Improving adaptation, sustainability, transparency and public trust

On 19 February this year, Dr Emma Carmody, EDO’s Special Counsel and water law expert, gave this opening address at an international workshop jointly sponsored by the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law, University of Sydney Law School and Environmental Defenders Office.

Here Emma explains why making irrigation infrastructure more efficient may not save water at a catchment or basin scale, and the impact of this in an increasingly water scarce and populous world .

At every possible geographic and political scale, from small villages in Asia dependent on increasingly depleted groundwater resources through to large transboundary river systems that traverse several – sometimes antagonistic – nation states, water is both a source of cooperation and conflict.

Governance challenges are evident in both the Global South and Global North, climate change is increasing water scarcity and the incidence of desertification – to say nothing of flooding – and across the planet over two billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services.

Shockingly, there are more mobile phones in the world than there are toilets, which may explain why some four billion people still do not have access to proper sanitation facilities. It saddens me to say that this figure includes Aboriginal Australians living in remote communities, some of whom do not have access to properly functioning toilets or adequate supplies of toilet paper or soap.1

From an environmental perspective, only one third of the world’s longest rivers remain free flowing. The remaining two thirds are fragmented by dams and other forms of development, which in turn threatens freshwater ecosystems and the people and animals that depend upon them.2

This highlights the trade-offs that occur every time we make a policy decision to interfere with our rivers and floodplains.

On the one hand, infrastructure can and does perform a public good by delivering drinking water to both small settlements and large cities alike, and by helping to feed the planet’s expanding population, which is projected to reach an astonishing 10 billion people by 2050.

On the other hand, reservoirs, pipes and channels invite us to grow things in areas where the nature of the landscape and climate make it inadvisable to do so (and I’d like to thank my friend and colleague, Professor John Williams, for the essence of that quote). This in turn engenders its own set of environmental, social and economic challenges, all of which are being exacerbated by global warming.

As many of you know, this is something that is quite literally playing out in Australia in real time, with a number of large public storage dams in northern NSW virtually empty as a consequence of record-breaking drought and low inflows, which according to our national Bureau of Meteorology is partially attributable to a changing climate.

This is to say nothing of the Darling River, or Barka, as it is known to its Traditional Owners, which after decades of over-extraction to sustain irrigated agriculture is in truly a lamentable state – so much so that in 2019 the NSW Natural Resources Commission took the unusual step of describing it as ‘an ecosystem in crisis’.3

The Menindee Lakes, part of the Murray-Darling Basin in the far west region of New South Wales, Australia, near the town of Menindee.

Against this extensive catalogue of water-related challenges which run the gamut from human rights related WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] issues through to environmental collapse, it is certainly possible to question why, of all topics, we would choose to focus on something as esoteric, technical and unromantic as irrigation modernisation.

Why not discuss a more newsworthy phenomenon, such as rapidly melting glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya and the impact of this on rivers and livelihoods in Asia? Or the challenge of upholding international water sharing laws in conflict zones in the Middle East? Or the links between wetland conservation and SDG 6 [ United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6]?

The reason, as you are all no doubt aware, is this: in most regions of the world, agriculture accounts for over 70% of freshwater withdrawals, with this percentage rising to approximately 90% in south Asia, parts of which are desperately water-scarce. Globally, over 330 million hectares are equipped for irrigation,4 while irrigated agriculture is responsible for producing 40% of the world’s food.5

According to the United Nations, feeding a planet of some 10 billion people by 2050 will require an estimated 50% increase in agricultural production and an associated 15% increase in water extractions.6 Other sources and models suggest much higher figures, with this nutritional demand being largely driven by projected population explosions in Africa and Asia.7

At this juncture, it is vital that we ask a very basic question: how feasible is it, really, to increase water diversions for agriculture over the next 30 years?

According to the OECD, not very. First of all, we face the very real and deeply troubling possibility that overall demand for water will outstrip supply by the middle of the century.8 Second, and again according to the OECD, this demand will principally come from manufacturing, electricity generation and domestic consumption.9 Thus, as the world’s nutritional needs grow, there will be little scope to increase extractions for agriculture.

This double bind – feeding an expanding population in an ever more water-stressed world – is an unfolding existential crisis that has the potential to displace many of the world’s most vulnerable people. And it will be similarly vulnerable neighbouring states that will likely bear the burden of accommodating this new class of ‘water refugees’ (a class that, I might add, currently has no true legal status under international law).

Against this backdrop, irrigation modernisation, which at first blush seems like the slightly boring cousin of more glamorous environmental and social causes, can take its rightful place at the centre of crucial discussions about SDGs, human rights and climate change.

And herein lies our key challenge: to develop a narrative about this misunderstood but vitally important subject that is capable of influencing those at the locus of power, in particular international development banks responsible for funding modernisation projects in Asia, Africa and the Middle East; a narrative that can help the public, bureaucrats and politicians alike to truly grasp why it is so important that these projects actually save water at the catchment and basin scales; a narrative that explains, in simple terms, why they must be underpinned by proper water accounting and effective compliance mechanisms; and finally, a narrative that makes it clear that irrigation modernisation is not just about pipes and canals, but about food security, water security, sustainability and justice.

Put differently, ‘irrigation efficiency’ is indivisible from many of the issues that will come to define the successes – or failures – of 21st century civilisation.

The challenge of communicating the evidence about these projects is made all the more difficult by the very words I just employed: ‘irrigation efficiency’. It’s a term that is so self-evidently positive, so indisputably virtuous that even the most wooden technocrat must struggle to contain their excitement at the thought of such an elegant and simple solution to the world’s water scarcity problems.

Let us pause for a minute and briefly consider the broader context. We are told to buy fuel-efficient cars; to invest in electricity-efficient appliances; to be time-efficient; to exercise and avoid carbohydrates in order to achieve metabolic efficiency; to be efficient in our use of language; to take stroke correction classes so that we can swim more efficiently; and to meditate to maximise sleep-efficiency. Efficiency, it would seem, is next to godliness. And indeed, in many of these instances, it is deeply preferable to the alternative.

Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case when it comes to water and irrigation modernisation projects. But the halo etched around the word ‘efficient’ leaves us with the burden of not only trying to communicate the evidence about complex issues such as the rebound effect, but of attempting to overcome fundamental linguistic and cultural barriers.

I’d therefore like to leave you with this parting thought: the evidence is reasonably well established. We all understand the fundamental hydrological, governance and water accounting issues which result – in many instances – in ‘irrigation efficiency upgrades’ increasing water use at the catchment and basin scales. We’re all friends with the Jevons Paradox and go to sleep dreaming about return flows.

However, what we arguably don’t have is a well-developed set of tools capable of communicating these problems in a comprehensible and compelling manner (keeping in mind that what might be effective in Australia will not necessarily work or be appropriate in the Middle East or Asia). I propose that we turn our collective minds to this issue.

Why? Because the prospect of governments and development banks continuing to fund irrigation efficiency upgrades that do not save water at a catchment or basin scale is deeply concerning in an increasingly water scarce and populous world. Again, we are not just talking about pipes and canals – we are talking about food security, water security, sustainability and justice.