Governing irrigation renewal in rural Australia

Wallis, Philip J.; Iaquinto, Benjamin L.; Ison, Raymond L. and Wrigley, Roger J. (2014). Governing irrigation renewal in rural Australia. International Journal of Water Governance, 2(4) pp. 19–36.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.7564/14-IJWG41

Abstract

Irrigation renewal schemes are taking place globally for water conservation and gains in agricultural productivity, as competition for water resources increases. The publically-funded renewal of irrigation infrastructure is a key platform of water reform in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin; it is considered by some to be a policy that contradicts market-based approaches. In this Australian study, we examine an irrigation renewal scheme in northern Victoria resulting from a large investment by the State and Federal Governments. The long historical development of infrastructure and institutions for irrigation in the region led to technological lock-in and exposure to international terms of trade and climate change. From interviews with water professionals involved in the region, three key themes were identified through an adapted grounded theory approach: (1) a lack of an appropriate platform for fostering community involvement in what was a large-scale investment of public money; (2) issues in the way that water losses and savings were calculated; and (3) contradictions in policies for water buyback and irrigation renewal that lead to some irrigators being disadvantaged. To better understand the situation, we also applied a theoretical lens based on social learning. We conclude that the framing of a water ‘crisis’ was used to the benefit of some irrigators in attracting large-scale investment of public funds for irrigation renewal. The proposed solution, a technologically-driven irrigation renewal scheme, was implemented at a pace that didn’t match the planning horizons for many, leading many to exit from irrigated agriculture. Systemic insights for the design and implementation of irrigation renewal schemes internationally are highlighted.

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