Water management in northern Australia is a national security issue

In a recent Strategist article, Dr Paul Barnes raised the issue of water management and water scarcity in the Top End. He argued that access to water as an essential service may be underrated in national infrastructure planning. But how seriously is water being considered as a security resource, a capital resource or a developmental resource? We argue that water is not just one of these, but all three. This is an important notion considering the significant role it plays in Australia’s prosperity, security and, indeed, survival.

Within this water management trichotomy, there are different focuses and priorities, but also different forms of legislative operationalisation.

When it comes to water management, while the viability of the Murray–Darling Basin has been a persistent focus of Australia’s media and politicians, the issue has lacked the same focus in the Top End. The problems faced in the Murray–Darling Basin are ongoing and based largely on state and territory water access. But the immediate consequences of inadequate access to water in the Northern Territory must be a high priority in the nation’s conceptions of water security.

In the Northern Territory, 90% of water is supplied through bores, and the territory government has acknowledged that groundwater levels are running low in the Darwin area. Though the NT government has done a significant amount of work on improving water management, that’s something both territory and federal politicians need to increase their focus on.

In terms of national planning, water is controlled by the states and territories (with the exception of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority). Water management is run primarily through the National Water Initiative, which was agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments in 2004.

Currently, the National Water Initiative positions water as a part of Australia’s ‘natural capital’, with its purpose being to support and sustain economic and industrial growth. Indeed, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce once reflected that ‘water is wealth and stored water is a bank’. As capital, water is managed through the statutory authority of the Productivity Commission and the environment department. Bodies such as the Critical Infrastructure Centre in the Department of Home Affairs can foster interstate and public–private consultation, but state and territory governments and private water companies have the biggest say in the capital resourcing of water.

As a developmental resource, access to water and sanitation is recognised by the UN as a human right. All Australians must be provided with access to drinking water, and governments must balance access with the strategic and capital considerations of water management. Equitable access for all citizens to water should be a major priority for all governments. In terms of realising this goal, developmental priorities are balanced between state and territory governments and the Commonwealth, and departments including the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, and various state departments.

But most importantly, water management is inadequately presented as a national security issue. While state and territory governments should have a leading role in policing and resource management, the federal government is the provider of national security. In deciding where and how water resources should be administered, the National Water Initiative does not engage with questions of exposure and vulnerability of water resources at the national level and mentions ‘security’ only in relation to entitlements and reliability of access. The National Water Commission did not make vulnerability and exposure a main focus in its 2014 report.

Looking more closely at defence, water security in the NT is essential for Australia’s warfighting capability. Bore drilling, for example, can create serious surface and structural issues for infrastructure, and sewerage and waste management have significant defence considerations. In the case of Darwin Airport, inefficient water and wastewater management could affect the operational continuity of the dual-use facility. Any such impact on the airport would drastically undermine the ability of the Australian Defence Force and the US Marines to operate from Darwin.

Strategic resourcing of water could help offset some of these issues. It would mean the siloing of water as a critical asset during military conflict, but also take into account the cascading risks and effects of climate change. While the Critical Infrastructure Centre considers water a ‘critical asset’, its position as a monitoring and assessment body means that it cannot force state and territory governments or industry to change their behaviour. Though the launch of the National Resilience Taskforce’s report, Profiling Australia’s vulnerability, is a great start in considering the systemic nature of risk and vulnerability, real ‘strategic resourcing’ would require a renegotiation of water’s place in Australia’s resource management, critical infrastructure and defence and national security framework.

How Australia considers this ‘trichotomy’ of water management will be a major part of future policymaking concerning risk and resilience in the territory. Water’s role as a strategic, capital and developmental asset will need to be considered in terms of balancing of responsibilities between the states and territories and the federal government, and the states’ and territories’ own resource management schemes. A failure to do so will constitute a threat to not only Australia’s operational capability during a conflict, but also its ability to respond to disasters and crises.