Irrigated agriculture is already feeling the impacts of climate change disrupting the capacity to grow food and fibre, according to a NSW Irrigators’ Council (NSWIC) report launched today.
The report also found climate change impacts are already automatically factored into NSW water management in real time, placing the State’s water sharing framework among the world’s most advanced for climate responsiveness.
“The bottom line is when there is less water in the system, irrigators get cut back first,” said NSWIC CEO Claire Miller.
“The data speaks for itself, showing a long-term, declining trend in water allocations for growing food and fibre over recent decades.
“This trend reflects the observed decline in rainfall and runoff, particularly in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, interspersed with ‘wetter wets’ as we are experiencing now.
“These trends mean irrigators want to be, and must be, at the forefront of conversations on climate change – both mitigation and adaptation.”
The report finds irrigators in the NSW Murray were allocated, on average, 81% of their general-security licence volume before the turn of the century, but now their licence reliability is only around 57%, even after two exceptionally wet seasons. Similarly in the Namoi valley in the northern Murray-Darling Basin, reliability has declined from 77% to around 39%.
“Climate change is well and truly already taking its toll at both ends of the spectrum, with longer, drier droughts interspersed with more intense rainfall periods,” said Ms Miller. “Both extremes are extremely challenging for food security.”
Water is allocated in a strict hierarchy under NSW law: the top priorities are human needs and water for the environment to ensure that rivers run. After that, water is allocated for stock and domestic uses and last of all, for irrigation.
“When you look at the data, you can see how the taps get turned off for irrigators first as conditions start to dry, to preserve water for towns, rivers, homes and livestock.”
The outlook is sobering: the Regional Water Strategy for the Lachlan valley, for example, forecasts that water licences could experience a 60% decrease in average water availability under long-term climate change projections.
“Our report doesn’t say ‘there’s nothing more to do’,” said Ms Miller.
“In fact, much needs to be done, particularly to secure town water supplies in rural and remote areas of the State – as we should have learnt from the last drought.
“But our report does challenge those who think the solution to water insecurity is as simple as ‘just take it from irrigators’. The data is clear that won’t work.
“For many of the towns facing Day Zero in 2019, irrigators nearby and upstream had been on zero allocations long before. Even if all those licences were bought back, they wouldn’t have delivered more water for those towns when they needed it the most.”
In the lead-up to the NSW state election, NSWIC is urging all political parties to commit to ensuring no town faces Day Zero through effective infrastructure and other solutions.
The NSWIC report comes as world leaders meet in Egypt for COP27, with the impacts of climate change on agriculture, food production and food security at the forefront.
NSWIC supports a net zero, economy-wide emission target by 2050, and an ambitious target to achieve carbon neutrality across the irrigated agriculture sector industry by 2030.
“We have a very agile irrigation sector in NSW to be able to withstand droughts with no water, and then harness the potential of flooding rains when they come,” said Ms Miller.
“But we need policy settings to support that agility as it is increasingly tested, so we can continue to grow food and fibre for Australia and the world.”
You can read the full report on the NSWIC website [HERE].