Tag Archives: water rights

How to Manage Water Like Money and Fail: Australia

Australia’s Darling River…provided fresh water to farmers seeking to tame Australia’s rugged interior.  No longer. The Darling River hasn’t flowed for eight months, with long stretches completely dried up. A million fish died there in January 2019.  Kangaroos, lizards and birds became sick or died after drinking from toxic pools of stagnant water.  Australia’s water-trading market is drawing blame. The problems with the system, created more than a decade ago, have arisen as similar programs are being considered in the U.S.

Water crises are unfolding across the world as surging populations, industrial-scale farming and hotter temperatures deplete supplies.  Australia thought it had the answer: a cap-and-trade system that would create incentives to use water efficiently and effectively in the world’s driest inhabited continent. But the architects of water trading didn’t anticipate that treating water as a commodity would encourage theft and hoarding.   A report produced for a state resources regulator found the current situation on the Darling was caused by too much water being extracted from the river by a handful of big farmers. Just four license holders control 75% of the water extracted from the Barwon-Darling river system.

The national government, concerned that its water-trading experiment hasn’t turned out as intended, in August 2019 requested an inquiry by the country’s antitrust regulator into water trading.  Anticorruption authorities are investigating instances of possible fraud, water theft and deal making for water licenses. In one case, known as Watergate, a former agriculture minister allegedly oversaw the purchase of a water license at a record price from a Cayman Islands company co-founded by the current energy minister. The former agriculture minister said he was following departmental advice and had no role in determining the price or the vendor. The energy minister said he is no longer involved with the company and received no financial benefit from the deal.

Since 2007, Australia has allowed not only farmers but also investors who want to profit from trading to buy and sell water shares. The water market is now valued at some $20 billion.    But making water valuable had unintended consequences in some places. “Once you create something of real value, you should expect people to attempt to steal it and search for ways to cheat,” says Mike Young, a University of Adelaide professor. “It’s not rocket science. Manage water like money, and you are there.”  Big water users have stolen billions of liters of water from rivers and lakes, according to local media investigations and Australian officials, often by pumping it secretly and at night from remote locations that aren’t metered. A new water regulator set up in New South Wales investigated more than 300 tips of alleged water thefts in its first six months of operation.  In 2018, authorities charged a group of cotton farmers with stealing water, including one that pleaded guilty to pumping enough illegally to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools.  Another problem is that water trading gives farmers an incentive to capture more rain and floodwater, and then hoard it, typically by building storage tanks or lining dirt ditches with concrete. That enables them to collect rain before it seeps into the earth or rivers.

The subsequent water shortages, combined with trading by dedicated water funds and corporate farmers, have driven up prices. Water in Australia’s main agricultural region, the Murray-Darling river basin, now trades at about $420 per megaliter, or one million liters, compared with as low as $7 in previous years.  David Littleproud, Australia’s water-resources minister, says 14% of water licenses are now owned by investors. “Is that really the intent of what we want this market to be?” he asks. “Water is a precious commodity.”

Excerpts from Rachel Pannett , The U.S. Wants to Adopt a Cap-and-Trade Plan for Water That Isn’t Working, WSJ, Sept. 4, 2019

Not Sharing, even a Glass of Water: the Water Crisis in India

The southern city of Chennai—India’s fifth largest with a population of around 10 million—has been meeting only two-thirds of its water needs for weeks, the product of years of drought and decades of failure to manage the region’s water resources.   Residents have been scrambling around the clock to get water—spending hours chasing government tankers or paying private companies to deliver water.  Recent light rains broke a 200-day streak without rain. But the first month of India’s annual monsoon brought one-third less rain than the 50-year average, the driest June in five years, according to the India Meteorological Department.

The acute water shortage in one of India’s largest cities has been building for decades through a mix of population growth, poor planning and increasingly erratic monsoon rains….

The situation in Chennai reflects a larger water crisis spreading across India. Half the country’s population—600 million people—live in areas where water resources are highly or extremely stressed. About 100 million people living in 21 of India’s biggest cities may see their groundwater exhausted by the end of next year, according to a 2018 study by NITI Aayog, an Indian government policy think tank.  By 2030, demand for water will be double the country’s supply, the report said. And the impact will go far beyond the areas actually affected by water shortages: Almost one-third of the country’s agricultural output comes from areas most affected by water shortages…

The scarcity has led to clashes between neighbors. “No one is ready to share even a glass of water,” she said.

Excerpts from Vibhuti Agarwal and Krishna Pokhare Indians Hunt Through the Night for Water as a Megacity Runs Dry, WSJ, July 6, 2018

How to Kill One Million Fish: Murray-Darling

But it took a viral video posted on 8 January 2019 to drive home the ecological catastrophe that was unfolding in the Murray-Darling river system in Australia. In the footage, Rob McBride and Dick Arnold, identified as local residents, stand knee-deep among floating fish carcasses in the Darling River, near the town of Menindee. They scoff at authorities’ claims that the fish die-off is a result of the drought. Holding up an enormous, dead Murray cod, a freshwater predator he says is 100 years old, McBride says: “This has nothing to do with drought, this is a manmade disaster.” Arnold, sputtering with rage, adds: “You have to be bloody disgusted with yourselves, you politicians and cotton growers.”

