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What does water security look and feel like in 2050?

As the driest inhabited continent on earth, water security is one of the most important challenges facing Australia today – one with deep environmental, economic, social and cultural implications.

During National Water Week, water professionals from across the sector gathered for United for Australia's Water Future: Imagining Water Security in 2050, a panel discussion exploring the future of water security in Australia.

Hosted by the Australian Water Association and the ANU Institute for Water Futures, a group of leading water experts were asked to imagine water security in 2050, and how we can achieve a desirable future for all Australians.

Moderated by Professor Lorrae van Kerkhoff, Director of the ANU Institute for Water Futures, the panel included: Michelle Hobbs (Griffith University), Distinguished Professor Emerita Cynthia Mitchell (University of Technology Sydney), Kate McBride (The Australia Institute), Dr Paul Wyrwoll (ANU Institute for Water Futures), Matthew Coulton (Bureau of Meteorology) and Matthew Dadswell (DCCEEW).

Opening the session, van Kerkoff said that while water security is a concept water professionals are all very familiar with, it’s important to take the time to reflect on how we want water security to be in future, so we can start taking action now.

“[Water security’s] formal definition endorsed by the United Nations is: the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable water quality for sustaining livelihoods, human wellbeing, socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems and a climate of peace and political stability,” she said.

“There is a lot in that definition, but it tends to be very functional. We know the social and cultural dimensions of water are also crucially important. And, of course, it’s about water security for all. Everybody has the right to access. It is a fundamental human right.

“It’s really important for us to be able to step out of the challenges in front of us today, the challenges that occupy so much of our thinking, activity, time and resources, and think about where we are actually wanting to be in 2050.”

Each panellist was asked to answer the same question: what does water security for all look and feel like in 2050? Take a look at their responses below.

65,000 years of water knowledge

Michelle Hobbs, Australian Rivers Institute Associate Lecturer and PhD candidate, Griffith University, and descendant of the Bidjara people of Central Queensland

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been here for a long time. 65,000 years is where we have got up to with evidence thus far. Our ancestors have lived through past climate changes, previous ice ages and sea level changes.

“Part of the basis of their approach was to start from a place of healthy Country. Healthy Country comes first. This included deliberate practices when it comes to land and water management.

“We have a really diverse nation when it comes to culture. We have more than 500 languages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and each of those peoples have their own connections to the places they come from, their own landscapes and waters.

“This is one of the strengths that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to offer – our long continuing connection with our places.

“We only have about 200 years of official meteorological records to go on when it comes to water management. We are basing all our insight on those 200 years of data. That’s another way that some Indigenous peoples' long-term experiences with bigger droughts can be really valuable for our broader perspective.

“When it comes to engineering solutions, we also need to make sure that these outcomes are going to support all members of the community and are going to support the social aspects of how we use water.

“Having Indigenous input is really key to making sure that all of the aspirations of the community can be understood. I think Indigenous-led research is going to underpin how we move forward in water management.”

Relational and regenerative

Distinguished Professor Emerita Cynthia Mitchell, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

“What does water security for all look and feel like in 2050? Two qualities stand out to me. I reckon it's relational and regenerative. If we are still here in 2050, which is a real question now, it will be because we have been able to shift direction, and to focus all our efforts towards regenerating this amazing planet. We’ll have activities that are net positive from the get go in every direction.

“And by relational, I mean we will have moved towards love. The kind of love that M. Scott Peck talks about when he says: ‘love is the will to extend oneselves for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth’.

“We need everyone's ingenuity and creativity if we are to be in a world still worth living in in 2050. And, here in Australia, we have an extraordinary resource, which is the deep relational wisdom of our Indigenous peoples and their understanding of how to work with rather than on the land.

“What does relational and regenerative mean in practice? I think it might be securing our soil health through rehydrating the landscape. Shifting how and where water moves through the atmosphere and the landscape may be the only thing that can cool the planet in the rapidly closing window we are now facing and soil health is critical to that hydrology.

“If our soils are replenished and full of carbon, diverse organisms and nutrients, not only will we be much closer to water security for all, but also we’ll have nutrient-dense food security. In a climate-challenged 2050 world, food, water and nutrient security will no longer be able to be taken for granted.”

Science before politics

Kate McBride, Parliamentary Liaison Officer, The Australia Institute

“This event is about looking at the future, but I think we need to look at where we are at right now. I am 25 years old, I’ve grown up along the Darling (Baaka) River out near Menindee. I’ve witnessed mass fish kills, most recently this year, when around 30 million fish died.

