WSSD - Australian National Assessment Report

Environment Australia
ISBN 0 642 54855 2


5. Thematic Review - Integrated Land and Water Management

5.1 Legacy of early land and water management

When Europeans first arrived in Australia, they introduced European agricultural plants and animals and implemented traditional European land management practices as best they could in the new environment. The forests that covered the coastal areas were cleared to make way for human settlements and agriculture. This clearing resulted directly in the loss of many plant and animal species and endangered others through habitat loss, changed microclimates, soil erosion and raised water tables, as shallow rooted crops and pastures 'leaked' water below the root zone. Rising water tables, as a consequence of removing native vegetation, is the main cause of our current massive problem of salinity. The landscape was further changed by the new plant species which often established themselves in the remaining native habitat, out-competing native plants and changing the mix and balance of native animals who were able to live there. Introduced farm animals further modified the landscape, especially the tendency to erosion, with hard hooves and grazing techniques evolved for quite different environmental conditions. The variable climate and long droughts led to the construction of high capacity dams and reservoirs and regulated flow in most major rivers. Much of the river flows were redirected for irrigation of introduced plant species.

Australia initially established a prosperous economy that was heavily dependent on agriculture, especially wheat and wool. Even now, although our economy is much more diversified, Australia still receives substantial income (including 18.3% of export income) from industries based on introduced agricultural plants, animals and practices. Despite the retraction of agricultural activity from more marginal areas, and the reduction in the high grazing pressure of early years, these introduced agricultural animals and plants continue to place pressure on the environment - displacing native plants and animals, eroding the fragile soil, and substantially changing the hydrology. Land clearing continues, especially in Queensland, NSW and Tasmania, at an average rate of 450 thousand hectares a year.

Australia's greatest sustainable development challenge continues to be finding ways to maintain those aspects of our economic well-being which are based on use of land and water while reversing the damage the unsustainable use of our land and water has done to our ecological systems.

5.2 Salinity

Australia is geologically and climatically prone to concentrating salt in the landscape as it combines generally flat terrain, low rainfall, high evaporation, limited sub-surface drainage to the sea and quite high levels of salt in soil and rock. Dryland salinity results from changes in the water table following the replacement of deep-rooted, perennial vegetation with shallow rooted crops and pasture which use less surface water and thus increase water flows into the groundwater. This raises the water table and with it the salt contained in the groundwater. The salt becomes concentrated in the soil and moves into surface water. Irrigation salinity compounds the problem of dryland salinity by adding large quantities of water to mix with the saline groundwater, drawing more salt to the surface.

Two and a half million hectares (five per cent) of Australia's cultivated land is currently affected by dryland salinity and a further 5.7 million hectares are at risk.

Salinity is a difficult issue to address because its effects are often well removed in both time and space from its causes. The impact may be felt hundreds of kilometres away and across jurisdictional boundaries from the place where it has been caused. Additionally, it may take from ten to hundreds of years for rising groundwater to translate into surface salt. Because of the time and space lag between cause and effect for both the salinity problem and the implementation of measures to address it, there has, in the past, been little incentive for landholders to expend resources on solutions, even when the problem has been recognised.

5.3 Experiments in integrated policy and decision making

5.3.1 The Murray-Darling Basin

The Murray-Darling Basin extends across four States (New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland), as well as including the entire Australian Capital Territory. The Murray-Darling Basin is one of Australia's largest drainage divisions and, at just over one million square kilometres, is large even on a global scale. It comprises about 14 per cent of the continental landmass. The Basin includes the Darling River at 2740 kilometres, the Murray at 2530 kilometres, and the Murrumbidgee at 1690 kilometres - the three longest rivers in Australia.

At the time of European settlement, about 28 per cent of Australia's mammal species, about 48 per cent of its birds and 19 per cent of its reptiles were found in the area of the Basin. Of these species, 20 mammals are now extinct, and 16 mammals and 35 birds are nationally endangered. Over-allocation of water, changed water flows, land clearing for agriculture and improved pasture (and consequent habitat loss), and increasing in-stream and dryland salinity are having increasing effects on the ecology of the Basin. Grazing pressure and stream-bank degradation by livestock have also contributed to ecological change.

Because of its environmental, economic and social importance and its cross-jurisdictional political status, the Murray-Darling Basin demanded an integrated whole of governmental and inter-governmental solution. Since 1917 the River Murray Commission had managed water distribution between the three southern Basin States - New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. In 1988 the Murray-Darling Basin Commission was established and the Murray-Darling Basin Salinity and Drainage Strategy was launched in the same year.

The Strategy provided a framework for governments to manage waterlogging and land salinisation in the lower Murray. Engineering schemes for salt interception were already in place. The Strategy is binding under the Murray Darling Basin Agreement Act. The four State Governments involved financed a program of groundwater pumping to reduce salinity at Morgan (upstream from Adelaide). There has been a net reduction in salinity, but this has only deferred the date at which salinity at Morgan is expected to exceed the threshold for desirable drinking water quality. One problem with this Strategy is that the States earn salinity credits through additional engineering works. This allows them to take actions that exacerbate rather than ameliorate salinity. The strategy has recently been reviewed and the outcomes will be incorporated into the Basin Salinity Management Strategy to ensure that salinity in dryland and irrigated areas of the Basin are addressed in an integrated way.

