Water management #ST5 [fr]
The fate of water drops is an issue of debate on sustainable development through dialogue, modelling and social learning for France and Australia
Water management is a key element in the organization of a country and is an increasingly important part of the adaptation strategy to deal with climate change. These choices of governance are based both on quantitative aspects, for the distribution between uses and needs, and qualitative aspects, for water pollution by domestic, industrial, or agricultural activities and their impact on the environment. Faced with the underlying financial, political, environmental, and social issues, France and Australia are allocating significant resources to improving their water management. With heterogeneous territories and two distinct histories, the two countries today have two very different systems, between a "blue gold" regulated on an elaborate and competitive water market in Australia and a water, institutionalized as a "common heritage", subject to complex consultation processes in France.
The two countries could benefit from scientific exchanges and cooperation on water management to compare their diversity of approaches and to develop new perspectives for the future.
France, with a surface area of 643,801 km², has 440 billion m³ of rainfall per year, making water a widely available resource, with moderate or compensated spatial disparities. The legislative framework of water policy in France reflects both this reality and the history of the country, with a system introducing into the law the idea of water as a common good from the 19th century, which has since been expanded to take into account all the functions of water (sanitation, distribution, pollution, etc.) as well as the recent challenges of sustainability.
Thus, French water policy is defined at the national level, but it has been decentralized at the level of the large river basins since 1964. This decentralization aims at considering the geographical reality of the resources, because "water does not know administrative borders". To organize dialogue and the sharing of responsibilities, each large basin is managed by a consultative structure, the Basin Committee, and an executive body, the Water Agency. The Committees are made up of representatives of local authorities (40%), users and associations (40%), and the State (20%). They decide on the orientations of water policy through the preparation of a multiyear action and investment plan (SDAGE), validated by the State. Thanks to this system, France has developed, since the 1970s, a solid experience of consultation in the water sector, allowing taking into account all water users (industrialists, public works, farmers, fishermen and aquaculturists, tourism, nautical activities, electricity producers, water distributors, etc.), the needs of aquatic ecosystems, pollution prevention and the control of natural and accidental risks. These action plans are implemented by the Water Agencies, administrative establishments of the State, which also have a role in informing and raising public awareness. Their budget is based on the principle "water must pay for water", by collecting taxes based on the "polluter-pays" and "user-pays" rules, i.e. paid by all users whose abstractions and discharges affect water quality or modify its regime.
Australia, 14 times the size of France (7,692,060 km2), is largely desert and semi-arid areas. Its land experiences rainfall marked by significant spatial and seasonal variability, with very significant interannual variations due to climatic phenomena such as El Niño. Of its 455 mm of annual rainfall, only 1% is destined for groundwater and 12% (52 mm) for rivers, with the remaining 87% being consumed by evapotranspiration. As a result, only two major rivers, with very uncertain flow rates, cross 5,000 km of south-eastern Australia: the Darling and the Murray. They constitute the country’s main water resource, hosting 70% of irrigated land and 40% of Australia’s agricultural production. However, Australia is one of the most water-consuming countries in the world and droughts are frequent, leading to supply difficulties with significant consequences on Australian agriculture and economy, but also on its environment, despite the fact that the country is one of the best endowed with freshwater per capita (less than 1% of freshwater resources for 0.33% of the world population in 2007). Today, the effects of climate change and a particularly water-intensive lifestyle and economy are raising concerns about the future of water resources.
In this context, water governance is a crucial issue in Australia. Since the early 19th century, when water resources began to be exploited by European settlers, the uncontrolled development of uses (irrigation, grazing, deforestation) has rapidly contributed to soil acidification and water salinization. The issue of managing the resource began in the hands of the federal states, resulting in the implementation of major infrastructures (dams and reservoirs). From the 2000s onwards, the country is experiencing unequalled water stress situations, which are accelerating. To limit the environmental, health and economic consequences, the Australian government has undertaken a profound overhaul of water governance. In 2004, the National Water Initiative (NWI) was adopted. With a 1.25 billion investment fund, it aimed to rethink the methods of resource management and to encourage investment in infrastructure and new technologies. Its programme was implemented by the National Water Commission, which was abolished in 2014. In 2007, the Water Act led to the creation of a single federal entity, the Murray-Darling Basin Management Authority (MDBA). The Water Act thus introduces several major changes, including the fact that the states no longer have authority over water management and the creation of a market for water access rights. This market provides a framework in which the Australian government sets the volume of extraction allowed, and water rights holders can trade their rights permanently or on a one-off basis, regardless of land. The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) is responsible for quantifying the water available annually and recording the volumes traded and used as well as the users. In 2012, the need for urgent measures to raise the flows in the Murray-Darling River Basin (MDB) to a more healthy and sustainable level has led to the creation of a Basin Plan to reconcile the needs of irrigated agriculture, industry and cities with the increase in flows reserved for the environment.
