Monday, 30 April 2018

What the Australian Government didn’t want the UN to publish

During Nationals MP for New England Barnaby Joyce’s disastrous sojourn as Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources the federal government began a successfull campaign to have the United Nations delete all criticism of Australia’s $13bn effort to restore the ailing Murray-Darling river system from a published study.

It seems the Turnbull Government did not want the world to know, or Australian voters to be reminded, that it had placed long term water sustainability in four of its eight states and territories in jeopardy.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations draft report in question was the following:

C.J. Perry and Pasquale Steduto, (25 May 2017), DOES IMPROVED IRRIGATION TECHNOLOGY SAVE WATER? A review of the evidence: Discussion paper on irrigation and sustainable water resources management in the Near East and North Africa

The Near East and North Africa (NENA) Region has the lowest per-capita fresh water resource availability among all Regions of the world. Already naturally exposed to chronic shortage of water, NENA will face severe intensification of water scarcity in the coming decades due to several drivers related to demography, food security policies, overall socio-economic development and climate change. Irrigated agriculture in the Region, which already consumes more than 85 percent of renewable fresh water resources, will face strong challenges in meeting augmented national food demand and supporting economic development in rural areas. Countries of the NENA Region promote efficient and productive irrigation as well as the protection and sustainable management of scarce and fragile natural resources, particularly water, in their national plans. Through the Regional Initiative on Water Scarcity, FAO is providing support and focus to efforts in confronting the fast-widening gap between availability and demand for fresh water resources. A key question to address is: how can countries simultaneously reduce this gap, promote sustainable water resources management and contribute effectively to food security and enhanced nutrition? The traditional assumption has been that increasing irrigation efficiency through the adoption of modern technologies, like drip irrigation, leads to substantial water savings, releasing the saved water to the environment or to other uses. The evidence from research and field measurements shows that this is not the case. The benefit at the local “on-farm” scale may appear dramatic, but when properly accounted at basin scale, total water consumption by irrigation tends to increase instead of decreasing. The potential to increase water productivity— more “crop per drop”—is also quite modest for the most important crops. These findings suggest that reductions in water consumption by irrigated agriculture will not come from the technology itself. Rather, measures like limiting water allocation will be needed to ensure a sustainable level of water use. The present report provides the evidence needed to open up a discussion with all major stakeholders dealing with water resources management on the proper and scientifically sound framework required to address jointly water scarcity, sustainability and food security problems. A discussion that has been disregarded for too long.

C.J. Perry stated at Research Gate on 25 April 2018 that:

Government representatives from the Australian Embassy in Rome disagreed with the research findings for the Australia section summarised in the original report. FAO, in response, welcomed the opportunity to improve the report. Dissemination was put on hold and the report was removed from the FAO website pending inclusion of additional material relevant to the Australian section. In a series of exchanges, no empirical evidence was presented to support the Australian authorities’ claim that the investment program in the Murray Darling Basin has generated substantial water savings and environmental benefits. This left the global principles and conclusions set out in the original report unchallenged, while the results from Australia remained contentious. Therefore, it was decided that the best solution to the matter was to withdraw the Australian section from the publication and let the Discussion Paper to be available again on the web. The original and current versions of the report both invite submissions of additional case studies, information and analysis to  Cases documenting technical or policy interventions where irrigation water has been released to environmental or other uses will be particularly valuable.

The suppressed section in the original draft of this UN report would have been identical or very similar to this version of the text:


System of Environmental-Economic Accounting for Water (SEEA-Water) (United Nations Statistics Division, 2012); Water Account Australia 2004–05, (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006); Droughtand the rebound effect: A Murray–Darling basin example (Loch and Adamson, 2015); Understanding irrigation water use efficiency at different scales for better policy reform: A case study of the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia (Qureshi et al., 2011); Water Reform and Planning in the Murray–Darling Basin, Australia (Grafton, 2017)

Australia has led the world in the introduction of water rights in a context of extreme resource variability.
This in turn has provided the basis for managed trading between sectors and locations, and valuable lessons regarding potential problems as previously under-utilized entitlements are sold and used, and of “stranded assets” if significant volumes of water are traded out of an area. More recently, evidence suggests that subsidy programmes to “save” water seem to have been ineffective, poorly conceived and un-prioritized.

