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Living Lightly column

Leave no-one behind this World Water Day

By Jonathon Howard

March 22 is global World Water Day, when we should think about the significance of fresh water and sustainability in managing fresh water resources. This year’s theme is “Leaving no-one behind”.

Unfortunately, current water use practices don’t benefit everyone. Globally, 80 percent of the people who must use unsafe and unprotected water sources live in rural areas. Access to water underpins public health. Indeed, ‘leaving no one behind’ is thus critical to sustainable development and a stable future.

Lessons can, indeed, be found closer to home. The Murray Darling Basin plan is perhaps one of the most ambitious social and governmental projects undertaken. Individuals, communities and regions face a range of changes to the way we use water, in terms of materials and wellbeing.

The importance of irrigated agriculture in the basin is hard to overstate. However, food production techniques have started causing salinity, erosion, blue-green algal blooms, fish kills and reduced water quality. This in turn affects a range of local indigenous groups, recreational fishers, stock and domestic users, as well as those of us who value river ecologies.

Evidence of illegal take and fish kills in the Darling River suggest that we need to be doing better.

Both the Productivity Commission’s assessment of the basin plan and the recent South Australian Royal Commission have called for greater transparency and public participation in planning. More recently ANU researchers claimed $3.5 billion of taxpayers’ money spent on water-saving infrastructure projects in the basin had returned little or no new water to the system.

Imperatives of fairness or social justice are not front and centre in the Water Act – a strict interpretation suggests science will determine what the environment needs and that the task for government (including the MDBA) is then to “do what science tells us to do”.

Given the importance of the basin, it is important to have a set of value judgements that underpin what we do.

Thus on March 22, I would urge we focus on beginning to re-define the principles that underpin water management, engage all of us who have a stake in this vital issue, and develop a way forward that means water is shared.

We should begin “leaving no one behind” in the Murray Darling Basin.