Water security is a critical issue for Australia, the driest inhabited continent in the world. The Northern Territory Government has defined water security as “having an acceptable quantity and quality of water for people, economic opportunities, cultural and environmental flows, now and into the future”. The Office of Water Security was established by the Northern Territory Government as part of the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security and was tasked with developing the Territory Water Plan to set out the actions that should be implemented to deliver water security to Territorians.
In October 2022, the Territory Government released the Draft Territory Water Plan for public consultation until 25 November 2022. The approved final water plan, which the NT Government intends to release in early 2023, intends to set the agenda to 2050, to address all aspects of water security in the Territory by ensuring effective governance, regulation and management of water, including that drinking water is safe and reliable and used efficiently and sustainably, to grow the economy and protect the environment.
The Draft Water Plan is another part of a suite of policies being implemented by the Territory Government aimed at providing protection for the environment and addressing the challenges of climate change. It completes a recommendation in the Final Report from the Territory Economic Reconstruction Committee and addresses key recommendations of the Pepper Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing.
Working towards a fit-for-purpose water plan
In September 2021, the Northern Territory Strategic Water Plan – Directions Paper was released for public consultation. The Directions Paper was informed by debate and discussion in the Territory raised through industry proposals, community forum and advocacy on water resource management. It outlines possible pathways to improve water security for the Territory through the following principles, proposed for adoption in the final water plan:
- Safe and reliable – drinking water for human health and wellbeing is prioritised.
- Evidence-based – supply, use, management and protection of water resources will be based on the best available science and knowledge, with the precautionary principle used with respect to the appropriate environmental setting when evidence is absent.
- Sustainability – water policy, management and planning decisions will consider long-term sustainability, intergenerational equity, and future risks and opportunities.
- Efficient – ensure that water is supplied and used efficiently and conservatively, with recycling, reuse and fit-for-purpose use adopted wherever practical and possible.
- Trust and transparency – water is a shared resource and decisions and information about its supply, use, management and protection will be publicly accessible, and include community and stakeholder input to build trust and confidence.
- Fair and accountable – decisions will be based on clear roles, responsibilities and processes. Decisions will maximise public benefits, recognising that water has social economic cultural and environmental as well as intrinsic values.
Submissions made in response to the Directions Paper were summarised in the Consultation Summary Report, released in May 2022, which says overall, the community response to the proposed water plan was positive.
Based on the community and key stakeholder responses to the Directions Paper, the Consultation Summary says, amongst other things, that:
- the most important water issues in the Territory include environment protection, efficient and responsible use of water and the availability of safe drinking water for all Territorians;
- almost half of the submissions agreed that proposed changes to legislation and policy reform are needed such as implementing reforms to the Water Act 1992 (NT), the principal Act which governs water control in the Territory, or through a new piece of legislation that would seek to enable clear environmental and cultural sustainability objectives, prioritise accessible and safe drinking water, establish good governance and transparent decision making, enable robust peer reviewed science, and mandate public reporting;
- approximately one-third of submissions agreed that the Government should consider a change to the person or entity delegated as the Controller of Water Resources, currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Department of Environment, Water and Security, to enable greater separation between regulatory decisions and policy development; and
- there was an emphasis on incorporating Aboriginal people’s connection to water into the final water plan and its resulting policies and reform agenda, as well as increasing the quality and supply of water to Aboriginal communities.
The development of the Draft Water Plan was informed by the Directions Paper and the submissions made as set out in the Summary Report.
The Draft Territory Water Plan and priority actions
In broad terms, the Draft Water Plan proposes to:
- prioritise safe drinking water for all Territorians;
- support sustainable development that underpins the Government’s objective of a $40 billion Territory economy by 2030;
- drive efficiency and productivity in water use;
- deliver good governance, transparency and accountability across Government in water management; and
- protect key environmental and cultural values and support the Territory’s resilience to claim change and its impacts on water security.
The Draft Water Plan sets out what the Territory Government is already doing to deliver water security for Territorians including, for example:
- finalising the Territory Economic Reconstruction Commission Report and the NT Infrastructure Strategy 2022-2030;
- working with the Commonwealth Government and Land Councils to deliver more housing in remote communities to reduce overcrowding; and
- maintaining the NT Water Licensing Portal which publishes notices of licence applications, licence locations and conditions, maps of Water Control Districts and Water Allocation Plans and supporting scientific documents.