The Murray Darling Basin (MDB) is widely recognized for its advanced standards in water resources management—in particular the system of tradable water rights that allows transfer of water on short term or permanent leases subject to evaluation of third party impacts by the regulatory authorities.

Australia participated in the formulation of the United Nations (UN) System of Environmental-Economic Accounting for Water. This framework accounts for water withdrawn from “the environment” (rivers, aquifers), use of that water in various sectors, including transfer between sectors (for example a water utility supplying a factory or town), consumption through ET, and direct and indirect return flows to the environment and to sinks. Trial implementation of the framework was planned in Australia, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics had already in 2006 issued guidelines referencing the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting for Water (UN- System of Environmental-Economic Accounting for
Water (SEEAW) system), which was to be applied to the reporting of the 2004-5 national water accounts.

However, the following statement from the introduction to Chapter 4 of the 2004-5 National Water Accounts for Australia5 is apparently at variance with one critical element of the SEEAW approach—namely the distinction between consumptive and non-consumptive uses:

This chapter examines the use of water within the AGRICULTURE industry in Australia. Water used by this industry includes livestock drinking water and water applied through irrigation to crops and pastures. Since the AGRICULTURE industry does not use water in-stream, or supply water to other users, total water use is equal to water consumption.

Elsewhere in the Accounting Standards it is stated that:

It is believed that leakage to landscape from surface water resources such as rivers and storages occurs in the MDB region; however, reliable volumes are not available, and currently there is no suitable quantification approach to estimate these volumes.

Does this assumption of zero return flows matter? Indeed it does: Australia is now embarked on a massive (AUS$ 10bn) programme to save water for the environment, including subsidies to farmers for hi-tech on farm investment. Savings are estimated on the basis of typical application efficiencies (e.g. flood irrigation 50 percent, drip 90 percent), so a farmer with a water entitlement of 100 water units, switching from flood to drip would be assumed to consume 50 units at present, which would require a delivery of only 50/0.9 (55.5) units after conversion. The “saving” of 44.5 units are then divided between the farmer and the environment. Of the 22.25 units going to the farmer, he consumes (with the new technology) approximately extra 20 units. So on-farm water consumption is expected to increase from 50  units to 70 units (and return flows are diminished by approximately the same amount), in apparent direct contradiction to the programme objectives. In some cases, such return flows will be non-recoverable outflows to saline groundwater; in other cases, where irrigation is close to rivers or where groundwater is usable, the return flows are recoverable and cannot be counted as “savings”. However, the current evaluation of investments includes no apparent basis for assessing whether subsidized introduction of hi-tech systems will actually release water to alternative uses, or simply increase consumption by the extra amount allocated to the farmer. A more comprehensive implementation of UN-SEEAW—where return flows to the environment are specifically accounted for—would have addressed this problem.

Other authors have identified the issue. Qureshi et al. (2011) point to the problem of ignoring return flows, and the danger of focussing on local “efficiency”, while Loch and Adamson (2015) go on to identify the “rebound effect” whereby when water deliveries to the farm are more valuable, the demand for water actually increases.

Most recently, writing in a Special Issue of Water Economics and Policy that addressed many of the complexities of managing water scarcity in the Murray Darling basin, Grafton (2017) made the following key observations regarding the Australian experience with providing subsidies for on-farm improvements in irrigation technology:

* About USD 2.5 billion of taxpayers’ funds used for improving farm irrigation has primarily benefitted private individuals;
* These investments have had no discernible impact in terms of reduced water use on a per-hectare basis, or release of water to alternative users;
* The buyback of water rights from willing sellers was the most effective use of taxpayer funds to release water to alternative uses;
* Investments in irrigation to raise “crop-per-drop” productivity had failed to deliver water savings on a basin scale.

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