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An address to the Xth World Water Congress

by the
Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon Robert Hill

March 13, 2000

We have all witnessed over the past few weeks the human tragedy unfolding in Mozambique caused by flooding associated with cyclonic weather conditions.

In one of the tragic ironies of nature, one of the major health threats now facing the thousands of people made homeless by that flooding is the lack of a supply of safe drinking water.

One of the first tasks being undertaken by international aid agencies has been to secure such a supply and Australia is playing its part in this effort, already having made available more than $1.5 million in aid.

But imagine for a moment if we had had the technology to predict this natural disaster in advance.

Let's say that early warning system had given us 20 days notice of the timing and severity of this unprecedented weather event.

There is no question that we would have acted with a great sense of urgency.

We no doubt would have helped organise an early evacuation of the population from the most susceptible areas. We would also have had 20 days to ensure that once evacuated, those people would still have ready access to safe drinking water.

Now unfortunately, science is yet to deliver such an early warning system.

But while the problems being faced by Mozambique are a result of harsh and unpredictable natural forces, the rest of the world is being forced to confront the growing man-made pressures on our supplies of fresh water.

Expanding populations, increased urbanisation, and greater pressure from agricultural and industrial uses, are just some of the factors placing stress on global water supplies.

Our challenge is to manage our natural environment to meet these growing needs while maintaining the supply of water for the primary purpose of sustenance of life.

Fortunately, I believe that Australia has both the knowledge and the capacity to meet the challenge.

The Murray-Darling provides an obvious example of the competing pressures which affect both the natural river system and the quality of its water.

The Murray-Darling Basin produces 90 per cent of Australia's irrigated crops and contributes more than $22 billion worth of the nation's agricultural exports.

Water from the Murray River is used extensively by industry both within the basin and from as far away as Port Augusta.

The Murray also provides drinking water for townships along its length and, more importantly, it is the major source of drinking water for Adelaide, a city of more than one million people.

South Australia, in fact, draws up to 90 per cent of its drinking water from the Murray.

But a recent Salinity Audit has found that within 20 years Adelaide's major supply of drinking water, the Murray, will not pass World Health Organisation standards on two days out of every five.

This in itself could pose enormous treatment costs to bring the water to an acceptable standard.

But the economic and social consequences of further deterioration in the quality of Adelaide's drinking water beyond that point are almost unthinkable.

The threat to Adelaide's drinking supply is just one symptom of a stressed river system. Users of the Murray's waters in other states will not be immune from the ecological and economic consequences if their practices continue to be unsustainable.

Australia has, however, made a start in addressing these problems and we should acknowledge that there have been some positive achievements to date.

The Murray Darling Basin Commission has been recognised internationally as an example of world's best practice in securing cooperation between different state jurisdictions.

The Murray Darling 2001 initiative - which the Commonwealth has been able to support with $163 million from the Natural Heritage Trust - has also helped mobilise community efforts and increased the understanding among landholders of the problems we face.

The recent independent Mid-term Review of the Trust found that there was "strong evidence that (Murray-Darling) funding has initiated new work, catalysed action, and expanded or speeded up activity already taking place."

While these achievements are to be applauded, the message is clearly that more needs to be done. We must look to change the way we manage the land to improve the quality of this great river.

The Commonwealth has taken a lead in this regard with the recent establishment of a high-level cabinet group to examine priorities for natural resource management. A key focus of this group will be the problems facing the Murray-Darling.

But to take it a step further, I would like to outline a six steps which I believe will be critical to delivering a better environmental outcome for the Murray Darling and to securing Adelaide's supply of drinking water into the future.

Already we are facing issues of high levels of sediment, poor water colour and some contamination, including from animal waste.

But for the future, the issues likely to dominate will be increasing nutrient levels and, more particularly, salinity. These are likely to become serious problems in the future, unless more is done now.

The response to these problems must be a concerted national effort.

As a first step, the Governments represented on the Murray Darling Basin Commission must commit to a water quality target at the Murray River in South Australia that is consistent with the continued provision of drinking water to Adelaide.

We should be aiming to keep sediment and salinity levels to those found in our National Drinking Water Guidelines, without South Australia having to bear an increasingly unfair share of the cost.

Secondly, towards achieving that goal, all governments of the Murray Darling Basin Commission must commit to the implementation of an effective Cap on water diversions to contain consumptive uses to a level that does not compromise the health of the natural system.

The Cap, which was introduced in 1995, was seen as an essential first step in ensuring the long term health of the river system.

The Commission has initiated a Review of the Operation of the Cap and commissioned a recent independent audit of the States' compliance with the Cap.

The audit found that South Australia and Victoria had good systems in place to measure compliance and had met their obligations.

New South Wales, however, was found to have breached the Cap in a number of river systems and the auditors warned that a lack of resources would hamper that State's ability to establish an effective monitoring system.

Queensland's performance is of even greater concern. Queensland still has not accepted a Cap and growth in water diversions, in particular floodplain harvesting, continues to rise.

Queensland has indicated that a Cap would be in place once its Water Allocation Management Plan process has been finalised.

However that process is now more than two years overdue and Queensland has refused to even Cap water diversions at their current level as a precautionary measure.

Lack of compliance in both New South Wales and Queensland undermines the integrity of Cap and threatens both the ecological health of the river and the security of supply for water users.

