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.



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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