The NSW Irrigators’ Council is calling on the Government to step up to the task of securing safe drinking water supplies for rural and remote communities, before the next drought sets in.
Reports that 44 per cent of 250 First Nations people in Walgett are worried about safe drinking water — a higher rate of water insecurity than in Bangladesh — highlight years of inaction.
“Safe and secure town drinking water was a top priority in our NSW State Election platform,” said NSWIC CEO, Claire Miller.
“It’s a basic human right, and part of Australia’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The fact we are so far behind is really concerning. The situation is solvable, it’s just a matter of priorities.
“For too long, the focus has been on fighting over agricultural water use while tangible solutions to secure town water, such as secondary sources and upgrading outdated infrastructure, have been left high and dry.
“The simplistic ‘just take water from farmers’ solution doesn’t help towns during droughts when irrigators are not allocated any water. Towns and rivers already receive top priority under water sharing frameworks to ensure they continue receiving water long after irrigators are cut off.”
Technical reports published by the NSW Department of Planning & Environment as part of the Western Regional Water Strategy found: “During dry periods, restricting upstream access is not effective because there is no water to protect”
“Concern over drinking water quality in Walgett and other remote towns is the legacy of water policy focusing on a single populist solution – reducing irrigation – and ignoring the investment needed to secure secondary water sources and improve town water infrastructure.
“Many remote towns such as Walgett also rely on irrigated agriculture to provide jobs and generate the income that supports local service industries and small businesses.
“Further reducing water to grow food and fibre in wet periods just hurts local economies in those vital good years on which local businesses and services rely to survive droughts.
Irrigated agriculture, which is more labour- and services-intensive than dryland farming, is also critical in remote towns to improve other UN SDG indicators, by providing the economic base to attract essential services like doctors and teachers.
A report by the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) said:
“WSAA estimates that at least $2.2 billion is required to ensure First Nations remote communities across the country receive drinking water meeting the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.”
“This is less than 20% of what has been spent on the Basin Plan. It’s long past time we put more money into where the problem is,” said Ms Miller.
Under the Basin Plan and earlier reforms, 1 in 3 litres of irrigation water has been redirected to the environment. It means diversions for agriculture, towns and other industries are now just 28% of total inflows, well within international sustainability standards.
“We have achieved a level of water diversions within global standards, but not the level of town water security or quality in many of these same areas – it’s rather telling.
“Much can be done to improve water security for small and remote towns, but it will require Governments stepping up and funding real on-ground measures.”
NSWIC represents both irrigators and irrigation communities in NSW.
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-04-13/walgett-nsw-water-insecurity-worse-than-bangladesh/102212784 ; https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/the-town-where-coca-cola-runs-more-freely-than-drinking-water-20230410-p5cz93.html
 https://www.dpie.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/548202/western-regional-water-strategy.pdf [ P 91].
https://www.wsaa.asn.au/sites/default/files/publication/download/FINAL%20Closing%20the%20Water%20for%20People%20%26%20Communities%20Gap%20-%20November%202022.pdf [P 7].