Part two: running dry - the worrying repercussions of running down irrigation research

Time to get our eyes back on the prize: the pragmatic, results-focused, multi-sector research effort of recent decades has stalled.

Welcome to Part Two of Professor Andrew Campbell’s special report on the troubling plight of irrigation research and development in Australia.

In part one, Professor Campbell argued that despite an unprecedented investment in water, we have run down our irrigation research, with long-term implications for maintaining food production in the face of a changing climate and rising energy prices.

In part two, he warns we risk our losing our world-leading position in irrigation water use unless we adopt a coordinated approach.


The world needs to feed more people than ever, but we will have less water to do it with. Historically, Australia has led the world in research on how to grow more food with less water, but funding cuts are undermining our leadership and capacity.

There is ample global evidence of the over-allocation and over-use of water, especially groundwater.

According to the international bodies such as OECD and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation we will need to expand global food production by about 60% by 2050.

But for the first time in human history, we will have to do that without an increase in agriculture’s water footprint.

At the same time, there is increasing demand for water from growing populations of urban and industrial users.

During recent droughts in Australia, irrigators reduced their water use by 43% - compared to just 1% reduction for urban, industrial and other users.

Also, trade-offs between water security and energy security - such as concerns around coal seam gas contaminating groundwater - seem likely to intensify.

Agriculture is dotted with payoffs of irrigation R&D; let’s not put the brakes on innovation.

The best available science tells us that we can expect greater climate variability, an increase in extreme weather patterns such as El Niño and consequently more frequent, longer, hotter and drier droughts - especially in southern Australia.

But the proposal that we simply shift our irrigated agriculture north “to where the water is” does not stand up to even a cursory analysis. Similarly, the suggestion we can cost-effectively pipe or pump or ship the water south “to where the people are” ignores basic physics and economics.

The tough reality is that to produce water-intensive fresh food, meat and milk, we need to relentlessly improve our use and management of water where industries, infrastructure and consumers are located.

While intensive agriculture may be expanded at the margins, the big gains lie in the areas where we already farm intensively. And we need clever application of new thinking and new technologies to do this.

The toll of research budget cuts

At this point, it is worth taking a close look at the policy framework in which irrigation research has been developed - and the disturbing picture of budget cuts and missed opportunities.

Looking back on water research and developments programs such as the recently closed National Program for Sustainable Irrigation (NPSI) - discussed in more detail in part one - we see a cross-sectoral approach operating across jurisdictions, industries and agencies, readily sharing resources and results.

The industry has strongly influenced these programs through rural R&D corporations and rural water companies – which has helped keep research focused on practical needs and readily adopting new findings.

But recent declines in commonwealth and state funding has taken investors with it, while eroding professional capacity.

Since the wet La Niña years of 2010 and 2011, the phenomenon of the “hydro-illogical cycle” — in which the appetite for water reform (and irrigation research) is inversely proportional to rainfall — has flourished.

It could be argued that all publicly funded research programs have a natural life span and that 20 years of irrigation-focused R&D is a good run.

These arguments would be valid if Australia had complemented its water policy reforms and program investments with a nationally coordinated, collaborative approach to water research funding.

Irrigation, as the biggest water user, would obviously be a core component of such an approach.

Unfortunately, no such framework for investment in water R&D exists. In 2009, COAG requested the Federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (SEWPAC) to prepare a national water knowledge and research strategy. But no draft has been released and progress on this COAG agenda item seems stalled.

The winding up of NPSI and the CRC for Irrigation Futures in 2010 was just part of a wider reduction of national programs with an irrigation focus.

This year also saw the end of both the eWater CRC (concluding 20 years of collaborative water research through the eWater, Catchment Hydrology and Freshwater Ecology CRCs) and the Raising National Water Standards program.

In 2009, the statutory rural R&D corporation dedicated to sustainable land and water research, Land & Water Australia, was abolished.

There has been ongoing reduction in water and irrigation R&D by state governments and the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

There are of course continuing national investments in water research, including the CSIRO’s Water for a Healthy Country flagship, the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training led by Flinders University and the exciting new CRC for Water Sensitive Cities led by Monash University.

But there has been a substantial decline in nationally coordinated, collaborative research initiatives focused on irrigation, when our need for world-leading research is arguably greater than ever.

Our pool of expertise is in danger of being syphoned away by closures and budget cuts.

A bureaucratic focus

Ostensibly, the next phase of coordinated national irrigation research activity is being managed through the Water Use in Agriculture RD&E Strategy, led by the Australian government through its National Primary Industries RD&E Framework.

However, this document focuses more on process than presenting an exciting, coherent national strategy.

While it contains useful overview information, especially about declining investment and capacity in irrigation research and extension, its objectives are vague. Its “strategies” are mainly about improving government coordination, not articulating research questions and how they will be tackled.

It fails to specify a single research initiative; the level of industry ownership of the strategy is unclear and it lacks a comprehensive evaluation framework.

It falls far short of setting out a compelling research agenda that would attract bright young scientists or industry partners considering long-term investments.

While these limitations are probably driven by budget constraints (no government has allocated serious funding to it), in my view, it also reflects the absence of a dedicated champion to drive strategy development and implementation.

A statutory organisation mandated to broker the kind of cross-sectoral research needed for irrigation was recommended by the Productivity Commission in its 2011 Inquiry into Rural Research and Development Corporations.

However, the Australian Government ruled that option out in its recent Rural R&D Policy Statement without presenting a convincing alternative.

World-leading position at risk

Will Australia struggle to regain its position as a world leader in this area? It’s probably too early to say.

It is, however, fair to say the current bureaucratic approach - driven by part-time committees - seems unlikely to establish and maintain the cohesion, innovation and momentum needed to attract and retain globally competitive researchers, or mobilise government and industry investment on the scale required.

Our history and geography teaches us that water management is central to food policy. If we leave our foot off the pedal of water and irrigation research, the food security aspirations of our leaders will be extremely difficult to realise.

Acknowledgement: this article was assisted greatly by Peter Day of Peter Day Resource Strategies Pty Ltd, who recently led the knowledge harvest project of the NPSI.

Read part one here.