The Murray Darling Basin Agreement (1992) took the integrated management of the Basin a significant step further, providing a broader institutional framework for the management of the Basin's natural and environmental resources. The Agreement established the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council, which brings together the relevant Federal, State and Territory Governments. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission is the executive arm of the Council and comprises representatives of the relevant State, Territory and Federal Government agencies with responsibility for land, water and the environment. The Ministerial Council is advised by a Community Advisory Committee.

In all, the current government has invested more than AUD350 million in natural resource management programs in the Murray Darling Basin - with an emphasis on salinity mitigation.

5.3.2 Council of Australian Governments water reform

As mentioned above, one success story about how to institutionalise whole of government and inter-governmental cooperation to promote sustainable development objectives in land and water management is the Council of Australian Governments' National Agenda for Water Reform.

Much of Australia is arid and drought is common. Water is a State property and entitlements to use water are a statutory right under State legislation. Water use per capita is high in Australia compared to other countries, with between 70 and 80 per cent of available water used in agriculture. Rapid urban population growth is increasing water use and intensifying competition for water resources, reducing flow levels in rivers and thus contributing to increased salinity. Prior to the 1980s, water infrastructure and use was heavily subsidised. Much infrastructure was publicly funded with no charge to the ultimate users. Consequent overuse and inefficient allocation led to significant problems.

In 1994-95, the Council of Australian Governments adopted the National Agenda for Water Reform, whereby all jurisdictions committed themselves to a range of market based measures. Pricing practices were reformed to reflect the full economic cost of resources. Cross-subsidies were removed and other subsidies made transparent.

Transferability of water rights, to address inefficient allocation, was introduced in 1979 in South Australia and has been progressively extended to other States. The Council of Australian Governments water reform has made the development of water markets part of the general policy framework. In 1997-98, 7.3 per cent of total water entitlements were traded in Australian irrigation areas. Most trading is among agricultural users, from low value pasture to higher value horticulture, viticulture and vegetable production.

Water service providers must now operate on a commercial basis while new investment in rural water supplies is limited to ecologically sustainable and economically viable projects. The National Competition Council is responsible for assessing water reform progress in the various States and has exercised its power to recommend suspension of competition payments by the Federal Government if commitments are not met.

Specific provision was made to ensure adequate water for the environment. In 1997-98, the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council (see above) introduced an overall cap on water diversion in the Basin at its 1993-94 level to avoid increasing environmental pressure and to ensure the security of supply for existing users. Most States have now reformed or are reforming their water legislation to ensure that the environment has enough water to protect biodiversity and river ecosystems before any other allocations are made. (However, knowledge of what actually is enough water for the environment remains incomplete.)

Progress in implementing the reforms across water use categories and jurisdictions has been variable. Residential consumption has been reduced by consumption-based tariffs. Equity issues have been addressed, with assistance provided to low income households. Industrial and commercial consumption is increasingly being brought in line with residential charges. Full cost recovery for urban water including commercial and industrial use has been achieved in most jurisdictions.

However, pricing reform for rural water is still a long way short of full cost recovery. The price of water supplied to agriculture is substantially less than that supplied to households. This is partly because the quality of water is lower, and because the quantity used is much higher so that economies of scale may apply. Additionally, it is because of the care that must be taken in removing any system of subsidies, especially in a period of major structural and social change, such as is currently occurring in rural Australia.

5.3.3 The Natural Resource Management Council

While the Council of Australian Governments water reforms are a success story for the intergovernmental approach to a problem, the effectiveness of the portfolio-based Ministerial Councils in integrating environmental, economic and social concerns in their deliberations has been variable.

As mentioned above, there has been a recent shift from portfolio-based Ministerial Councils to purpose-based Councils, with the amalgamation into a Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council of the conservation and natural resource management roles of:

  • the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council;
  • the Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand; and
  • the Ministerial Council on Forestry Fisheries and Aquaculture.

The formation of this new Council recognises the common agenda of environment and agriculture Ministers in the conservation and wise use of natural resources. It is expected to go a long way towards ensuring that competition and conflict between environmental conservation and resource use objectives can be resolved within the new Council, rather than separately in each of the component sectors.

5.3.4 Stakeholder delivery of land and water restoration programs

At the more grass roots level, Natural Heritage Trust programs endeavour to integrate environmental, economic and social objectives and engage stakeholders in developing co-operative solutions. These programs harness landowners and managers and local communities as agents of sustainability. Projects funded are those that are demonstrably for the public good, and which advance sustainability.

Much of Australia's biodiversity is on private or other non-reserve land. Many Natural Heritage Trust projects therefore provide funding to enable areas of land, such as crucial water catchments, riparian areas or areas of high conservation value to be managed for their conservation values and contribution to ecosystem function. Protecting water catchments can also serve immediate social and economic objectives, such as assisting in flood control, maintaining water quality, as well as longer term objectives such as protecting water supplies and helping to prevent salinity.

