I’ve had a keen interest in water management since I spent six months working as a volunteer primary school teacher in rural Kenya. I lived in a community where lack of access to safe water and sanitation was the norm, and I witnessed the hardships that the people there endured as a result. I went on to spend nine months working as a policy intern for the charity WaterAid, and I then completed an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management at the University of Oxford.
How we get our water from rivers, lakes, canals, reservoirs or underground – abstraction management – is something that the Government is committed to reforming in England and Wales, because the current system is not sufficiently flexible to cope with the twin pressures of climate change and growth and it is thought that water resources could be allocated in a way that better serves economic growth, both now and in the future.
In their recently published consultation, ‘Making the most of every drop’, the Government is proposing two alternative policy options:
- Current System Plus, which contains reforms designed to improve upon the current system;
- Water Shares, which is more of a significant change, and would entail redefining water rights as a share of the water available for consumption, as opposed to a volumetric quantity.
The Water Shares option draws upon Australia’s world-leading water entitlement reform, which is part of a series of reforms contained within the National Water Initiative.
Both of the Government’s policy options are throwing up difficult questions for the water industry and other abstractors. The questions that water companies are asking include: “how will we prepare water resources management plans when our allocations could vary every fortnight?” and “what happens if the water that our shares yield decreases, how would we ensure that we can meet demand?”.
This made me think about how the equivalent reforms in Australia affected public water supply. Given that Australia has good quality, reliable water supplies, it must be possible for water companies to operate in a shares based system. So I started looking for research about how Australia’s water allocation reform affected public water supply, but I couldn’t find very much! While there is a substantial body of literature which considers the impacts of these reforms, the majority is focused geographically within the Southern Murray Darling basin, which is highly interconnected, and on the experience of the agricultural sector. There is very little research which describes the experience of public water suppliers, or the progress made in unregulated catchments or groundwater systems.
This research ‘gap’ seemed to me like an opportunity, so I applied to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for a travelling fellowship, and thanks to a bit of luck and some good references, I got it! I’m now in Australia for the next few weeks, spending time with water corporations, regulators and government departments, to understand their experience of water allocation reform, and what lessons could be learnt for us in the UK – so check back soon for an update from down under!