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Speech to the 2nd Asian Regional Conference of the International Commission on\nIrrigation and Drainage, Moama Bowling Club, NSW.



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To the 2nd Asian Regional Conference International Commission On Irrigation And Drainage

Moama Bowling Club, NSW, Monday 15 March 2004

WELCOME

May I say how pleased I am - as the Australian Government Minister responsible for agriculture - to address this timely and important second Asian Regional Conference of ICID.

ANCID is to be commended for its initiative in hosting this conference in the centre of the irrigation area of the southern Murray-Darling Basin.

We share common goals as countries that seek to produce food and fibre as efficiently and sustainably as possible. We are always interested in sharing our water management experiences with our regional neighbours and welcome the opportunity to benefit from your achievements.

The theme of the conference: 'Irrigation in a Total Catchment Context' is well chosen because of its relevance for all countries that depend on irrigation for food and fibre production.

The irrigation sector throughout the world faces major challenges and opportunities. As the world's population grows, demand for food and water access will increase.

And there is the contribution it could make to eradicating poverty throughout much of the world. For many countries, success in this area is linked to improved agricultural production and fairer trade in agricultural goods.

At the same time, we recognise the need to manage water resources and the environment sustainably, and that, often, the best way to do this is to use the catchment as the main planning and management area.

It is also relevant that the world's major areas of economic growth are located in the broader Asia Pacific region. So your considerations over the next few days have a world perspective as well as a regional one.

IRRIGATION IS VALUABLE TO AUSTRALIA

I cannot over-emphasise the value of irrigation in Australia.

While irrigation applies only to 0.4 per cent of Australia's agricultural land, it accounts for $7.3 billion - or 25 per cent - of our gross value of agricultural production.

It supports significant value-added industries based on producing rice, dairy products, wine, fruit and cotton - much of which we export. It provides jobs and wealth for Australia's rural communities. And it uses more than $9 billion of water industry assets.

Given that Australia is the world's driest inhabited continent, our irrigation industries have made remarkable achievements, especially when you consider them against our background of extreme climate variability.

Over the past century, Australia has made large public investments in water storage to help manage our variable rainfall and frequent droughts. These investments have also played an important role in developing our export-focused agricultural industries, and rural and regional Australia's many towns and communities.

However, sometimes these developments have come at a cost.

In the past couple of decades Australia has focused more on the challenge of growing, sustainable, profitable irrigation industries that operate in a healthy environment. And it's a challenge to which Australia's irrigation industries are responding.

I know we are not alone in this because many of the countries represented at this conference face similar challenges.

The role and influence of Australia's irrigation water providers are central to the ongoing success of our irrigation industries in meeting the challenges of maintaining viable, sustainable and competitive industries.

It's here that ANCID, as one of the early and ongoing members of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage, plays an important role. It's not just a leader for irrigation water providers, it's important for irrigation in Australia.

ANCID has undertaken many initiatives to help and support continuous improvement in irrigation industry efficiency. One of its objectives is to promote information interchange and cooperation with like-minded national and international bodies. As part of its program, it has held several technical workshops that support the goals of improving the efficiency of irrigated water supply.

May I commend to you ANCID's annual Irrigation Water Provider Benchmarking Report, which plays an important role in continually improving our irrigation infrastructure and management performance. Some of you may know of it already because of the contribution it has made to a wider ICID international project on irrigation system benchmarking.

INNOVATION FORUM

There are many reasons for the ongoing success of Australia's irrigation industries but one of the key ones is innovation.

As I travel around Australia, I see what individuals, communities and industries are doing to improve their use of water and find new ways of

doing things. I am also aware of the significant amount of research and investigation that is going on.

Many of the people involved are 'quiet achievers' who are making significant advances that benefit themselves and the wider catchment. But I believe it's important to bring some of these exciting changes and innovations in key water using industries to a wider audience.

So, today, I would like to announce that I will convene a forum later this year to highlight the many innovations in irrigation and natural resource management practice, which are leading to greater water use efficiency and better natural resource management.

I welcome input from ANCID members to this event, which - I am sure - will complement what you are doing to improve industry performance.

WATER POLICY REFORM

Australia's states and territories are responsible for managing their land and water resources.

The Australian Government has played - and continues to play a leading role in developing and implementing nationally agreed policies for efficient, profitable and sustainable water and irrigation industries.

In 1994, the Australian, state and territory governments made a historic agreement about the future management of our water resources. The agreement was about new government policy and regulatory approaches to encourage efficient and sustainable management and use of our resources.

This meant encouraging effective responses to market signals from those directly involved in water resource management and from users.

Among the key reforms, the agreement established water allocations and entitlements, separated from land and backed by secure access rights to water. It also provided for trading in water entitlements, and making water available for ecosystems.

All states and territories have actively implemented the reforms and have made significant progress. Water trading, for example, has increased. Local irrigators have taken on responsibility for irrigation management. And the environment has been recognised as a legitimate water user.

However, it has been a long and difficult process, and we still have some way to go. I'll come back to this but, first, I want to talk to you about the importance of taking a catchment or basin approach, and the benefits of partnerships between governments, industry and the community.

