By Kat Taylor, Water Justice Hub, Australian National University

Australians say we want water security. But what is it? This simple term hides different meanings. Beneath the ‘water security’ rhetoric are water winners and water losers. As the climate dries, Australia’s water security policy must become clearer, more coherent and more equitable.  

Most, if not all, Australians desire water security. However, as a nation we must look critically at what ‘water security’ means and who benefits from water security policy. With a dry climate and unpredictable rainfall, Australia should have a comprehensive framework for water security. Sadly, this is not the case.

Australia has no water security definition

There is no clear definition of water security at the Federal level. A review of key documents, such as the 2007 National Plan for Water Security, lacked a cohesive, explicit vision or framework for water security1. Reading between the lines, the implicit interpretation of ‘water security’ was quite narrow. That is, narrowly focused on water quantity/volumes to the exclusion of other issues.1,2

At state or regional administrative levels, the interpretation of water security shifts.3 Increased emphasis might be given to, for example, good quality drinking water or to governance arrangements. Again, ‘water security’ was rarely defined in the government documents examined, so these are implicit meanings.  

Disparate, overlapping meanings for ‘water security’ aren’t necessarily a problem. Rather, it shows the importance of fit-for-purpose definitions.2 Different government administrative levels and departments have different roles. It is to be expected that they focus on different aspects of water security. The problem is that these distinctions are not clear. The concept of ‘water security’ then becomes fuzzy. Because it can mean anything, it becomes meaningless.

Understanding water security

This recent research3 sought to understand ‘water security’, and asked four key questions. ‘Security of what? Against what threats? Security for whom? And over what timeframe?’ These questions were adapted from recent research on resilience.4 They provide a simple yet powerful line of inquiry. The research findings were supported by an earlier paper by the Australian Water Association, which noted ‘there is no nationally harmonised or consistent approach to regulating water security’.5

A more in-depth understanding could be gained by broadening the perspectives considered. My research only examined government documents and was not exhaustive.1,3 The views of First Peoples, community and industry (etc) must be considered to get the big picture of water security in Australia.

We can also look internationally for understanding and insights. The United Nations’ working definition of water security is: “The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.”6

The UN-Water definition is broad and potentially difficult to operationalise, However, it reflects the fact that water is essential to all life and to human wellbeing. Water is used, directly or indirectly, by virtually every industry. Water connects, with scarcity in Australia impacting global food security.7 Water can also cause destruction through flooding and transmitting water-borne diseases e.g. cholera. Water can be weaponised during international conflict.8,9 A comprehensive definition of water security can capture all of these dimensions.10

Busting water security myths

A framework, or set of frameworks, would give clarity about Australia’s water security objectives. It could be based on the UN-Water definition, or might be something completely different. It could allow water security to be tracked using a scorecard or similar method.5 It could respect First Peoples’ relationship to water and, if appropriate, be based on First Peoples’ frameworks (see these examples of First Nations’ water security framewokrs11,12). But firstly, some water security myths need to ‘busted’.

Myth #1: Aqua nullius. As Dr Virginia Marshall explains Overturning Aqua Nullius, Australia’s water management is built on colonial myths.13 Consequently, First Peoples have been denied substantive water rights and interests. First Peoples continue to champion their responsibilities to look after and govern their water.14 Australian water law and policy has been slow to respond.15,16

Myth #2: Big infrastructure is the answer. It is true that dams store water (if it rains). However, dams in the wrong place can increase water insecurity and building a dam does not make it rain. Australia also has many regions that depend on groundwater for their supply, not surface water. CSIRO found that in the West Kimberley, which has variable rainfall and high evaporation, using groundwater is more reliable and cheaper than capturing surfacewater in ringtanks (large off-stream storage dams).17 There is a place for pipelines and dams, but they can’t remain Australia’s go-to solution.

Myth #3: We can plan for ‘climate normal’. The climate is changing. Australia’s south-west and south-east are drying. Weather in the tropical north is becoming more severe. Yet water plans fail to take changes into account.18,19 We must stop hoping for rain and start adapting to climate change.

Myth #4 Increased water efficiency through irrigation infrastructure subsidies supports water security. Making irrigation more ‘efficient’ can backfire and actually reduce stream flows and groundwater recharge. We see this in the Murray Darling Basin and globally.20–22 Without proper monitoring and accounting with supporting policy, new ‘efficient’ irrigation can, paradoxically, result in less water in rivers.21

We need clarity about ‘water security’

Water is precious. ‘Water security’ in Australia cannot remain an ambiguous term, or left as mere rhetoric. Fit-for-purpose water security framework(s) are needed to provide clarity about policy intent. We need to move on from water security myths and accept realities.

Main image supplied by Global Water Forum Flickr

This essay was written for the Water Justice Hub by Kat Taylor. It is based on an article published in the Journal of Water Security and a research paper for the Parliamentary Library as part of their Summer Scholar programme.

Kat Taylor is a Water Justice Hub Research Fellow at the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy. Through her work and research in Central Australia and Western Australia, she has experience in environmental technology, drinking water risk management and water policy. Kat has a BSc (Hons) environmental science and BSc conservation biology. Kat undertook collaborative co-research for her PhD, examining water security, water governance and decolonisation pathways in the West Kimberley, Western Australia.


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14.       Poelina, A. A Coalition of Hope! A Regional Governance Approach to Indigenous Australian Cultural Wellbeing. in Located Research: Regional places, transitions and challenges (eds. Campbell, A., Duffy, M. & Edmondson, B.) 153–180 (Springer, 2020). doi:10.1007/978-981-32-9694-7_10.


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