Australia must embrace water as a national security priority while the rain is falling
26 Feb 2021|

Hangovers result from a classic human failing: we stop and think only when a problem arises, not when it’s caused. When times are good, we’ve always got room for one more, but come the morning and we’ll be wondering why we partied like there was no tomorrow.

Today, there’s plenty to drink in Australia. The rains are here, and the east and west coasts received prodigious downpours in spring. Times are good—which means the last thing on our minds is a hangover.

But a little over a year ago, half the country was on fire, crops had failed and rivers were dry. At the time, the government said it couldn’t make it rain to fix the problem. Now that the rains are here, it’s time to prepare for the next catastrophic drought. But to do that we need to embrace water security as a core national security issue.

Granted, water hasn’t traditionally been seen as a security issue in Australia; however, as the resource becomes more scarce, we have many reasons to start seeing it that way. The UN Security Council and the World Resources Institute have found links between water scarcity and political violence, both between and within nation-states. That should come as no surprise; a lack of water is a direct threat to life and invites desperate action.

We’ve long considered the security implications of so-called climate refugees coming from overseas, but without effective water security measures we may need to consider the displacement of people within Australia.

Then there’s the confronting and confounding fact that water is fundamental to the functioning of the nation’s economy, society and critical infrastructure. Without water we have no production, no economy and, ultimately, no nation.

In the past, decision-makers have mainly seen water as an economic issue; former National Party leader Barnaby Joyce summed that perspective up perfectly when he proclaimed that ‘water is wealth and stored water is a bank’. That view permeates policy and the peak government agencies tasked with using pumping licences, dams and irrigation regulations to balance the economic benefits of water against the degradation of river catchments. Of course, money talks; the ‘balance’ we’ve been achieving means that, while public dams go dry, we’ve been willing to buy some water rights for 57 times their value and build private dams for industry.

So, as the rain falls, it’s time for policymakers to avoid the next hangover by recognising that water regulation is no longer an economic instrument. It’s now a matter of national security and must be treated as such.

No matter how much it rains, we must remember that by the end of the last drought, rivers ran dry, dams emptied, entire towns ran out of water and farmers lost over $10 billion of food production in a single season. The hot, dry conditions contributed to the loss of 1 billion animals and $100 billion, and fires that burned 12.6 million hectares of land, producing a plume of smoke so big that it spread right around the globe. The pressures on our desiccated landscape necessitated states of emergency and military intervention.

Drought and fire, and our capacity to respond to them, including by calling out defence force reservists, are now firmly in the national security policy realm. We’re already making costly preparations for better disaster response by our security forces, so every step we take now to manage water as a national security priority could pay dividends later.

Like our sober clarity after a big night, the relief of rain is fleeting and fragile. Less than 10% of the rain that falls will refill dams, and only 2% will recharge groundwater systems. Australia’s evaporative losses are comparable to those in sub-Saharan Africa, which means that dams are beginning to lose more water to evaporation than they gain from rainfall.

If we do nothing while the rain falls, things will only get worse when it stops. We’ve already made moves to improve storage technologies and increase oversight and enforcement, but we also need to fundamentally change the way we think about water in Australian policy.

If water keeps being viewed as a purely economic interest, it will also keep being a battleground, not only between business and the environment but also between states and the federal government. Natural resources are traditionally seen as the business of states and, despite our interstate river systems, most water management is done by state agencies. At best, that leads to complicated solutions for important problems; at worst, it leads to competition and mismanagement. The situation in the Murray–Darling system is so dire that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has considered stepping in.

If we include water as part of our national security policy, we’ll set a clear purpose for federal leadership beyond the regulation of water markets. Failure to deliver holistic, system-wide outcomes reduces our ability to respond to the security threats posed by water scarcity. Federal leadership shouldn’t destabilise the important day-to-day work of state agencies, but could ensure that those efforts are coordinated and well managed. Such federal–state cooperation has been successfully used to combat terrorism, cybersecurity threats and organised crime.

Federal leadership can also help balance the needs of the private sector against the needs of national security. Agencies such as the Australian Cyber Security Centre and the Critical Infrastructure Centre are examples of federal oversight enhancing government–business cooperation and clarifying and strengthening the role of state authorities. The Critical Infrastructure Centre might well be an easy fit for early efforts in federal water management.

We need to change the way we manage water, but we can’t just build more dams—we need to change the way we think. Money makes the world go ’round, but water grows food, prevents catastrophic fires and literally keeps us alive. It transcends economics and limited environmentalism; it is fundamental to our nation’s survival. It’s time for water management to receive scrutiny and oversight befitting our most pressing national security challenges. We need to catch the moment while the rain is falling, rather than face a hangover when our taps run dry.