The National Landcare Program provided the model under which other Natural Heritage Trust (which now incorporates Landcare) programs operate, funding landholders and managers to undertake projects to protect and conserve local environments. Landcare (a collaboration between the National Farmers' Federation and the Australian Conservation Foundation) commenced as a community movement in 1989 and first began receiving funding from the Federal Government in 1990. There are now more than 3,200 local Landcare groups. About one in every three farmers is a member of a Landcare group.

The Bushcare program, under the Natural Heritage Trust, funds projects which involve partnerships with the community, state agencies and regional organisations to protect and rehabilitate native vegetation. It gives priority to projects at a regional or catchment scale which integrate management of remnant native vegetation with extensive revegetation. A small but important aspect of the Bushcare program is supporting sustainable production projects, including the sustainable management and production of native grasslands, rehabilitating degraded areas and oil production from native tree species. Revegetation with native plants and the protection of remnant vegetation reduces soil erosion, increases water quality and reduces siltation in creeks and farm dams, while providing shade and shelter for stock and wildlife.

The National Rivercare Program is another program under the Natural Heritage Trust. It aims at improving the health of Australia's river systems and waterways. Rivercare's focus is on inland rivers outside the Murray Darling Basin, which are being addressed separately. Like Landcare, it involves partnerships with local communities. Rivercare projects focus on activities that prevent pollution, manage discharges, manage stock access to rivers, control erosion, and contribute to healthy streams and ecosystems.

The Trust has increased community engagement in sustainable land and water (as well as coastal and marine management), involving almost 400,000 Australians in 12,000 projects. Trust partnerships have facilitated an increase in the uptake of best practice in sustainable land and water management, through the promotion of innovative and exemplary projects, and the development and adoption of industry codes of practice.

Much of Natural Heritage Trust funding has gone to direct revegetation programs initiated and implemented by landholders and managers or community groups. Funding has supported the erection of 19,000 kilometres of protective fencing. Since the Natural Heritage Trust began, the areas of trees and shrubs planted on agricultural land has increased from 30,000 hectares a year to over 150,000. By 2000, a total of 620 000 hectares had been protected, rehabilitated or revegetated under the Natural Heritage Trust. While this represents only a little more than 0.1% of Australia's agricultural land, it is a start towards sustainable development which was impossible without the cooperation between Federal Ministries, between the Federal and State Governments, and between governments and the individuals and communities who have had the primary task of implementing Natural Heritage Trust projects.

5.3.5 National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality

Whole of government and inter-governmental cooperation to promote sustainable development objectives in land and water management have been taken a step further forward with adoption of the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality. Like the Natural Heritage Trust, the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality engages local landholders and communities in the resolution of the problem.

Australia's problem with salinity as a result of groundwater recharge due to land clearing is described above. The National Action Plan builds on the Natural Heritage Trust's emphasis on local projects to addresses salinity on a catchment-wide basis. For instance, groundwater recharge can be partly reduced by improving the water use efficiency of pastures, cropping rotations, and with plantation or agro-forestry systems. To date these measures have been largely implemented through broader land degradation programs such as Landcare and Bushcare, and other programs under the Natural Heritage Trust. With Federal, State, local and private resources, these programs apply local concern and labour to valuable conservation and revegetation tasks. However, a more comprehensive regional or catchment-based approach is required to effectively deal with the broad scale of the problem of dryland salinity.

Because it addresses the problem of the physical distance between action and effect in relation to salinity, the National Action Plan is the first concerted and targeted national strategy to address the salinity problem. It was endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments on 3 November 2000 and committed Federal, State and Territory Governments to support regional action by communities to tackle salinity and water quality problems. Targets and standards are being developed collaboratively by the Federal and State Governments, and integrated catchment plans are being developed.

The Action Plan outlines a range of land and water policy changes necessary to protect the long-term profitability and sustainability of the natural resource base. Matters identified for action include pricing, clarifying and securing property rights, regulatory instruments for land and water use, and market-based incentives and regulatory controls on land clearing in salinity risk areas. Some examples of possible reforms may include placing caps on extraction of water in over-allocated surface and groundwater systems and putting in place controls on land clearing in areas where this may lead to unacceptable land and water degradation.

The Action Plan identifies market-based incentives for landholders as important stimuli in achieving improved water quality and salinity outcomes. A Working Group has been established to undertake a comparative review of the conceptual work and pilot schemes currently being undertaken by the Federal and State Governments and overseas. The Working Group will also identify policy mechanisms which are not currently being trialed, and a range of work on the issues and impediments that need to be addressed by Governments (including legal, regulatory, policy, institutional, structural and cultural) for the successful implementation of market based instruments.

Under the Action Plan, assistance will be available for catchment and regional plans that have been developed by regional bodies in 21 priority areas. The Federal Government and the States will accredit plans based on specific criteria agreed by the Governments. The accreditation of regional plans will allow community bodies to access block funding from Governments for on the ground action to address salinity and water quality problems.