“Experiences like that, and of walking along a bone-dry Baaka River, walking past thousands of Darling Baaka mussels, and our communities living off donated water – that’s the reality of where we are at right now.

“And it’s hard for me to talk about water security in 2050 when we don’t have water security now. We have a long way to go. It’s bleak. I am scared about what the future looks like for our rivers.

“For me, water security looks like communities up and down the river being able to swim, work and play alongside waterways that have enough quantity and quality. It’s rivers being meeting places, where we come together, instead of dust bowls that break our hearts to look at.

“Water security is communities having good quality water that our food can be grown with, and where the environment is sustained through the good and the bad. It’s water being recognised as our most precious resource instead of a commodity.

“I think a lot of it comes down to putting science before politics and, unfortunately, our water policy has been more politics than science. In terms of where our water goes in the future, we need to think more collectively, and less through the eyes of individualism.”

Better transparency

Dr Paul Wyrwoll, Research Fellow, Institute for Water Futures and Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

“I want to talk about drinking water. In 2050, all Australians without discrimination should have access to sufficient water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and domestic purposes, that's reliable, affordable, safe and of an acceptable quality in terms of taste, smell, look and feel.

“We know that there are many places where that simply isn’t the case right now. It's a big challenge and an important place to start is asking whether customers and consumers know what's coming out of their tap.

“There is a really important argument in the human right to water that people often forget – people have the right to information about their water services. It seems like a fairly straightforward thing to expect.

“Transparency is important because it enables people and consumers to be engaged in informed conversation about what their expectations are. It also enables them to hold government agencies and service providers to account for what the outcomes are.

“There are a lot of gaps. Not just in terms of monitoring, but also reporting. For example, in NSW it is not required by regulation for water service providers to report drinking water quality to their customers.

Although there are a quarter of water service providers who report detailed information voluntarily, 1.2 million people in regional and remote parts of NSW know more about what’s in the can of soup they buy at the supermarket than they do about what comes out of their tap.

“This is some of the low-hanging fruit in terms of being able to provide information to people so they can have those informed conversations about their water.”

Less obsessing, more preparation

Matthew Coulton, General Manager, Water and Agriculture, Bureau of Meteorology

“Firstly, by 2050 we should have plans in place that detail how water will be managed under all plausible climate conditions, and these plans should be accessible to everyone. Secondly, we should have full visibility for everyone about where water is, what it is allocated to and how it is being used.

“Governments and industries need to be prepared. But we also need communities to be prepared and communities need to engage in these discussions. The good news for Australia is that we are the most advanced country in the world when it comes to having sophisticated water plans that adjust to a varying range of climate conditions.

“But, at the moment they are very technical documents – they don’t allow for great community participation in those discussions or support communities understanding how water will be managed, particularly when we go through dry periods.

“A lot of our approaches to managing water assume that the future climate will look like the past. We now accept in Australia that that is not true. But there is a lot of work to do to change our planning assumptions.

“We probably need to stop obsessing about what will happen in the future and start preparing for what could happen in the future. There is inherent uncertainty in climate risk and we spend a lot of time trying to narrow that uncertainty. And we spend insufficient time planning for what we know could happen.

“By 2050, I’d like there to be a genuinely multi-disciplinary approach to how we solve problems. That will require breaking down existing barriers across our disciplines, institutions and jurisdictions. It will require leaving egos at the door, we need everyone's interest in the room, which requires shared vision.”

Changing expectations

Matthew Dadswell, Head of Division, Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water

“Something we face regularly from a policy and government perspective is expectations around water. But also, what is the nature of collaboration and decision making that supports those really tough decisions that we have had to make, and will continue to have to make.

“What we as a society expect or think water security to be changes. In times of drought when water is scarce, we all feel the pain that a lack of water availability has on families, values and culture, livelihoods and business, and the environment. In those times, we have seen community expectations move really quickly.

“Community expectations are important, but they don’t stay static. We need to be aware that they will continue to change in future.

“With water being an essential resource, its application is highly contested and we have to make tough decisions. And those decisions need to be extremely robust. When governance is lacking, water gets wasted and it leads to conflict. It's not something to be taken lightly.

“In 2050, I think we will have higher expectations in the community about water availability and quality. We will have a society that is significantly better informed. They will want access to information and they will want to know the status of water security.

“And to keep up with that we will need improvements in the way we collaborate.”

Interested in hearing more from panelists? Access the full United for Australia's Water Future: Imagining Water Security in 2050 seminar here.