Water Journal : Water Journal March 2011
awa news regular features 36 MARCH 2011 water will produce more extremes. We might expect a drier climate and longer droughts, but more intense rainfall events. Even if dams are not built there may certainly be calls for greater investment in flood mitigation. The Australian Financial Review recently included comment from Chas Keys, a flood management consultant and former deputy director-general of the NSW SES, to the effect that investment in better flood-plain management, through better land use planning and the installation of floodways and levies, would be a more cost-effective and efficacious approach. Future-Proofing our Cities Peter Fagan of MWH, in an article The People versus Nature: floods, infrastructure and planning for climate change in MWH's eBulletin of 12 January, acknowledges the need to invest in flood management, but also to look more closely at protecting urban infrastructure from the impacts of extreme climatic events, whether drought, flood, extremes of temperature or fire. Certainly, significant costs will have been incurred as a result of inundation of urban infrastructure recently, and the same could be said of the impacts of 2009's catastrophic fires in Victoria. Fagan calls for investment in future- proofing cities against these events, but investment in protecting water infrastructure from events that will become more likely under almost all climate change scenarios may not be inexpensive. Sustainability of cities was also a much discussed topic in 2010 that may lead to more creative approaches and more targeted investment in the future. Water-sensitive cities go a step beyond the defensive posture of adaptation to being a critical step in the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change. While it would be hard to envisage investment in sustainable design of such significance as to contribute fundamentally to an increase in capital expenditure by utilities in the near term, there is increasing interest in the concept and much research underway, so one might see the issue becoming more prominent in the medium term. Anne Barker, Managing Director of City West Water, speaking at the National Water Leadership Summit in Canberra last November, strongly endorsed the notion that the utility of the future will be not only a water service provider, but also a sustainability business, concerned not just with water supply and wastewater disposal, but with the linkages and inter-relationships between water services and urban form, amenity, function and sustainability. Pressure to take different approaches to water management during this current wetter period may come not only from politicians or those involved in the water sector; a recent report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Finance Initiative is based on the premise that financial institutions -- banks, insurers and others whose investment and risk management decisions fundamentally affect the direction of the broader economy -- will respond to the risks of climate change and promote adaptation if they have access to the right information (UNEP 2011). Practically speaking, this means banks might, for example, refuse credit to organisations that have not adequately protected their assets against the risk of more extreme weather events. Similarly, insurers may decline coverage to practices they feel face greater risks. These decisions will be a catalyst for wider societal adaptation to climate change and water managers would not be immune. Murray-Darling Proposals Of course, it is not just investment decisions that may be affected by recent changes in weather conditions. Fundamental changes in policy direction are also in the offing. At the end of last year, in line with the Water Act 2007, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority released its Guide to the Basin Plan, which set out its proposals for restoring degraded environments in the Murray-Darling by reducing allocations for consumptive uses. The proposals have been widely criticised. It is not the role of this article to comment on those criticisms, but it is clear that there is considerable pressure on the Authority to modify its position. During drought it is undoubtedly easier to make a case for allocation reductions -- although as we've seen it remains difficult -- but when dams are full the short-term political cycle will make it that much harder. Paul Myers, former editor of The Land writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, said that Prime Minister Gillard's statement that water reform would continue unabated was "baffling" and implied that as there is "about two years of full water entitlements in 28 storages, many of which are overflowing, in the Murray-Darling Basin" there is some breathing space. Myers' broader assertion that the Water Act 2007 is flawed and that reform can't satisfactorily be achieved while these flaws remain may be correct. But his assumption that reforms can be slowed because there is water in the dams is likely to be shared by the wider community and many opportunistic politicians. Thus, there may be a relaxation of effort in this area that may affect the strategic directions pursued by water sector leaders in the short to medium term. However, the basic principles of reform remain the same. For example, the 2010 State of the Water Sector Survey found 58 per cent of respondents believe fully functioning water markets will reduce over-allocation of water 'very well' or 'quite well' and 72 per cent believe that markets will similarly improve the efficiency of water use. If these benefits can be achieved, it would be hoped they will remain on the policy agenda. We speak of a two-speed economy. It might be said that we also have a two-speed climate. On the east coast it appears weather patterns might currently be dominated by the La Niña phenomenon. Most of the west, however remains in the grip of drought; flows into Perth's storages remain at historically low levels. In this situation, water sector leaders in areas still in drought will be faced with the challenge of keeping the management of water and approaches to its supplementation on the national agenda. Already there is divergence between South Australia and Western Australia and the eastern states with regard to issues related to climate change and water. For example, a lot more respondents in SA and WA believe that climate change is a 'significant threat' than do others (58 per cent to 49 per cent). Similarly, 56 per cent of SA and WA respondents feel that water restrictions should remain in place 'for the foreseeable future', as opposed to 47 per cent living elsewhere. Only 33 per cent of respondents in the west feel that restrictions should be eased 'in line with available supplies' compared to 43 per cent overall. Increased Competition in Water Management In 2011 the Government will likely release the Productivity Commission's report of its inquiry into urban water management. The issues paper that accompanied the announcement of the inquiry included discussion of the potential to increase competition The Sustainable Cities discussion panel at the leadership summit.
Water Journal April 2011