Will an inquiry put Australia’s water security back in the spotlight?

Posted 27 February 2017

Water securityAustralia’s water security journey is a winding one, but a new inquiry into water resources launched by the Productivity Commission hopes to set some things straight. 

The announcement is welcome news for Australian Water Association CEO Jonathan McKeown, who said this step reflects the rising profile of water security in Australia.

“Australia’s water reform journey has been ongoing for several decades, reflecting the importance of water as an economic enabler and the significant challenges of managing this natural resource,” McKeown said. 

“The inquiry needs to look at the kind of water reform Australia needs to adopt in the future, and that involves: taking a look at what the National Water Initiative (NWI) achieved; how applicable the initiatives are today and going forward; and what are the gaps that have been left that need to be addressed.”

From the Association’s perspective, McKeown said it’s critical that any recommendations made by the Commission articulate the benefits to the Australian economy.

“When we look back at the reforms of the 1990s, the changes then were valued at close to $80 billion. The Association would like to see a similarly strong link to the economic benefits of any water reform.”

McKeown also stated that more consistency between the Federal Government and its state counterparts over water regulations is a critical factor.

“Essentially, when we look at the unfinished business of the National Water Initiative, it comes back to the need to create competitive neutrality in the water sector to get maximum participation from the public and private sectors,” he said.

Many states and territories have already made progress against the NWI, he said, but more needs to be done if the country is to create liveable cities, towns and rural communities that meet future needs. 

“Water security for all Australians is the number one advocacy priority for the Association, and we have been working hard to highlight issues around water scarcity, infrastructure funding and innovations in the sector,” McKeown said.

It will take roughly $150 billion to make the necessary upgrades to Australia’s water infrastructure, he added. In terms of water security, this means there need to be clear guidelines about competition to guarantee this investment comes through in appropriate ways.

“The inquiry needs to address long-term access to quality drinking water for all Australians, and that is going to require some clear understanding about the level of subsidies needed in remote and rural areas to enable the provision of the same quality of water as what we get in urban areas,” he said. 

“Subsidies are needed to make this a reality, but they need to be transparent, and the community needs to understand and endorse them so there is no disruption to market forces or market distortions.” 

McKeown said he looks forward to discussing these issues and more with Commissioners and water professionals at the upcoming Ozwater’17 conference, where there will be a special workshop hosted by the Australian Water Association on Australia’s future water reform journey. 

“The commission would very much welcome hearing from members of the water sector on what reforms are needed,” he said. 

The Productivity Commission is due to release a draft report in August. It will hand in the final version of the report in December.

To learn more about the Ozwater’17 conference and how you can have your say in the water resources inquiry, click here