Water Policy Reform

Water Policy Reform

Lessons in Sustainability from the Murray–Darling Basin

Edited by John Quiggin, Thilak Mallawaarachchi and Sarah Chambers

Agriculture in the Murray–Darling Basin of Australia represents a controversial ‘policy experiment’ comprising large capital investments, innovation and enterprise across a hundred-year period. This book, which contains contributions from some of Australia’s foremost economic, social science and public policy researchers and writers, examines the evolution of public policy frameworks that transformed water management from initial exploitation for irrigation as a dominant single use to a dynamic multiple use resource system.

Chapter 1: A Hundred-Year Policy Experiment: The Murray–Darling Basin in Australia

Tim Cummins and Alistair Watson

Subjects: development studies, development studies, environment, environmental geography, management natural resources, water


Tim Cummins and Alistair Watson If it is difficult to be wise after the event it is impossible to expect people to have been wise before it (Davidson, 1969, p. 50). INTRODUCTION Water policy in Australia is a textbook case of the dilemma faced by policymakers when they are attempting to make sensible economic decisions even though available options have been compromised by foolish decisions taken in the past. For even on the most charitable assessment, the extensive literature on the history of irrigation in Australia demonstrates that rational calculation was a long way from the minds of prominent irrigation enthusiasts. Romanticism and recklessness is still evident in water policy, but it is now revealed in different ways. The sequence of decisions in the expansion phase of irrigation determines today’s starting point for analysis. Environmental considerations now loom large. Expansion of irrigation for over a century has resulted in a vastly modified river system. There are flow-related and non-flow-related environmental consequences (Hillman, 2008). There are also economic consequences, in that extraction of so much water from regulated rivers reduces the reliability of irrigation allocations. Damage to water quality challenges the economic prospects of irrigation while also imposing costs on domestic and industrial water users. More than that, today’s population is increasingly concerned with appreciation and enjoyment of the multifaceted riverine environment along with the amenity of regulated rivers and streams. Ongoing changes in societal attitudes towards the environment further complicate the policy dilemma. As remarked by Harry Clarke (2010): 9...

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