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Australia's water supplies: what's going on?

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Policy

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Bickering between state governments has left Australian water supplies in a perilous state, according to a new report by the National Water Commission.

Barriers to water trade are still being imposed by state governments, water restrictions are still widespread and there is continuing uncertainty as to the security of future water supplies, the report, Australian water reform 2009 says.

Pulling no punches, it points out that governments have failed to meet 40 per cent of commitments made five years ago, while many other schemes have been suspended because of drought conditions and low flows in southern Australia.

State governments meanwhile continue to squabble over water, intergovernmental processes are slow and the states do not have adequate policies to deal with the problem.

Worse still, climate change has made the situation even more critical than it was back in 2004, when the Commission was formed to monitor the progress of water reforms.

The most alarming part of the report is its conclusion that governments will not meet the central commitment made under the National Water Initiative to fix over-allocation by 2010 - though government commitments to tackle the over-allocation problem date back to at least 1994.

Over-allocation refers to the way water supplies are over-used. Water entitlements have allowed users to extract more water than was actually sustainable, and 15 years after it was identified as a problem, governments have failed to fix it. According to the Commission, governments need to clearly define what over-allocation means - which means they need to stop bickering.

The Commission's findings coincide with revelations that Melburnians believe their 13 year water crisis, with its parched parks and gardens, dying trees and water restrictions, has been as bad as a war or natural disaster. This view comes out in Victorian Government documents released under Freedom of Information to the Nationals.

Commission chair Ken Matthews suggested the problem with water supplies has reached the 'danger zone'.

"What makes these findings even more concerning is that we now know that climate change has raised the bar on water reform,'' he said. "Reduced water availability makes improved water management more urgent than ever for our water-starved rivers and hard-hit irrigators."

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