Transferring water reforms using governance practices

Australia’s solid performance in water reform appears to be at an end.

With the demise of the National Water Commission and Land and Water Australia, Australian governments of any political persuasion have walked away from building on the substantial gains made since moves towards reforms in the in the transferability of water entitlements and water allocation for the environment, promoted in the 1990s.

There has been a similar failure to progress our water reform experience in international aid. While there were some moves to strengthen support for water infrastructure supply and water quality programs, little has been done at the bigger international agendas, especially with our near neighbours in South and Southeast Asia. Support for Mekong River and Ganges River initiatives occurred with European foreign aid programmes and World Bank initiatives and several senior Australian water consultants supported and still support those programmes. Even groups such as the Australian Water Partnership push technology support in Asia but appear to ignore using the substantial water reform experience gained at home.

Where can Australian international support for water resources management progress in the next decade? Here are a few suggestions.

Obviously, the Australian experience has limitations to countries which do not experience the same hydrology, form of democratic governance, federal-state relations and low population densities over large inland basins that characterise the mature Australian water sector.  There needs to be caution in transferring the Australian experience overseas. The table below shows clearly that Australian conditions are fundamentally different to others.

These difference are fundamental. However, an entry point could be to examine governance which exists outside the water sector and use governance reforms to drive water reform. In one sense, this is what happened in Australia – through the work of the Council of Australian Governments’ water reform process.

In underdeveloped, developing and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, Indian, China) countries, the governance window includes using the World Bank’s six elements of good governance as starting points:

  1. Voice and Accountability
  2. Political Stability and Absence of Violence
  3. Effectiveness
  4. Quality
  5. Rule of Law
  6. Control of Corruption

And for each element, develop appropriate best practices in water resources management, development and planning, which fit the context in specific countries. For example, in the Pune Irrigation Circle, Maharasthra, India, in the early 2000s, reform was instigated by the Maharashtra Regulatory Authority. The reform achievements were:

  • The establishment and functioning of a regulatory authority and water pricing reforms within five years;
  • A regulatory authority with supporting Acts which specify roles of a Water Council, a Water Board, Water User Associations;
  • Mechanisms for water entitlements and socially just water tariffs for covering O&M costs; and,
  • Spending water tariff incomes locally in improving water supply infrastructure.

Reforms in Maharasthra were facilitated by:

  • An enduring culture of innovation in the State;
  • A willingness to change, coupled with skilled water professionals to enact programmes;
  • A World Bank project which stimulated the reform process;
  • Two Acts which clearly specify the roles and responsibilities of organisations and institutional arrangements for water entitlements, quotas, tariffs  and water planning;
  • Ongoing drought requiring improved action in groundwater management;
  • The decision to not use consultants to give reports – rather, let the government do it;
  • The use of regional public forums and at administrative level; and,
  • Ensuring water rights of tail-enders are met first (enshrined in legislation); it works better to start from that end in irrigation reform.

The Maharasthra (as well as Australian) practices can’t be directly transferred elsewhere. In a country with very weak governance, it is necessary to ensure that first steps are achieved before more advanced water resources management can occur. I suggest a sound practice is:

  • Establishing and maintain a skilled local water organisation, supported by the State;
  • Implementing water laws, underpinned with practical, socially just water policy; and,
  • Focusing on delivering sustained potable water supplies and irrigation water to sustain food production.


Good design information supports local irrigation refurbishment

Tariff collectors at the local Pune Irrigation Circle office: a local and effective process

Each irrigation farmer receives receipts for tariffs paid and receipts are reported

The result – newly refurbished irrigation supply channels

The result – more food production

Once the fundamentals are achieved, better practices in water reform can occur. In short, step by step reform is needed, appropriate to the context.

Bruce Hooper, PhD

International Water Policy Advisor


Shah, T., I. Makin, and R. Sakthivadivel. 2004. Limits to Leapfrogging: Issues in Transposing Successful River Basin Management Institutions in the Developing World. International Water Management Institute.


Table: Differences between developing countries and developed countries’ basin realities

Source: Modified from (Shah, Makin, and Sakthivadivel 2004)


Developed Economies e.g. Australia Emerging/BRIC Economies e.g. India
Temperate climates, humid, higher river-stream density Rainfall low, climate extreme, higher mean temperatures, lower stream density, water scarcity an emerging constraint
Population concentrated in the valleys, downstream Densely populated in both valleys and catchment areas; population high both upstream and downstream of dams
Water rights based on riparian doctrine and prior appropriation Water rights based on rights to rainfall or ground-water; people’s notions of ownership relate more easily to rain than to large-scale public diversions
Focus on blue surface water: water found in rivers, and lakes Focus on green water: water stored in the soil profile or blue water stored in aquifers
Most water users get water from ‘service providers’; most water provision is in the formal sector-making water resources governance feasible Most water users get their water directly from rain and from private or community storage without any significant mediation from public agencies or organized service providers.  Because the bulk of water provision takes place in the informal sector, it is difficult to pass enforceable water legislation
Small numbers of large-scale stakeholders Vast numbers of small-scale stakeholders
Low transaction costs for monitoring water use and collecting water charges High transaction costs for monitoring water use and collecting water charges