Fresh water is vital to our health, economy and environment. Yet around the world, 1.2 billion people – nearly one-fifth of the planet's population – live in areas where there are water scarcities.
Unless countries can develop strategies to more efficiently and equitably manage fresh water distribution, water shortages will worsen as the global population grows, and climate change causes increased variability to water systems and weather.
Associate Professor Cameron Holley, an environmental lawyer at UNSW, is working closely with scientists, governments, farmers and other water users, to improve the management of Australia’s fresh water resources, including aquifers.
As one of the driest continents on Earth, Australia has traditionally been an innovator in water management, especially on how to respond to droughts and water scarcities.
Despite major state-administered reforms over the last two decades, however, Holley says Australia’s water resources are still under threat from droughts and increasing demands from agriculture, human use and new mining and unconventional gas operations.
Part of the problem has been historically poorly managed community engagement during the planning stages of new laws, and ongoing challenges in the enforcement of those laws once they’ve been enacted.
“Governments and agencies have often inadvertently stymied opportunities for meaningful involvement of non-government participants in water law, governance and decision-making,” says Holley, a member of the Connected Waters Initiative at UNSW.
“This has contributed to some quite palpable dissatisfaction with water laws.”
The results can be costly: more people may disobey the laws, using unsustainable amounts of water; the number of court challenges can increase; and lobbying movements are strengthened, potentially swaying policies away from the most optimal outcomes.
Holley, who is leading two Australian Research Council projects aimed at improving water management, is worried the spotlight on the issue has dimmed, evidenced by the recent abolition of the National Water Commission, which was established in 2004 to monitor and audit reform policies.
“Australia is often considered a leading water reform country, but there’s a real risk of water falling off the national agenda,” he says.
Holley hopes his research can re-energise the water reform debate. The first project will evaluate state government approaches to water allocation to identify strengths in the design and implementation of plans, while the second is aimed at improving compliance and enforcement.
Holley has been working with regulators and surveying thousands of water users, including farmers, industry stakeholders, conservationists, and Indigenous communities, who he says have traditionally been overlooked in these discussions.
The aspiration, he says, is to develop best practice strategies for designing and implementing effective, equitable and efficient water laws and new systems of governance, which can be used to improve water management outcomes.
The work is already garnering interest overseas from other drought-prone countries that need to develop more effective water laws, he says.