Among these initiatives, a campaign to buy-back water rights in favour of the environment has been set up by the government to increase stream flows in the Murray-Darling Basin. This policy has not achieved consensus, especially among communities that depend on agricultural income. These measures were accompanied by A$4 billion in subsidies to increase the efficiency of irrigation infrastructure. The strategy is now ten years old, while the plan to ensure sustainable water extraction has been in place for more than five years. With a total spending to date of AU$6 billion, a suspension of buyouts, and 70% of water rights acquired, there is much to learn about water governance from this experiment in water harvesting for the environment. A study published in 2018 in the Annual Review of Resource Economics entitled "Economics of Water Recovery in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia" takes stock of the consequences of these reforms after a decade of implementation in the Murray-Darling Basin, in particular the economic and environmental effects of water recovery policy. The results open discussions. They suggest that the actual increase in the volume of water in terms of stream flows is much less than claimed by the Australian government. According to the study, there is no observable basin-wide relationship between volumes of water recovered and the flows at the mouth of the River Murray. Finally, among the conclusions, subsidies to increase irrigation efficiency have reduced stream and groundwater return flows. It would be interesting to further explore the study’s conclusions and recommendations, such as the establishment of an independent body responsible for water policy in the public interest (as was the National Water Commission) to monitor the compliance of actions such as water diversions, assess the values of water in different competing uses, and so on.
Of course, the debate around the water market is not the only factor to be studied to understand the dynamics of stakeholders around water management in Australia. On this subject, a recent study entitled "Modelling the climate, water and socio-economic drivers of farmer exit in the Murray-Darling Basin" looked at the factors driving the exodus of farmers from the Murray-Darling Basin area. The findings suggest that the direct factors are primarily climatic (e.g. increased risk of drought) and socio-economic (e.g. lower commodity prices, increased urbanization, and unemployment).
The French and Australian water management systems are interesting to compare. This has been done in a study entitled "Water markets in France: appropriate water scarcity management mechanisms? Case studies in the Poitevin Marsh Basin and the Neste system" on the value of establishing a water market in France as a mechanism for managing water scarcity.
In France, water rights are linked to land, which is reflected in the value of land when a water right has been attached to it. Due to the principle of acquis de droit (“acquired on a legal basis”), once an owner is granted an annual water right, he cannot be denied the same right in subsequent years as long as he fulfils the corresponding contractual obligations. Consequently, for a fixed volume of water abstraction granted by law, demand may exceed supply and some stakeholders may be excluded from access to water. With the prospect of significant reductions in the volume granted annually in the coming years, the question therefore arises of greater flexibility in the allocation of water rights and mechanisms to facilitate water transfers, in a context where it is now illegal to buy, sell and (in most cases) transfer water abstraction permits. These changes need to be considered based on collectively established rules.
Markets could be a tool to this end. Therefore, the aim of this study was to quantify the potential benefits (economic, governance, ...) through lessons learned from existing water markets to inform the debate. However, the results highlighted (at the two case study sites) that the use of water markets in France raises significant barriers in the first place. In the case of a landscape that is sensitive to water extractions and whose dynamics are linked to hydrology, the externalities arising from water transfers can have undesirable consequences and should be studied in detail on a case-by-case basis. On the financial side, the establishment of water markets would require the abandonment of the acquis de droit principle, reducing the value of land, which implies significant losses for current owners. Finally, the most important obstacle is the very low social acceptability of water markets in France, with opposition pointing, on the one hand, to the incompatibility of this system with a perspective of water as a common heritage, and, on the other hand, to the lack of response to concerns raised by ethical issues such as the fear of a monopolisation of the resource, control of redistributive effects, etc.
Today, integrated water management implies not only having an overview of uses, needs and knowledge of resources, but also being able to evaluate response scenarios in the context of climate change where many variations are uncertain in the medium and long term. While the collection and interpretation of a large amount of data is necessary to plan actions, monitor their implementation and evaluate their effects, these tools are no longer sufficient to address the issues at stake. In this sense, French researchers are now developing interdisciplinary decision support tools to seek to better take these factors into account and to always push back the limits inherent in concertation, especially when pressures on the resource increase.
It is within this framework that researcher Sandrine Allain designed a multi-criteria, multi-actor assessment approach, deployed in a South-Western French territory, to answer the question, What are the different proposals put forward worth to resolve a given water imbalance? in her thesis entitled "Towards structural water management in an agricultural territory under stress, a multi-criteria, multi-actor assessment approach using computer simulations", presented in the video below.
The scenarios differ in terms of the intensity and diversity of the simulated impacts, the interests or prejudices perceived by the stakeholders, and the capacity to produce consensus or discord. This approach makes water management both a problem of sustainability, since it is a question of satisfying ecological, social and economic requirements in the long term in the face of strong uncertainties, but also a problem of social choice, since it is a question of making a collective choice based on individual preferences.