RELEVANCE AND IMPORTANCE OF CATCHMENT/BASIN APPROACH

Policy and regulatory reform don't achieve much if you do not complement them with direct on-ground action.

Addressing natural resource management issues requires integrated action at the regional scale. And you must involve those closest to the problems and opportunities - landholders, industries and regional

communities.

Within Australia, we have many examples of how this process works.

NAPSWQ and NHT

The Australian Government's National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality and the Natural Heritage Trust focus on ways to improve natural resource management that will deliver tangible changes.

Both programs, developed with state and regional involvement, have supported development of regional plans and investment strategies that enable regional organisations and local communities to meet regionally defined targets.

They focus on the environmental and sustainable development needs of regions, rather than on a prescriptive 'top down' government approach.

They enable regional communities to address land, water and biodiversity issues in an integrated way, and on a regional and catchment basis.

Land and Water Management Plans

Examples of regional and catchment approaches that have directly targeted irrigation areas are the Land and Water Management Plans implemented in NSW.

The Murray Land and Water Management Plans are a first-class example of genuine community and government partnership to address complex regional issues. The Plans cover a region of 950,000 hectares and includes 3050 farms, most of which are irrigation farms.

Under the Land and Water Management Plans, the Murray Irrigation community has turned around water table rise. The area of land salinised is about 10 per cent of that predicted in 1995. They have also implemented complementary strategies to increase native vegetation and improve management at the farm level.

Goulburn Broken Catchment Regional Strategy

The Regional Strategy for the Goulburn Broken Catchment, on the other side of the River Murray, is another example of linking action on farms to regional goals.

New drainage systems on farms have made significant contributions to catchment health, including biodiversity and water quality benefits, by reducing nutrients flowing into our river and groundwater systems.

Complementary measures have gone hand in hand with increased farm recycling and reuse, automatic irrigation, replacement of trees and native grasses along drainage lines, protection of remnant vegetation and whole-farm planning.

The Murray-Darling Basin

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia's most important region for irrigated agriculture.

The Basin, which lies across four states and one territory, contains almost three-quarters of the nation's irrigated land in Australia. It is also the most regulated catchment in the world and is facing issues related to increasing dryland salinity, over-allocated water resources and declining water quality.

The Murray-Darling Basin Initiative is a partnership between the Australian Government, each of the relevant state/territory governments and the community. It has led to significant achievements in tackling water resource and other natural resource issues including:

● Implementation of an upper limit on water diversions in the Basin

● Development and implementation of the Salinity Management

Strategy ● A program of actions to improve the environmental outcomes for the

Murray River and key surrounding wetlands to ensure that the river's ongoing health.

As Chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council I am well aware of the challenge involved in maintaining a healthy River Murray, and the need to maintain the biodiversity and the health and economic success of the communities it supports.

We seek to maximise environmental benefits on six key ecological sites, which will involve determining what water is required, and from where.

To assist in better managing the river's water for environmental outcomes, I recently announced $150 million funding for a seven-year program of structural and operational modifications along the River Murray.

Achieving the outcomes we are after will, of course, depend on us continuing our effective partnership with Basin communities, including Indigenous communities, in planning and managing the River.

NATIONAL WATER INITIATIVE

The outcomes will also depend on the extent to which governments are able to continue their program of water management reform.

Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, so water reform and change on-ground doesn't happen overnight.

It is complex and has involved each jurisdiction in making significant changes to the legislation and administrative arrangements for water resource management. In many cases, this has been a key driver for better consultation by water managers with communities, and integration with other land managers.

As I said earlier, we still have some way to go in our water management reforms.

The Australian, state and territory governments, recognising this, have decided to refresh the process and enter into a new phase of reforms.

In August last year, the Council of Australian Governments announced a National Water Initiative to build on its existing water reform achievements. The Council also announced new funding of $500 million to address water over-allocation in the Murray-Darling Basin.

In particular, the National Water Initiative will seek to increase the productivity and efficiency of water use, sustain rural and urban communities, and ensure the health of river and groundwater systems.

It is about encouraging investment in the water industry and water-using industries, as we make explicit provisions to ensure sustainable management of the resource base.

What this means is that we are moving further towards a market that allocates resources determined by prices, rather than 'top-down' government policy. And that requires transparent allocation of the risks and responsibilities involved in water management and use.

Industry would come to expect us to manage water using market measures similar to those applied to other economic goods.

So, in the future, we may see irrigated industries:

● Producing more product with less water;

● Having certainty over future resource access to support the

investment to improve output and efficiency; ● Buying and selling water as they need it to maximise business

flexibility (including trading with urban communities); ● Perhaps monitoring, benchmarking and reporting on their water

management performance, and able to monitor the performance of the environmental management of the systems they depend on.

CONCLUSION

Many countries that use irrigation are facing similar challenges.

I hope Australia's experience provides a useful model for other countries to draw on to tackle their own resource management challenges.

I am pleased that ANCID has chosen to host the second Asian Regional Conference in Echuca/Moama.

I hope you will have a very successful conference and make the most of the opportunity to exchange information on progressing the increasingly important industry of irrigated agriculture.

Thank you.