Scientists say McBride probably overestimated the age of the fish. But they agree that the massive die-off was not the result of drought. “It’s about taking too much water upstream [to irrigate farms] so there is not enough for downstream users and the fish,” says Quentin Grafton, an economist specializing in water issues at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, blamed “policy failure and mismanagement” in a 19 January 2019 report, but called drought a catalyst.

Excessive water use has left river flows too low to flush nutrients from farm runoff through the system, leading to large algal blooms, researchers say. A cold snap then killed the blooms, and bacteria feeding on the dead algae sucked oxygen out of the water,   This wasn’t supposed to happen. In 2012, the national government adopted the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, touted as a “historic” deal to ensure that enough water remained in the rivers to keep the ecosystem healthy even after farmers and households took their share.

In 2008, the federal government created the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to wrestle with the problem. In 2010, a study commissioned by the authority concluded that farmers and consumers would have to cut their use of river water by at least 3000 but preferably by 7600 gigaliters annually to ensure the health of the ecosystem. Farmers, who saw their livelihoods threatened, tossed the report into bonfires.  The final plan, adopted as national law in 2012, called for returning just 2750 gigaliters to the rivers, in part by buying water rights back from users. “It was a political compromise that has never been scientifically reviewed,” Williams says, adding that “climate change was never considered in the plan, which was a dreadful oversight.”..

Grafton says there are also suspicions of widespread water theft; up to 75% of the water taken by irrigators in the northern part of the system is not metered. Farmers are also now recapturing the runoff from irrigated fields that used to flow back into streams, and are increasing their use of ground water, leaving even less water in the system, says Mike Young, an environmental policy specialist at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

In February 2018, such issues prompted a group of 12 academics, including scientists and policy experts, to issue the Murray-Darling Declaration. It called for independent economic and scientific audits of completed and planned water recovery schemes to determine their effects on stream flows. The group, which included Williams and Grafton, also urged the creation of an independent, expert body to provide advice on basin water management. Young, who wasn’t on the declaration, wants to go further and give that body the power to manage the basin’s water, the way central banks manage a country’s money supply, using stream levels to determine weekly irrigation allocations and to set minimum flow levels for every river.

Excerpts from Dennis Normile, Massive fish die-off sparks outcry in Australia, Science, Jan. 22, 2019.

Water Scarcity: the case of Tasmania

Australia is the world’s driest continent. Climate change is expected to make its droughts even more frequent. The country is still paying for years of overexploitation of its biggest river system, the Murray-Darling basin. The federal government in Canberra is spending A$3.2 billion ($2.2 billion) buying up and cancelling farmers’ water entitlements in a bid to reduce salinity and repair other environmental damage stretching back a century.

While mainland farmers are being paid to give up water, those in wetter Tasmania are being enticed to buy more. The island state accounts for just 1% of Australia’s land mass and 2% of its population. Yet it receives 13% of the country’s rainfall. Tasmania may be blessed with water, but most of it falls in the mountains of the west, making it useless to farmers elsewhere.

So the island has embarked on a project to capture more water for its drier east and north, shifting it through pipes to these regions’ farms. Almost 800 farmers have already bought into ten irrigation schemes that are up and running. They will allow farmers to do more than graze sheep and cattle; they will be able to grow fruit and vegetables, including more of Tasmania’s exotic stuff: cherries, grapes for the island’s increasingly fashionable wines and even poppies (the island is a big opium supplier for legitimate pharmaceuticals).

If another five planned schemes involving 200 farmers go ahead, Tasmania’s investment in shifting its water around the island will be almost A$1 billion. The federal and Tasmanian governments are putting up some of the money. But that comes with conditions. Farmers and other investors must first agree to meet at least two-thirds of the costs of each irrigation project before governments commit the rest….

Tasmania’s new water market has already been kind to one of its biggest investors. David Williams, a Melbourne banker, owns no Tasmanian farms. But he put A$10m into two central Tasmania irrigation schemes after local farmers had bought in. Mr Williams likens the arrival of reliable water in such regions to technological change: “I punted that it would change the way land is used.” He calculates that trading his water entitlement with farmers in both schemes could turn his investment into A$16m….

Among the foreign tourists coming to sample Tasmanian Riesling, oysters and marbled beef are plenty of Chinese. When China’s president, Xi Jinping, visited Hobart in late 2014, he sent signals that China wanted more seafood, beef and other costlier food exports from Tasmania.

Excerpts from Tasmania charts a new course: Water into wine, Economist, Feb. 11, 2016