Who gets the water? Let the people decide.

An opinion piece

Who will the winners and losers be as the demand for water grows? As droughts linger and dams dry it’s time to rethink how we allocate our precious water resources. It’s time to get people who care and know about water around the table to argue their case and make the decisions.

On World Water Day the UN made some grim predictions about future water scarcity around the world. Put simply, the demand for water to drink, farm and create energy is rising, but supply isn’t.

The signs are everywhere. Where rivers connect nations, water sharing agreements forged in times of plenty are starting to look shaky. The Egyptians saw red last year when, upstream, the Ethiopians decided to dam the Nile. Likewise, water scarcity is creating an added issue of contention between India and Pakistan.

The Indus River - one of Pakistan's rivers with headwaters in India. Photo by: Kogo.

The Indus River – one of Pakistan’s rivers with headwaters in India. Photo by: Kogo.

In Australia we only have wars between the States to contemplate. We are also perhaps better acquainted with water scarcity than other developed nations. In California, for example, the worst drought in 200 years, is prompting radical ideas like people harvesting rainwater in their own tanks!

But let’s not get too cocky or complacent. Our dryness and unpredictable rainfall mean that policy initiatives such as incentives for water efficient infrastructure on farms and restrictions on water use in cities have been a necessity. But with our experience and expertise are we as far ahead of the game as we think? No.

Why? Under the current process, bureaucrats decide whether millions of litres of water can be taken out of rivers and who this goes to. Queensland is a good case in point of this top-down decision-making process.

Plans are afoot to revise the Water Resource Plan for the Gulf. This is several years ahead of schedule and fortuitously coincides with an application for a large irrigation development. Farmers, traditional owners, and fishers will have little say in this sell-off of the State’s water other than commenting on technical assessment documents that will be measured in kilograms rather than page length.

The Einasleigh River upstream of a proposed weir site to irrigate sugarcane. Photo: G. McGregor.

The Einasleigh River upstream of a proposed weir site to irrigate sugarcane. Photo: G. McGregor.

And of course there’s the Murray-Darling. Remember people in the streets burning the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin plan?

While the last example may have been more media stunt than genuine grievance, the fact remains that water policy is still largely made by bureaucrats behind closed doors. Scientists sometimes have an input. But broader community engagement is often token – trying to sell a product people have had no hand in creating.

This is the time for bold new thinking. Imagine a future where the CEO of the development company sits at the table with the locals, scientists and bureaucrats. He or she needs to look them in the eye and make the case for why his or her claim on water is more important than theirs.

Groups representing different community interests are not unknown in the water policy arena. A group representing a broad range of interests in the Daly River (Northern Territory) was an invaluable means for local people to find out what was happening in their catchment and put their views forward. Sadly the NT government axed the group last year.

Farmers on the Daly River may want to extract water for irrigation. Photo courtesy TRaCK.

Farmers on the Daly River may want to extract water for irrigation. Photo courtesy TRaCK.

A willingness to resource such groups and hand over some of the reins of power is the key.

Giving people a real say in water policy would have a number of advantages. With power comes responsibility which is a win for the government. The people who make the decisions then own them and can defend them in the event of negative publicity.

However, the process itself would minimise the likelihood of negative backlash. The sort of backlash we’ve seen in in the Murray-Darling and in north Queensland around Wild Rivers legislation . The backlash that comes when water policy is presented as a fait accompli or consultation fails to sufficiently empower those consulted.

We’d also get decisions informed by the different knowledge and experience of those sitting around the table (or under the tree): the knowledge of the fisher who has spent many hours observing the environment and what lives there; the scientist who has methodically collected data and tested assumptions; the traditional owner who has inherited the knowledge of generations.

Such decisions would better represent the people on whom they impact. People from all walks of life who make up our society. We may even foster interest and trust in the democratic process!

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