Murray-Darling Basin Authority responds to Stakeholder Consultations

1 Jul 2024 by The Water Diplomat

Australia is among the countries in the world that is most affected by climate change, and this has a powerful effect on water resources availability and variability. The Murray-Darling River Basin, Australia's largest, is expected  to be particularly hard hit (especially its lower reaches covering southern New South Wales, Victoria and eastern South Australia).

The Murray Darling Basin is located in the interior region of south eastern Australia and covers a surface area of 1,061,469 km² - comparable to the joint surface areas of France and Spain, with a population of 2.4 million, among which people from more than 50 First Nations groups. In recent years, the river has been the subject of competition between different users at the heart of numerous tensions between different users, and the need to ensure sufficient water to support the functioning of ecosystems has been of particular concern.  

A basin plan was put in place in 2012, which is due for review in 2026, and in support of this process, a Basin Leadership Summit was held in April this year, followed by the publication of an official response to stakeholder contributions has been published. This took place in the context of mounting concerns that the annual return of water for environmental purposes is lagging behind the established goals (2186 gigalitres released against a goal of returning 3200 gigalitres). Part of the discussion has equally shifted , underlining a desire to move away from a purely volumetric approach, towards setting clearer environmental goals for the basin

For this reason, the Australian government, faced with an assessment of failure, had made a series of announcements in December 2023, at the occasion of the introduction of the Restoring our Rivers Act , including the postponement of the end of the 3.5-year plan until December 2027, as well as the introduction of financial support for communities affected by water buybacks.

With a view to starting afresh and on a better footing, the government decided to organise a consultation with all parties which would iron out disputes and find common ground for solutions that feed into the next basin plan, to be drawn up by 2026.

The first of these meetings, the "Leaders' Summit", took place on April 16 and 17, 2024 in Sydney. Over a hundred participants attended, including members of the basin authority, state and local governments, representatives of First Nations peoples, the environmental sector, industry, science, natural resource management and tourism.

At the Leaders’ Summit, Andrew Mc Conville, Chief Executive of the Basin Authority, stated: "We know there are many values and interests when it comes to the basin. Different views on how water should be shared and managed are often a point of tension, but if we want rivers for future generations, we must all work towards managing the basin in a way that achieves this goal". The main aim of the meeting was to allow each stakeholder to express their views, and also to understand the fears or problems of other parties. In the end, an initial consensus was reached at the end of the 2-day meeting.

Through a series of workshops, key elements emerged that will be used in future negotiations on the next basin plan, laying the foundations for a new approach. This can be expected to revolve around the following elements :building and maintain goodwill and relationships for ongoing discussions, further integrating First Nations cultural ties and ecological knowledge, securing agreement that healthy communities and rivers are a common need, ensuring that there is a fair, equitable and inclusive process and outcomes, ensuring that the basin plan is dynamic and adapts to changes such as climate and technology, broadening the scope of the basin plan to include ecological and community considerations, and strengthening tools and governance at community level.

A second "Reflections on Rivers" conference was held in Albury on June 18, 2024 with over 300 participants, where ideas and solutions for improving the state of rivers were shared with the authorities, again with a view to the next basin plan 2026.