Coming together for the future of water


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The future of Australia’s irrigated agriculture is uncertain, with climate change posing more threats than ever before. But this is not just a farmer’s issue, it impacts us all.

This shift to thinking of irrigated agriculture as our collective responsibility will be a crucial mindset to adopt, from big businesses and government through to local communities and farmers alike.

Although friction and change lie ahead, it’s an exciting time for regional Australia, as more technologies evolve to help us make the most of the water and soil that we have. The opportunities are there – the next step is learning to implement them together.

Challenges through a changing climate

One of the biggest resources for Australia’s agriculture industry is the Murray-Darling Basin – a system of rivers spanning South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. It supports two thirds of irrigated agriculture in Australia.

In recent years, rainfall has declined in the Murray-Darling Basin. The effects of this can be seen in streamflows – which supply the basin’s reservoirs. Over the long term, there’s been a decline in streamflows of around 10 per cent per decade in key areas across the Basin; a dramatic decline.

Drier climate and a shift to higher value crops is increasing the demand for scarce water supplies. For farmers, a growing mismatch between supply and demand is increasing the price of water – affecting the viability of some businesses.

Climate change is challenging us to rethink how irrigated agriculture will operate into the future. And if researchers, farmers, and regional communities band together, their combined expertise could create the solutions needed.

Of late, there has been an extended conflict in the public domain around the management of the basin’s precious water resources, whether it’s city versus region, or environment versus production. But the reality is, 95 per cent of water that’s diverted from the Murray-Darling Basin is used for irrigated agriculture – an industry we all rely on.

It’s time that we turn to a more constructive and holistic debate about what kind of landscape we want in our regional areas, in terms of environment, food production, social values. And it’s important we support regional communities in realising those landscapes.

Innovation powered by community

Recently, the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre has been established in Mildura – bringing the local farmers and community together with researchers from the University of Melbourne, Latrobe University, and SuniTAFE.

The collaboration is currently working on a project that’s giving growers access to a range of different sensors on their farm, providing easier access to information on water availability and other environmental data. It’s also looking at ways to adapt water supply systems to make energy savings.

Another ambitious project, ONE Basin CRC, is bringing together 86 partners from across Australia to manage climate and water risks in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Currently in the bidding stage for funding, the consortium is tackling issues related to climate change. But it’s effecting other areas of important change in the basin, too. It’s working to bring technology and digitisation into irrigated agriculture, findings ways to provide urgent water supplies to traditional owners, providing economic opportunities for First Nations people, and restoring the basin’s ecosystem.

To achieve this, regional hubs are being established across the basin so researchers can work closely with farmers, water managers, communities, and traditional owners. The aim is to co-design solutions to the many challenges, together.

Although the bidding process is not yet complete, a series of workshops have already taken place online between these diverse partnerships – covering the strategic plan for the CRC and identifying initial projects to work on once the bidding process is finalised.

Bringing these varied and otherwise siloed partners together has worked very well – and indicated a desire from these communities to take a more cooperative approach to their shared challenges.

Stake backing local expertise

We are also seeing government invest in collaborative, community-led solutions for the future of irrigated agriculture. The Future Drought Fund is a significant investment by the Commonwealth government over the next 10 years that aims to build resilience in regional communities to drought in a changing climate.

It’s funding eight hubs across the country, where key research organisations and universities co-design solutions by working directly with regional communities – with the University of Melbourne leading the Victorian hub.

Importantly, this project is taking a ground-up approach, giving local communities the opportunity to lead on the initiatives and strategic ideas. Research organisations are then providing ongoing support by improving those initiatives through innovation.

The project is in its early stages, with the regional hubs only set up this year. But many regional communities already have bespoke strategies in place for managing their own drought risk, and the grassroots approach adopted by the Future Drought Fund means all stakeholders are well-placed to develop practical and timely solutions together.

Over the next decade and beyond, a lot of creative thinking will be required to equip Australian agriculture with the tools to manage a changing climate. And research organisations like the University of Melbourne will play a big part in driving that innovation.

Initiatives like the ONE Basin CRC and the Future Drought Fund are helping us immerse ourselves in those communities, join forces, and be part of that transformation through strong partnerships.

First published on 26 November 2021.

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