A renewed National Water Agreement

Zara Lowien*, Caberra, ACT: Over two decades the National Water Initiative (2004)
has played a crucial role in shaping the future of water management in Australia
and it remains world leading. It has supported the growth and sustainability of the
irrigation industry but in doing so, it has also reshaped many regional communities
and industries, particularly when considering the impacts to achieve sustainable
levels of take and establishing a water market with separate land and water rights.

The NWI laid the groundwork for crucial reforms that we now take for granted, like
having limits on how much water can be used for irrigation, establishing sharing
arrangements between towns, communities, environment and industry, and national
standards for water metering.

But the agreement is still not fully implemented in some jurisdictions and has some

It is not explicit in setting actions about how to incorporate Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples values, needs and uses in water management, which was an
oversight at the time.

Understandably, it also didn’t consider many of our current day challenges.
Whether that’s population growth – back in 2004 our population was just hitting 20
million, it’s now 26 million and increasingly centralised. Nor the complexity of today’s
post-covid, global society and often competing needs (and policies) regarding
emissions and decarbonisation, water security and local and global food security.

And whilst the 2004 agreement set a consistent framework for sharing water and risk,
to manage climate variability, overallocation of water and environmental
degradation, it did so through a narrow lens, rather than holistically.

In 2021 the Productivity Commission highlighted these areas as part of their statutory,
triannual review on the implementation of the NWI1. They’ve reinforced this again so
far in their 2024 interim report2, recommending tweaking the framework to
modernise its considerations and outcomes and address the gaps.

There is broad support for the renewal of the NWI framework in this manner. It aims to
address the shortcomings and future proof our water management foundations for
the challenges ahead without losing sight of the fundamentals that industry and
indeed, society has come to expect.

The challenge lays in exactly, whether it’s a modernised agreement or a new one
and how stakeholders, outside of government are part of the process of renewal.

That’s because during the Productivity Commissions inquiry, the Department of
Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water released its own National Water
Agreement discussion paper3.

Australian’s now have concurrent government processes with different names,
different consultation timeframes and two very different approaches to the same
objective – the renewal of the National Water Initiative.

This misalignment of processes has resulted in confusion and conflicting positions and
objectives. The department’s process appears to undermine the independent and
objective statutory processes of the Productivity Commission.

Most concerning is that while the Federal Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek openly
called for engagement in her recent speech at OZWater4, after 10th May, the
process to seek an agreement will be via government officials behind closed doors.
The next time non-government stakeholders have their say will be after the final
agreement has been struck and when states and territories are already beginning to
map out their actions plans.

The process of engaging after the decision, should raise significant alarm bells, for all

That’s before taking into consideration the glaring differences between the current
NWI and that proposed by the department, how the existing NWI objectives are
being incorporated and the lack of detail on how the Productivity Commission’s
advice will be considered and/or addressed.

It’s clear that the proposed renewal process lacks detail and transparency, as well
as an engagement gap for non-government stakeholders.

We do need to future proof the foundations of Australian water management and
planning and address the shortcomings of the past agreement. But we do not need
to start from scratch, we have two decades of history and learnings already.

Nonetheless, all Australian’s have the right to be included before any agreement is

The National Irrigators’ Council members provided their submission to the Australian
Government, highlighting our frustrations and these concerns. We’ve asked them to
do better; allow statutory processes to run, retain the fundamentals and bring
stakeholders along on the journey, do not just send them a destination on a map

10 May 2024

*Zara Lowien is the CEO of the National Irrigators Council and has worked in water
policy and natural resource management for as long as the NWI agreement has
been in place. Contact: ceo@irrigators.org.au, 0427521399