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Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

National Water Week, Adelaide
20 October 2003

Check against delivery

National Water Week

South Australia, as many if not all of you I'm sure well know, is the driest state of the driest inhabited continent on the planet - and in this era of rapidly growing national awareness of the massive challenges associated with this ranking, I can't imagine a more pertinent place to be at the beginning of National Water Week.

National Water Week is an annual event which was an initiative of the Australian Government in 1993, with the strong support of the States, aimed at encouraging all members of the community to understand and take action to protect and conserve our precious water reserves both in terms of consumption, and the vital habitats they support.

This year national events include World Water Monitoring Day, which is an international effort to provide a snapshot of water quality around the globe, and a national survey of macroinvertebrates - waterbugs.

At the State level, there are activities right across the country, including a seminar on water law at Broken Hill in New South Wales. In Victoria a Waterwatch Turbidity Snapshot will be provided through the collection of water samples across the State, and in Queensland Waterwatch Queensland is unveiling a primary and secondary school set of curriculum materials call River Journeys. And here in South Australia John Hill is launching the educational materials developed by the Murray Urban Users Committee, River Murray Waterwatch, and the Murray Darling Association.

National Water Week is particularly significant for Australia this year. The United Nations declared that 2003 is the International Year of Freshwater. An opportunity exists to focus our attention on protecting and respecting our water resources, as individuals, communities, nations, and in the global context.

Around the world, there are 1.1 billion people who lack access to safe drinking water. 2.4 billion are also without adequate sanitation. Improved access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and better water resource management are fundamental to poverty reduction, sustainable development, and ecosystem protection.

South Australia has, of course, had an acute awareness of the value of water well ahead of any other State and we see more evidence of that today in the launch by my colleague John Hill, of this very valuable kit urging care with the resources of the River Murray.

For South Australia, water - and references to the River Murray - are virtually synonymous.

The Murray is the one significant source of water for the State: Pipelines provide water from the River to virtually every major population centre, and an extraordinary measure of the scale of reliance is in the fact that, in tough years, Adelaide relies on the Murray for 90% of its water, and many of those other communities for closer to 100%.

This kit epitomizes the central importance of that relationship, and I commend the River Murray Urban Users Committee, River Murray Waterwatch program and the Murray Darling Association for the development of the resources launched today, because the perennial challenge for South Australia of such an extraordinary level of reliance on a single water source has, in recent years, taken on a new meaning.

I don't think that any single fact that highlights the water challenges that Australia faces has been more powerful than the simple declaration, via the 1999 salinity audit by the Murray Darling Basin Commission, that salt in Adelaide's water supply could exceed the 800 EC measure that the World Health Organisation says is the limit for desirable drinking water in 20 years.

Nearly all Australian communities, especially many in South Australia, have been impacted by the drought or water restrictions over this past year. A combination of this natural occurrence and human water use activities has really brought home the vital importance of water for all Australians, not only for human consumption but also for our natural environment and the ecosystem services it provides. It is important that we find a sustainable balance between all who depend on water for their survival.

Our efforts to combat these significant challenges need a unified approach. In August the Australian Government was successful in obtaining the agreement of the Council of Australian Governments to pursue further water reform. It has been agreed that we need to increase the productivity and efficiency of water use, sustain rural and urban communities, and ensure the health of river and groundwater systems.

The intention is to improve confidence in the economic framework for water resource management, underpinned by environmental water provisions and better management of water for the environment. Governments have agreed to develop a draft National Water Initiative for consideration at the 2004 Council of Australian Governments meeting.

There has already been significant community consultation on the Living Murray initiative and the first step decision and I, along with my colleagues, who include John Hill, are committed to this continuing. It is our intention that when the Murray-Darling Basin Council meets on 14 November, that a first significant step should be agreed by governments, and be put to the community for consultation and development, to start restoring the River Murray to a healthy working river.

The Council commenced this process by setting as three reference points for analysis and community discussion the return of 350 gigalitres (350 billion litres), 750 gigalitres and 1500 gigalitres of water to the River Murray. I would emphasise the point that they are reference points for discussion and analysis of what different amounts of water could deliver in terms of a healthy working River Murray.

The Council has also emphasized that it wants to see measurable benefits for key environmental symbols of river health, such as the Murray Mouth, the Barmah-Millewa Forest and Chowilla Floodplain. They have been identified as significant environmental assets that will need special attention.

In addition to funding agreements for the Living Murray Initiative and the National Water Initiative, COAG members of the Murray-Darling Basin have agreed to provide new funding of $500 million over five years to address water over allocation in the Murray Darling Basin. Recognising the declining health of the River Murray system in particular, forty per cent of this $500 million will be contributed by the Australian Government and 60 per cent by New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, subject to finalisation of the details.

These joint state and national initiatives complement the two major Commonwealth funding mechanisms developed to assist local and regional communities to be involved in natural resource management - the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity & Water Quality

The Australian Government's Natural Heritage Trust has been the major mechanism through which the Commonwealth and State Governments have provided financial assistance to local and regional communities to be involved in activities such as Waterwatch Australia, the only national community water-monitoring network in the world. Waterwatch Australia celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.

Currently nearly 60,000 Australians from 2,300 school and community groups volunteer their time to go out and monitor the health of Australia's rivers, creeks, wetlands, groundwater and estuaries at 7,000 sites, many of which are in South Australia.

These Waterwatch volunteers, as well as those involved in the four main programs of the Natural Heritage Trust - Coastcare, Bushcare, Rivercare and Landcare - play a fundamental role in understanding and improving the health of Australia's natural, human, social and economic environments.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to announce today in National Water Week that the Australian Government will fund a further 35 facilitator positions on top of the 650 Natural Resource Management and 70 Landcare Facilitators we are already supporting.

The first phase of the Natural Heritage Trust highlighted the importance of volunteers in protecting and maintaining Australia's unique environment. I am determined that this commitment not be lost.

The new facilitator positions will be located in strategic regional centres around Australia, where they can best support volunteer networks and community groups. Their role will be to provide hands-on support to community groups and individuals and bridge the gap between the regional bodies and volunteers.

I thank you for inviting me here today and again congratulate you on producing this excellent resource kit. I am sure that with support from our Governments and the outstanding commitment and expertise of the Australian community, we will be able to overcome the significant environmental challenges we are facing.

Commonwealth of Australia