Water management in the Northern Territory keeps making headlines, as it has done so almost every year for the past decade. This regular run of water controversies occur regardless of which party is in power, and point to a deep problem with our water laws.
Water is our most precious resource. It underpins our economy, our livelihoods and is essential to all life in the Territory. In the arid zone in particular, we understand the value of water, especially in drier years when there isn’t much of it to go around.
We are staring down the barrel of the overexploitation of the Territory’s water resources. The Singleton Station water licence, the largest groundwater allocation in Territory history, is a case in point. It sanctions the drawdown of the aquifer up to 50ms deep in some parts of the water table, and the killing of a large swathe of groundwater-dependent ecosystems. Who reaps the benefits? It’s not our communities – with the majority of food going overseas and profits to line the pockets of shareholders.
ALEC has filed proceedings in the NT Supreme Court challenging the lawfulness of the decision to grant the licence.
The Northern Territory Government has promised water reform. The key question is, can we trust them to deliver? Revelations last week that the Gunner government has fully implemented just 27% of Justice Pepper’s hydraulic fracturing inquiry recommendations does nothing to give us confidence.
This is a critical opportunity to modernise the management of the Territory’s water resources to prevent irreversible ecological decline, conflict over water resources between stakeholders and the huge public costs associated with water buybacks which seem inevitable on our current trajectory.
What makes water governance so weak in the NT?
A key issue is that our Water Allocation Plans – legal documents that set out the rules for managing the take and use of water resources - are few and far between. Only about 28% of the volume of water being allocated in the Northern Territory is captured with those Plans. This means most water licensing decisions in the Territory are occurring without planning oversight, without rigorous and publicly tested scientific basis or appropriate stakeholder or public engagement. At best, the Plans are aspirational and in many cases are disregarded by decision-makers.
We cannot ignore climate change, but we can prepare for it. We are facing harsher and longer droughts, erratic rainfall (and therefore the erratic recharge of aquifers), and increased evapotranspiration. Arid zone ecosystems are already understood to be collapsing.
What we’ve got is lots of challenges to our water resources and a broken system. What we need is a complete overhaul of our Water Act to bring it in line with 21st century challenges and expectations and water protection fit for a hotter future.
Water justice is central to the Arid Lands Environment Centre’s vision for the sustainable use of water resources. The five key principles of water justice are: 1) Traditional Owners and their representative institutions are centred in all decision making around water management and use; 2) Water values of ecological, cultural and social significance are recognised and protected; 3) Basic water needs are met for all; 4) Water resource management is inclusive and participatory; 5) Water is recognised as a public good that should be looked after.
There are a host of recommendations and policy changes that ALEC is advocating for to create just, safe and secure water laws that are in the interest of all Territorians, but three stand out.
Three recommendations for fixing failing water laws
The current framework for drinking water is inadequate for protecting people’s right to safe drinking water. Bearing the brunt of a system with huge gaps in governance and an overall lack of transparency and accountability are the hundreds of Aboriginal residents in remote communities being supplied with unsafe water to drink with no legal recourse.
Recommendation 1: We need a Safe Drinking Water Act legislated that sets a minimum standard for drinking water quality, in accordance with the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
The NT is the only jurisdiction that does not charge for commercial water use, bar WA. Strong monitoring, compliance and enforcement form the backbone of effective water governance and is essential for reducing economic, social, cultural and environmental risks. Without a water pricing regime, the key mechanism for funding strong regulation is missing.
Recommendation 2: Setting a price for the commercial use of water is a key opportunity for the Territory to strengthen water governance.
Major decisions about water use are made by the water controller, who wears multiple hats. They are also the CEO of the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security, and they report to the Environment Minister. This inevitably creates a perception of a conflict of interest.
Recommendation 3: Establishing an independent water regulator is critical for oversight and transparency.
The NT Government has just received hundreds of submissions its Strategic Water Plan - Directions Paper which sets the agenda on water to 2050. One of Australia’s top water law experts, Dr Emma Carmody, says the Territory has an opportunity to do something quite unique which is to work collaboratively with Traditional Owners, environmental groups, and other interest groups to build a robust water framework and to lead the country.
Strengthening the Territory's failing water laws are key to protecting our most precious resource. Our future in the Territory depends on whether we’re up to the task.