As I have said before, these States are doing their irrigators no favours in maintaining the pretence that they are immune from the implications of their actions.

The Commonwealth has assessed the report of the independent auditors in making its submission to the Review of the Cap.

I am pleased to be able to publicly release that response today.

The Commonwealth believes that to avoid further damage to the river system it is essential to maintain the Cap and improve compliance in all States to ensure its integrity.

Further to that, there is a clear recognition that as our knowledge grows of the importance of environmental flows in these rivers, the Cap may need to be adjusted to ensure the provision of adequate environmental flows.

Apart from assessing whether State's have complied with the Cap, we must consider whether the Cap has been set at an effective level.

We must determine the appropriate balance between instream and consumptive uses to ensure the environmental health throughout the system.

Considerable uncertainty still remains on this critical question and to help resolve this issue I have commissioned a separate study of dilution flows in the Murray.

Our response also calls for more action from the States on the increasing use of groundwater and private water storage as a means of getting around the Cap.

As a third step, the Murray Darling Basin Commission must complete to a high standard its Salinity Management Strategy and all jurisdictions must commit to its implementation.

This is likely to involve:

It is also necessary to consider solutions to the salinity problems in the Basin in an integrated way, as high salinity levels in one place are often caused by actions taken some distance away.

A draft of this Strategy will be released for public comment in June 2000, and it is anticipated it will be finalised by the end of the year.

As a fourth step, we must reform our regional institutional structures to provide more effective integrated catchment-based planning and management. These organisations would be given authority to set targets for salinity, biodiversity, water quality and revegetation.

They would also set priorities for a works program to restore catchments and administer grants programs to implement these works.

Integrated catchment based planning and management is recognised as an effective mechanism for delivering sustainable land management outcomes.

These structures must deliver effective land management practices including reduced land clearing, reduced water diversions and harvesting, management of invasive species and reduced use of agricultural chemicals.

This will be essential to making meaningful progress in combating salinity, high nutrient levels and eutrophication, maintaining ecological systems and enhancing water quality.

As a fifth step in the process, I have initiated action to improve the advice provided to the National Competition Council in its assessment of progress in implementing the COAG Water Reform Framework.

That Framework requires all States to achieve an efficient and sustainable water industry including allocations for the environment as a legitimate user. It also requires the States to move toward the regional catchment planning processes I spoke of earlier.

Most importantly, it requires that in rivers which are deemed to be "stressed", action must be taken to provide a better balance in water resource use including appropriate allocations to the environment in order to restore the health of river systems.

The National Competition Council is about to begin its process to assess State actions in the lead-up to advising the Treasurer on the third round of payments under the National Competition Policy.

This third round of payments is worth about $600 million to the States.

To assist the council in its advice on the previous round of payments I commissioned the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology to undertake an assessment of State performance. This was made available in draft form to the Council last year. I can now place this report on the public record. It provides a great deal of information on the achievements and failings of the States to date.

The Council has indicated that this report was useful to their deliberations.

To build on this, I have instructed officers from my department to liaise closely with the Council as it prepares its framework for the third round assessment. This will include the secondment of an officer from our Water Reform Section to the Council.

I can also announce today that I will be commissioning another independent assessment of State progress in implementing COAG water reforms.

The aim would be to provide the Council with timely advice on State performance and help ensure the Council's assessment is both rigorous and demanding.

All States need to be aware that their performance on water reform issues will face greater scrutiny in the upcoming round.

The 3rd round assessment must move beyond assessing the uptake of water reform in legislation and policy to assessing the actual implementation of these undertakings.

This includes examining the development and implementation of water resource plans to ensure environmental sustainability, especially with respect to new developments, implementation of the National Water Quality Management Strategy and catchment management plans, and commitment to public consultation in implementing the framework.

Effective achievement of the COAG water goals would be a major step forward in ensuring that the supply of safe drinking water to Adelaide will be maintained in the next 20 years.

Step six in the process, is an increased commitment to investment in the knowledge needed to give both Governments and the public increased confidence that the measures I have spoken of today will make a difference.

Implementation of effective water reforms, catchment management practices and other means to achieve water quality must be underpinned by a solid knowledge base.

Investment in research and knowledge sharing is an essential component of achieving sustainable outcomes.

Key elements to be covered are databases and studies of catchment and riparian zone health, water quality, salinity audits, and satellite mapping for land use and vegetation cover. This work will provide the scientific understanding that we need to go forward with confidence.

And as I mentioned earlier, this also demands that States such as New South Wales and Queensland lift their games in terms of monitoring and evaluation of compliance with Cap.

Ladies and gentlemen, I posed the hypothetical question earlier about what we would do if we had 20 days to guarantee a safe water supply in the face of an impending natural disaster.

In the case of the Murray-Darling and ensuring Adelaide continues to enjoy the basic human right of access to safe drinking water, we have been given an early warning of 20 years, not 20 days.

This should not, however, breed complacency. In the context of the challenges we face, 20 years will fly past almost in the blink of an eye.

I draw the comparison only to impress upon you that there are no excuses for inaction.

We are both a resource and knowledge rich nation. We have the capacity required to meet a challenge of this size.

It is time to put the words and policies into action. We simply cannot afford to still be having this debate in 10 years time. We must move quickly and effectively to change the way we manage this important natural resource while time is still on our side.

Commonwealth of Australia