Lessons for Groundwater Management in Other Countries

Although there are obvious structural differences between Australia and developing countries such as those in South Asia and China using groundwater, there are still useful insights to be gained. The contextual differences include population, particularly the farm population (20 million well users in India vs. 70,000 in NSW) and corresponding farm size, where Australian holdings range from hundreds to thousands of hectares. As a result, the number of wells in Australia is relatively modest and licensing and metering are not the daunting tasks presented in, for example, the Indian subcontinent. The lessons for Australia itself can be briefly summarized as follows:

1. Ensure that groundwater and/or surface water reforms happen in tandem to avoid lags in policy development and implementation.

2. Recognize groundwater-surface water interactions and aim to use these proactively rather than reactively.

3. Ensure that sustainable yield takes into account the temporal and geographic distribution of water use as well as the sustainable volumes available for development.

4. Zonal approaches can be used to fine-tune sustainable yield management.

5. Ownership of policies is critical to compliance, especially where overal-location or isolated infrastructure is involved.

6. Interindustry and interjurisdictional issues relating to aquifer development should be pre-empted - economic inequities between industries can complicate resolution.

7. Regular monitoring and reporting underpin management, understanding and compliance - groundwater issues can only be managed if they are recognized or addressed early enough.

However, Australia shares a common heritage of a philosophy of state-sponsored development of agriculture and irrigation in particular. This has been focused particularly on the development of a commercial agricultural economy with a major focus on exports. As the world market has become more competitive and rural sector's economic share of GNP has declined, the state has been less inclined to support the agriculture and has plunged it into global free trade with an enthusiasm and commitment seen in few other parts of the world. Coupled with the rising conviction that environmental management is of crucial importance, the federal government, through the COAG, has pursued reform objectives, based on clearly defined economic, environmental and social principles. These have been developed by state leaders and explained, sold and forced on the states' populations through combinations of incentives and penalties.

This has occurred against a background of genuine (if expensive) public participation in natural resources management, which has been transformed from disparate local initiatives into a national movement, and then rationalized to some extent through catchment-based management organizations that retain a strong community ownership and membership. Politically, the environmentally conscious urban electorate has become significantly more powerful than the rural lobby, whilst at the same time the true guardians of the rural environment are those who live and work there - predominantly farmers. In contrast, there is probably no broad-based consensus on economic reform and national competitiveness (masked at the ballot box by other issues), and this has allowed the central government to take the lead on potentially unpopular reforms with much less public participation and discussion.

Public participation involves genuine dialogue and often rancorous discussion supported by publicly available information. Although some information is recognized to be still far from perfect, there is a good general understanding of the resource base and its constraints, if less than perfect knowledge of actual groundwater use. With respect to groundwater, there has been a big step forward in the understanding of allocation in relation to sustainable resource use and this has led to hard-to-negotiate adjustment programmes to reduce over-allocation, which is intrinsically easier than dealing with overconsumption, which in India is the real problem in absentia of rational energy pricing and any form of allocation system (see Shah, Chapters 2 and 11, this volume). On the inside, the debate is noisy and fragmented, giving a very different impression to the 'contestants' on the ground compared with observers trying to synthesize experience and progress from the outside. However, noise and dispute are welcome signs of a dynamic and healthy process, and in the end contribute to more balanced sets of outcomes than administration by fiat, whether it is honoured in practice or in the breach.

Public availability of data, commitment to find more when it is insufficient and access to modelling and other impact assessments, commissioned by the community, by the state or in collaboration, all contribute to a more transparent and better-argued politics in natural resources management.

There is an increasing tendency to look at structural differences between developed and developing countries and then say 'obviously this cannot be done' or 'that does not apply'. There is an increasing body of literature questioning integrated water resources management, especially its more prescriptive formulations (Biswas et al., 2005). However, sound principles and practices need to be applied if we wish to achieve sustainable development of water resources and not overdevelop or degrade the resources for future generations.

This chapter shows that groundwater management is a complex, multifaceted process that is dynamic and has continually changing contexts, problems and challenges, just as with surface water. It also illustrates clearly that surface and groundwater management needs to be integrated in many cases, although this adds further complexity, more stakeholders, greater need for data and so on.

However, structural differences between Australia and, say, India mask differences in the size and importance of groundwater as a sector. In India, it is a much more significant contributor to both the economy and the individual welfare and, as such, should be accorded serious attention concerning its future sustain-ability. The recognition of this importance has either escaped the government's notice (by now, unlikely) or has been submerged by other conflicting short-term agendas and solutions. The Australian experience shows that initiative and active involvement by different interest groups working at different levels and for different ends can move towards a longer-term agenda, for broadly similar reasons of welfare and stability that confront developing countries.

An important point is that an effective process, based on a combination of policy, economics, science and participation can be, and has been, established. Attention to detail has been a fundamental plank in groundwater reforms, considering resource availability, use, environmental consequences, economic benefits and losses, and accounting for the range of stakeholders' perspectives and views. This does not mean that all stakeholders' needs and concerns are satisfied - far from it - but they are ultimately negotiated and cajoled towards what is believed to be a better position. A commitment to monitoring should ensure that results can be evaluated and the effectiveness of different policies and positions determined in a continuing and dynamic cycle of 'adaptive management'.

Countries such as India can learn from broader federal mechanisms of carrot and stick policies, applied to their own contexts. The Australian case shows how a strong and purposive government can rub shoulders with true public participation. There are positive lessons in the detailed development of process, interagency cooperation and genuine participation at state level. In India, managing approximately 20 million tube well owners looks like an impossible issue even though they represent only 1/50th of the whole population. At state level this number may reduce to a million tube well owners, amongst other millions of citizens - and becomes immediately more tractable, although daunting. Guiding and resourcing local authorities to manage jointly and locally with the community require commitment, clear direction and professional and service-oriented public agencies.

None of these reforms have happened overnight in developed countries and have a backdrop of a long history of changes in technology, management, ideology and public institutions. Change does not happen rapidly and cannot be expected to do so, miraculously, in developing countries. Solutions adapt to problems through the simple and pragmatic business of trying them out and gaining experience, confidence and trust. Exact models of management cannot be expected to be transplanted and made to work in different contexts, but different components offer potential to provide solutions if there is the broad policy and incentive structure to maintain commitment to learn and adapt on the ground.

To find solutions it is necessary to define problems, and there is great potential to do this more effectively, thoroughly and in more detail from a range of stakeholders' perspectives. How to do this with large numbers of stakeholders remains a challenge, which is only partly solved by increasing education and awareness.

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