The federal government has released details of a plan that will readjust Australia’s outdated overarching water policy, to better prepare for climate change and boost participation of First Nations peoples in water management.

Now 20 years old, the National Water Initiative (NWI) aligns state, territory and federal water policies by setting objectives for how water is shared and managed, and ensuring they are in harmony with other areas of policy, international treaties and commitments. 

Over roughly the same time span, inflow to the nation’s largest river system, the Murray-Darling Basin, have halved according to the CSIRO.

In a 2021 review of the NWI, the Productivity Commission concluded that it was outdated and would struggle to meet population and climate challenges without a major overhaul.

It also said the NWI had failed to consider the rights and aspirations of First Nations people to manage, own and control water for their own economic and cultural purposes.

Tanya Plibersek has opened debate on the future direction of water policy.(ABC News: Luke Stephenson)

In a document released this morning, federal environment and water minister Tanya Plibersek said the updated NWI would “strengthen the connection between climate science and water planning, alongside a greater consideration of, and influence for, First Nations peoples in water management”.

“A renewed NWI will provide an extra level of confidence for communities that our precious water resources are efficiently managed in the face of climate change,” she said.

“We are also entrenching an ongoing commitment to First Nations voices in water management, ensuring the needs and aspirations of First Nations communities are integral to water planning in our country.”

New directions

In a discussion paper released today, the government outlines six objectives for a new NWI that will “build on the sound water management principles that were established in the NWI to address new and emerging water management challenges”.

The major challenges outlined by the paper included longer and hotter droughts, more intense flooding, a growing population and expanding agricultural and energy sectors.

The plan aims to address the ongoing lack of access to clean, reliable drinking water experienced by some remote communities, as well as have future policies and regulation that ensures communities have access to water that enhances public green spaces while minimising waste. 

Since the last drought, several reports have highlighted a growing mistrust in government management of water resources, particularly in Murray-Darling Basin communities.

Those communities, as well as First Nations in the basin, have previously told the ABC they believed consultation over the direction of policies that affected them felt hollow and insincere.

The Commonwealth’s plan for a renewed NWI addresses these concerns, with a commitment to effective engagement and more clarity and transparency in how policies are being implemented.  

Earlier this year the government “tested the direction of the new proposed agreement with key stakeholders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

Public consultation is open until May.

Traditional owners across Australia want greater control of water rights for their communities.(ABC Broken Hill: Saskia Mabin)

Need for change

Under the existing NWI, state and federal policies were enacted that set caps on how much water could be extracted from river and groundwater sources, and how water should be shared between households, industry and the environment.

The separation of water rights from land rights allowed the creation of water markets and saw households lower their water consumption while improving the efficiency of water use by industry.

But it found there were challenges posed by a growing population and climate change that made the existing NWI unfit and outdated.

It left Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples out of the national conversation on water and was not in alignment with Closing The Gap targets.

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