Australia must ensure water justice for all: expert

A leading water expert from The Australian National University (ANU) is calling for greater water justice, especially for Indigenous Australians.   

 The call, from ARC Laureate Fellow and UNESCO Chairholder in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance, Professor Quentin Grafton, comes as he helps launch the Water Justice Hub.  

According to Professor Grafton water justice means ensuring everyone receives equitable access to water. The flip side is water injustice that results in early death from water borne diseases – diseases that, in India alone, kill around a quarter of million people every year. 

  Professor Grafton said: “Water injustice is everywhere, too often accepted, frequently never queried, or even discussed. Why? Without water justice we cannot have social, economic or environmental justice. 

  “In the time of COVID, 40 per cent of households globally lack access to basic hand washing facilities. In 2017, there were 2.2 billion who lacked safely managed drinking water and more than 4 billion lacked safely managed sanitation.  

“Many think water injustice is a problem only in poor countries. Wrong. Some 80 million or so Americans are served by drinking water systems with safe drinking water violations and whole communities, such as Flint, Michigan, have literally been poisoned with excess levels of lead in their drinking water.” 

  Bringing together leading experts from Australia and around the world, the Water Justice Hub responds to these global challenges to help deliver the Sustainable Development Goal of ‘water for all’ by 2030. It’s a pressing issue in Australia, with the nation facing a water emergency according to Professor Grafton. 

  “As the world’s driest inhabited continent and with the immediate threat of climate change exacerbating these conditions, Australia is facing a water emergency that will require effective policies and funding to manage,” Professor Grafton said. 

“The fallout from our water emergency and failures in funding and governance contribute to water injustice that disproportionally affects Indigenous Australians, particularly those living in remote communities.   

 ”Some First Peoples in remote communities only have access to drinking water of such poor quality that it may be slowly killing them with chronic kidney disease.   

“In the Murray-Darling Basin, First Peoples account for about 10 per cent of the population yet they hold only 0.2 per cent of the available surface water rights in New South Wales. Even this paltry amount has declined since 2009.

“Downstream communities that had priority access to water under the law did not get the water they needed because upstream irrigators, in some cases illegally, have taken more than their fair share.”  

The Water Justice Hub responds to water injustice by delivering on three key objectives: ensuring everyone’s basic water needs are met; making sure water distribution is fair; and ensuring all people are represented in water decision-making.  

“We plan to make this happen by documenting the unacceptable water quality and associated costs that some Australians suffer,” Professor Grafton said.  

“We will quantify water values of communities so that all values of water, including Indigenous values, are considered in decision-making, not just market values. 

“Finally, we will partner with communities to provide a value proposition that delivers information and evidence that supports communities to actively participate in deciding how their water is allocated.

“As one the world’s wealthiest countries we need to ensure that all Australians get a fair deal in what is arguably one of our scarcest natural resources, water.

“The Water Justice Hub will work and collaborate with others to make this vision a reality in Australia, and beyond.” 

Read Professor Grafton’s opening remarks for the launch of the Water Justice Hub here.

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