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Lessons from Australia's Struggle with Water Scarcity

Australia Collage
A picture of too much water on one coast of Australia. Img Source: Don Blackmore presentation.

March 1, 2011

Despite recent floods, Australia is the driest continent Australia's water success built on response to crisis: a 30% drop in rainfall Getting water governance right is key, experts say.

For years, Australians have struggled to manage drought across their dry continent. Recently, however, they faced devastating floods that submerged wide swathes of Queensland in the country’s northeast. Think of an area equal to the size of Germany under water. Even so, on Australia’s west coast, drought continues.



Although these crises of too much and too little water—and their respective impacts—hardly sound like a success story, Australia’s experience shows how a water crisis can force governments to make ground-breaking reforms in water management.

Kim BeazleyI am hopeful that with our experience of having been required by circumstances to make these necessary reforms ahead of the rest of the world, we have something to share that can help make a real difference, particularly to the developing world.  ||  Kim Beazley, Australian Ambassador to the United States

As part of World Bank Water Days 2011, Australia’s leading water experts presented lessons learned to Bank staff, academics, civil society, private sector and the media.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world and climate variability has always had a profound impact on its history and development. In recent decades, climate change has transformed a difficult water management challenge into a water crisis. Average annual rainfall in much of the country has dropped by a third since 1980, and stayed there.

In this crisis, Australians have found opportunity. It has forced them into forging historic changes in water management. The government, industry, and communities have had to adapt and seek innovative solutions. New ways of thinking were needed to ensure that everyone would have access to water resources to sustain modern urban living, agriculture, industry, and the environment.

“I am hopeful that with our experience of having been required by circumstances to make these necessary reforms ahead of the rest of the world, we have something to share that can help make a real difference, particularly to the developing world,” Kim Beazley, Australia’s Ambassador to the United States—and a former cabinet minister—told forum participants.

Forum speakers pointed out that several underlying principles behind the Australian response are relevant in many developing countries and could be adapted to country-specific contexts as they battle water crises and plan for a changing climate.

The key success factor in achieving ground-breaking reform was the imperative for the reform. In Australia’s case, the cost of not acting would have resulted in larger impacts on the country’s development and citizens. Dictated by this necessity, Australia transformed its management of water and implemented policy, administrative and technical innovations.

Julia BucknallAustralia has huge challenges and many of our countries have similarly huge challenges and learning how Australia is dealing with those challenges can help us.  ||  Julia Bucknall, Sector Manager for Water, The World Bank

Australia managed to navigate a federal system and government institutions to reach consensus on an agreed national comprehensive blueprint for reform that outlined smaller steps. A federal water department and a new independent authority for the Murray Darling River Basin were set up with an intergovernmental coordination mechanism.

Australia created the right institutions, with the necessary authority, resources and stability, and funded capacity building programs for data, information and knowledge. The government has put in place the right set of policies to tackle water challenges in a coherent, integrated way as there are no silver bullets for multifaceted problems like water. Finally, a strategy for sustaining reform was implemented (download the presentation on Australian Approach to Water Reform).

“The most critical factor is having the right institutions in place that feed from good science and data and good government”, said Ken Matthews, former Chairman of Australia’s National water Commission.

Australia - Map of Water Availability
Australia, a study in contrasts - the west in drought, the rest of the country with excess rainfall. Source: Commonwealth of Australia 2010, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Australia’s governance arrangements for water feature innovative water policy settings and unique and valuable collaborative arrangements between the private and public sector. Here are some lessons that can be drawn to adjust responses to particular country settings:

  • seek a bipartisan response politically
  • bring all stakeholders together
  • ensure community awareness and support
  • have a framework based on markets
  • study the problems to ensure that good science and data drive the right policy outcomes

“As I gloss over (these lessons), I see a world of hurt and trouble. None of this has been easy to do”, said the Australian Ambassador.

Georges CollinetWater, Water, Everywhere | In this podcast, Julia Bucknall gives us an overview of the world’s water situation and tells us what climate change has wrought and how Australia dealt with its severe drought.   ||  World Bank podcasts with George Collinet 

Speakers at the forum provided examples of how these lessons could be applied in the developing world. For example, a comparison of river basins across the world such as the Nile and Mekong basins with Australia’s own Murray-Darling Basin discussed the importance of moving from perception to fact using reliable data and information – which can be problematic in many developing countries. Speakers also discussed how good irrigation systems and management can be replicated in developing countries with stable administration by engaging end users, taking small steps within a well-defined plan, achieving environmental balance, and pushing development choices as close to populations relying on water for their livelihood (download the presentation on Application to Other Areas).

“Australia has huge challenges and many of our countries have similarly huge challenges and learning how Australia is dealing with those challenges can help us”, said Julia Bucknall, Sector Manager for Water at the World Bank. “Things are going to get more difficult everywhere. They are going to get more uncertain and Australia gives us great lessons on how best to do that,” she said.

Additional Resources

Contributed by Nansia Constantinou, Water Unit, The World Bank


Last updated: 2011-03-01



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