Like many countries worldwide, Australia is adapting its policies, legislation and resource management practices to achieve more environmentally sustainable water usage.
But the extent to which water utilities implement appropriate measures often depends on the way in which these corporate utilities are governed, according to the Director of UniSA's Centre for Comparative Water Policies and Laws, Professor Jennifer McKay.
Prof McKay examined the impact of the corporate governance structures of Australian irrigation water supply businesses on compliance with the 2005 National Water Initiative's (NWI) reforms concerning environmentally sustainable development (ESD).
Barriers to achieving compliance with NWI reforms and other factors that inhibit ecological sustainability were identified by 183 CEOs from Australian water supply businesses.
These water supply businesses range from fully private to hybrid local governments with corporations, law companies and government owned enterprises. In all, the bodies are very different to each other, with different reporting responsibilities and financial and environmentally sustainable development reporting requirements under other Acts within states.
"Following the Council of Australian Government (CoAG) water reforms of 1994, future water projects in each state had to be based on seven ESD principles, with both the private sector and the community involved in water planning at a regional level," Prof McKay said.
The ESD principles state that decision making processes should effectively integrate long and short term economic, environmental, social and equity considerations; lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation (the Precautionary Principle); the global dimension of environmental impacts of actions should be recognised and considered; the need to develop a strong, growing and diversified economy that can enhance the capacity for environmental protection should be recognised; the need to enhance and maintain international competitiveness in an environmentally sound manner should be recognised; cost effective and flexible policy instruments should be adopted; and broad community involvement should be facilitated.
"Each state has set in train different processes to achieve ESD, however, both within and between the states is a plethora of ESD definitions and very little guidance for officials on how to make choices between the ESD aims," Prof McKay said.
These ESD requirements, supported in the National Water Initiative, became the subject of a large-scale research project funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Irrigation Futures. Prof McKay is a key researcher in the CRC, which aims to halve water usage within Australia and define sustainable irrigation areas and practices.
Water supply business CEOs surveyed were asked to respond to more than 200 questions relating to their knowledge of ESD, their attitude to water reforms, trust of the state government water planning processes and community involvement.
"The vast majority felt well informed by their state government about state policy but only 13 CEOs considered that water planning processes instigated by their government have worked well," Prof McKay said.
"In relation to ESD, the process was considered transparent by less than 12 per cent of CEOs. The responses of CEOs could be split into three groups - exhibiting no trust, neutral, and a high degree of trust in their particular state government.
"When asked to rank the seven commonwealth principles in order of their difficulty to achieve in their area, most CEOs were unsure how to consider the global dimension and how to implement the precautionary principle.
"The research revealed that CEOs put their greatest efforts into ESD principles that achieved broad community involvement in regional water planning, cost effective and flexible policy instruments, and decision making that integrated both long and short term measures," Prof McKay said.