Later in 2007 the Government, seemingly under pressure, decided to act. Their choice of mainly engineering solutions - a desalination plant and a pipeline from the inland Murray Darling Basin - to secure Melbourne's water future have subsequently come under critical scrutiny by the State Auditor General, who said:
'The government had used flawed processes and "inadequate levels of rigour" in preparing the $4.9 billion plan'.

The Victorian plans and the broader set of policies for the Murray Darling Basin have also come in for scrutiny and criticism from Ken Davidson in The Age. He describes the latter as:

'At present the policy seems to be straight out of La La Land. ........It is a policy based on the hope of a miracle disguised by a mirage in the form of the basin authority, which assumes that extra water can be be found by spending billions upgrading irrigation infrastructure to reduce leakage and evaporation.'

In an article entitled: 'The new reality is entirely unrealistic' he shows how little regard he has for the likely effectiveness of policies of water trading based on a water market. See also 'Great water gamble could sink us all' or, for a range of perspectives, this piece by Jo Chandler.

These articles and the critical scrutiny they evoke are all to the good. On a recent study tour to look at the social and institutional aspects of water management in Israel I was struck by the unintended consequences that can arise through committing to an engineered, as opposed to ecological, water future. What was soon apparent in Israel was how complex the organisational and institutional arrangements were for managing water ...even before one considered matters relating to their neighbours. To the average citizen (and probably many who work in the water sector) the situation in Australia is equally complex. That is why we need more open debate to enhance systemic understanding, and, hopefully, practices (and this requires good policies and investment decisions).

Take for example the outcomes of the recent COAG meeting which resolved that stand-off between the Australian States in what was once referred to as the 'Howard $10 billion water plan'. It is good that there has been agreement at last - and that a new spirit of Federalism exists ...for the moment!! Aided no doubt by the extra $1 billion dollars that Victoria will receive from the Commonwealth. But like all deals the devil is in the detail. The Memoranda of Understanding are being written at the moment, in readiness for the next COAG meeting (where the PM and State Premiers meet). My reading of the COAG report or more precisely the 'Murray-Darling Basin Reform Memorandum of Understanding of 26 March 2008, agreed in principle for consultation with stakeholders', raised the following issues :
  1. Who will be doing the due diligence assessment on the Victorian Food Bowl Group allocation given the comments of the State Auditor? And how can the amount of money allocated be spent over the time frame indicated?
  2. Eight principles for urban water reform are listed - what are they?
  3. The report says that priority will always be given to critical human needs. What does the phrase 'critical human needs' mean - and how will it be deployed in practice?
  4. There is nothing about organizational and institutional complexity - and the on-going role of CMAs (Catchment Management Authorities) and NHT (National Heritage Trust) money?
  5. Point 33 says:
  6. All Basin jurisdictions agree to examine the way in which environmental water recovery programs should be managed to ensure they are cost effective and maximise environmental outcomes.'This wording implies that there are objective criteria that can be established - and that the boundaries for cost- effectiveness can be readily established? I would contend that these are emergent properties and that they can only ever be delivered through deliberative processes. As we have articulated in our SLIM work we see sustainability as an emergent property of stakeholder processes.
The so-called Howard plan has been reworked in the recent Australian Federal Budget:

'Rather than choosing to spend money on water saving measures on farms in the first year of the $12 billion plan for rural and urban water projects, the Government will move ahead to buy back farmers' water for the environment. In total there is $3.1 billion earmarked for buying back farmers' water over 10 years.

The Government will also start spending money on fixing up some of the main irrigation routes owned by irrigation companies and state governments. And it's already announced it will spend $1 billion on the Victorian Government's planned pipeline from the Goulbourn Valley to Melbourne. In total there is $5.8 billion earmarked for infrastructure projects across Australia over 10 years.'

It would have been more convincing if the new Government had emulated recent directives in the UK, where ministers have been told to factor in a carbon cost in all decisions relating to policy or investment. It would also be more convincing if energy and water policies could be 'joined -up' - perhaps through Covenants of Mayors.

In the UK a new strategy entitled ‘Future Water’ has recently been released. At least in the UK there is a national perspective.

CIWEM, the professional body of UK water managers has also recently produced a major report looking at water reuse in industry. Among their conclusions are:

'Water reuse should be an integral part of a suite of demand and supply measures that together can bring about more sustainable water management in the UK. To facilitate the uptake of industrial water reuse in the UK, the following issues will be critical:
  1. The need for society to develop a greater appreciation of the anthropogenic influence on the water cycle
  2. The need to develop fair pricing for all water resources reflecting their full economic and environmental costs and yet the short-term need for pump-priming financial support from government for sustainable water reuse projects
  3. The need for a coherent government policy on water reuse (as CIWEM called for in it‟s 2002 Policy Position Statement) coupled with authoritative reclaimed water quality standards that are realistic and protect public health and the environment
  4. The need for existing government programmes such as the Enhanced Capital Allowance Water Technology List and Envirowise business advisory service to be expanded to include water reuse technologies
  5. The need for more research and development into low-carbon, economic water reuse solutions'
Water management and human intervention in the water cycle is a 'wicked problem'; it calls out for systems thinking and practice capability amongst those charged with developing policies, investments, institutions and stakeholder engagement.

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