Further, the Territory Government is currently seeking Expressions of Interest for an independent Controller of Water Resources.
The Draft Water Plan proposes to deliver outcomes over 14 priority actions, which follow the principles set down in the National Water Initiative, Australia’s national water reform blueprint, agreed by the Council of Australian Governments in 2004.
1. New safe drinking water legislation
The Territory Government proposes to develop new legislation for safe drinking water that commits to transparency in drinking water quality which will be monitored against agreed guideline values through plans outlining how water quality will be improved, by 2024. That new legislation is to be administered by the Department of Health, which will deliver an annual report on progress across the Territory.
2. Securing Darwin’s future water supply
The Territory Government, together with Power and Water Corporation (a Northern Territory Government-owned corporation which provides water and sewerage services across the Territory), proposes to deliver the Manton Dam Return to Service project in 2025 and accelerate pre-construction activities of the Adelaide River Off-stream Water Storage project.
3. Improved water security for remote communities
The Territory Government proposes to deliver water information forums in priority communities, develop and publish a regional and remote community water infrastructure priority list and continue the capital investment in remote community water infrastructure. In partnership with the National Water Grid Authority for remote and regional water assessment, the Territory Government proposes to accelerate the delivery of the infrastructure priority list in remote communities and support water efficiency and innovation in remote communities and homelands.
4. Improved water outcomes for homelands
Water supply and water quality services are provided through contracted arrangements with various provides across the Territory. The Territory Government proposes to work with those service providers to expand their capacity and capability.
5. Government leadership on water efficiency
The Territory Government proposes to deliver a Territory-wide water efficiency strategy to support good water stewardship by all Territorians and increase the water security of cities, towns and communities across the Territory.
6. Placing a value on water
Other than Western Australia, the Territory is the only other jurisdiction in Australia that does not charge for water extraction to recover costs for water resource management, a key national reform agreed under the National Water Initiative. Accordingly, the Territory Government proposes to implement a water charging framework for licensed users through annual charges on granted water licence entitlements and administrative fees for licences and permits.
7. Territory voices in water security
The establishment of a new Strategic Water Advisory Council has been proposed, to advise the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water Security on the implementation of the approved water plan, including providing advice on water related policy and new water legislation.
8. Documenting the cultural values of water
The Territory Government proposes to facilitate the partnership of the Office of Water Security with the Land Councils, the Aboriginal Area Protection Authority and Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and ranger groups to undertake in-depth mapping of cultural water values and sacred water sites.
9. Contemporary water resource management legislation
The Territory Government proposes that by 2026, new legislation will be implemented to replace the Water Act 1992 (NT) and provide regulatory regime that supports sustainable development through contemporary water resource management.
10. Climate resilience and adaptation of the water sector
In line with the Northern Territory Climate Change Response: Towards 2050, the Territory Government proposes to deliver a Territory-wide climate risk assessment and adaptation plan for water security and commence climate adaptation pilot projects.
11. Accelerated water science program
The Territory Government proposes to accelerate its existing water science program to support best practice water resource management and sustainable development.
12. Ensure water supply and sewerage services meet customer needs
The Water Supply and Sewerage Services Act 2000 (NT) which provides the Territory’s economic regulatory framework for water supply and sewerage services has not been reformed since its commencement in 2000. The Territory Government intends to establish a reform roadmap to improve economic regulation of water supply and sewerage services.
13. Sustainable water supply for energy transition
The Territory Government proposes to, by 2024, deliver a sustainable water availability and options assessment to support the emerging hydrogen industry. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade will work with other Government agencies and key community stakeholders to identify key opportunities and risks associated with sustainable water use for renewable hydrogen production across the Territory.
14. The role of the Office of Water Security
As noted above, the Office of Water Security is a dedicated team located in the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security. The Territory Government proposes to establish the Office of Water Security as an independent division within the department and to increase its resourcing.
Progress reporting, review and evaluation
The Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water Security, supported by the Office of Water Security, proposes to provide an annual Ministerial Statement to the Legislative Assembly, detailing the progress of delivering the priority actions under of the approved water plan and identify any new actions or complementary activities.
After four years of operation, the Office of Water Security will lead a full review and evaluation of the Territory Water Plan’s effectiveness, after which a new set of priority actions and the next iteration of the Plan will be developed. There will likely be further consultation opportunities as part of this review.