NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Water Act won't work: Harvard professor
, April 2, 2011
A leading Harvard University water expert has told an Australian Senate inquiry that the Commonwealth Government’s Water Act to manage the Murray-Darling Basin “would not work and could not work”.
Professor John Briscoe’s comments were part of a recent submission to the Senate inquiry into the provisions of the 2007 Water Act, formulated by the then Minister for Water, Malcolm Turnbull.
The act required the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to produce a new Basin Plan.
In protests across the Basin last year, farmers burned copies of the draft plan (see News Weekly, October 30, 2010), which proposed taking around 30 per cent of their irrigation water for the environment. This would effectively shut down large areas of irrigated agriculture in the Basin, which supplies around 40 per cent of Australia’s food.
Professor Briscoe was senior water advisor at the World Bank and is now Gordon McKay professor of environmental engineering at Harvard University, where he directs the Harvard water program.
He has visited Australia three times — first as a member of the “high-level external review panel” convened by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to review the draft Guide to the Basin Plan, then to work with the National Water Commission, and, most recently, as part of the joint work on water by Harvard University in collaboration with Melbourne and Monash universities and the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).
Professor Briscoe believes that Australians and their politicians have lost sight of their farmers’ extraordinary achievements in food production during the recent drought, and of the world-leading technology developed in this country for dry-land farming.
“Over the last 10 years, Australia did something which no other country could conceivably have managed — in a large irrigated agricultural economy (the Murray-Darling Basin) a 70 per cent reduction in water availability had very little aggregate economic impact. …
“[T]his extraordinary achievement is, in my view, the single most important water fact of the 21st century, because it shows that it is possible (with ingenuity and investment) to adapt to rapid climate change and associated water scarcity.
“What has been very striking to me on my visits to Australia, is how dramatically this perspective is different from the political and public perception, which is largely that we have done a terrible job.’”
Professor Briscoe said he strongly disagreed with this view, saying that Australians were making “a fatal misdiagnosis of ‘the problem’.”
He said that the public and politicians were blaming environmental degradation in the Basin on the failure of our institutions. He cited Malcolm Turnbull’s statement that “our water management has been extraordinarily ill-informed in years past”.
Professor Briscoe observed that this diagnosis is “extraordinarily widespread and extraordinarily erroneous”. Yet he said it was “obvious” to him that the degraded environment in the Basin over the past decade was not caused by farmers’ use of water for irrigation, but “the dramatic reduction in rainfall and even larger reduction in river flows”.
He said: “It is equally clear to me that the institutional response (of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, the Basin states and farmers) was extraordinarily innovative and — within the bounds set by nature — effective. Not only for the economy but, as shown by the National Water Commission, for ameliorating the environmental damage of the terrible drought.”
He went on to describe how the drought-induced environmental issues in the Basin had been turned into a political football. As the environmental issues became more and more prominent in the 2007 federal elections, the Liberal Party used its new Water Act in a dramatic effort to win over Green/Labor voters.
Because management of water is constitutionally the responsibility of the states, the Commonwealth Government decided to invoke several international environmental treaties, particularly the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention.
“So the [water] act became an environmental act,” said Professor Briscoe, “which was all it really could be, since it was in the name of the Commonwealth’s obligations to an obscure international environmental convention that it was taking powers from the states.
“To avoid a constitutional crisis, the Commonwealth had to build the Water Act around this fig-leaf.
“And so the fundamentals of the act were born — an environmental act in which Canberra would tell states and communities and farmers what to do,” said Briscoe.
He said that the fact that the government implemented a “‘we will run the numbers and the science behind closed doors and then tell you the resulting [Murray-Darling Basin] Basin Plan process” could be squarely blamed on the Water Act itself.
Furthermore, to those who say that theact was not primarily aimed at the environment — that it provided equal weighting to social, economic and environmental concerns as promised — Briscoe said: “this is poppycock”.
Indeed, the high-level review panel for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, of which Professor Briscoe was a member, said in its report: “The driving value of the [Water Act] is that a triple-bottom-line approach (environment, economic, social) is replaced by one in which environment becomes the overriding objective, with the social and economic spheres required to ‘do the best they can’ with whatever is left once environmental needs are addressed’.”
Professor Briscoe said that the Water Act placed extraordinary faith in the views of scientists. The act stipulated “that science will determine what the environment needs are, and that the task for government (including the MDBA) is then just to ‘do what science tells it to do’,” Briscoe said.
This decision-making process effectively excludes asking the thousands of people living and working in the Basin — those to be most affected by the new Basin Plan — to use their knowledge and expertise to review and evaluate the science.
He went on to say that the high-level review panel told the Murray-Darling Basin Commission that if this decision-making process was to be taken literally, it “would mean that 100 per cent of the flows of the Basin would have to go to the environment, because the native environment had arisen before man started developing the Basin”.
He added: “The absurdity of this point was to drive home the reality — that the Murray is one of the most heavily plumbed river basins in the world, and that the real choice was to decide which set of managed (not natural) environmental (and other) outcomes were most desirable.”
He said that it was the job of science to map out options, indicating clearly the enormous uncertainties that underlie any scenario linking water and environmental outcomes. But it was up to government to decide the necessary trade-offs and value judgments, and then to take responsibility for their decisions and to make those decisions transparent to the public.
In his advisory role on the Basin Plan, Professor Briscoe said that “in all of my years of public service, often in very sensitive environments, I had never been subject to such an elaborate ‘confidentiality’ process as that embodied in the preparation of the Guide to the Basin Plan.
“The logical interpretation was that the spirit of the Water Act of 2007 (environment first, science will tell, the Commonwealth government will decide, the people will obey) required such a process. …
“A corollary of this flawed process (and the ideas incorporated into the act) was that there was very little recourse in the process to the immense, world-leading knowledge of water management that had developed in Australia during the last 20 years.”
He said that, time and again, he was told by many professionals, community leaders, farmers and state politicians, who had made Australia the widely-acknowledged world leaders in arid zone water management, that they were excluded from the process of developing the Basin Plan.
Professor Briscoe was blunt in saying that the high-level panel told the chair and CEO of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission that it was the job of the commission to tell Australia’s political leaders that the Water Act 2007 and the draft Basin Plan “would not, and could not, work”.
He was equally blunt before the recent Senate inquiry. He said: “I believe that the Water Act of 2007 was founded on a political deception. … Australian cannot find its way in water management if this act is the guide.
“I would urge the Government to start again, to re-define principles, to engage all who have a stake in this vital issue, and to produce, as rapidly as possible, a new act which can serve Australia for generations to come. And which can put Australia back in a world leadership position in modern water management.”
Patrick J. Byrne is vice-president of the National Civic Council.
John Briscoe’s seven-page submission (February 24, 2011) to the Senate inquiry into the Commonwealth Water Act 2007 and the Murray-Darling Basin.