Address by H E Harinder Sidhu, High Commissioner of Australia to India
to delegates of the International River Symposium
Monday 12 September
Good morning. I’m delighted to be with you this morning, for the opening of the 2016 International River Symposium in New Delhi. The Australian Government is very proud to be associated with this event.
This is the first time that the Symposium has been held outside of Australia and I congratulate the International River Foundation on the decision to hold the Symposium in India.
This decision accords with an increasing international focus on India and South Asia; and, in light of Australia’s growing partnership with India on water resource management, I can think of no more fitting place to bring the event.
Water challenges in the global context
Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum released its annual Global Risks Report, which named ‘water crises’ as the risk of greatest global concern for the coming decade. Interestingly, the next four risks – from failure of effective climate change responses to social instability – can also all be strongly linked to water issues.
These days, we are all too often reminded of the growing pressures on the world’s rivers and aquifers due to the increasing demands of agriculture, industry and households. Every time we tune into the news, we are faced with evidence of the dire and varied effects of drought, floods and water pollution.
Water in the Australian and South Asian context
As an Australian, I understand only too well the need for sustainable management of our precious water resources. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, with the least amount of water in rivers, the lowest run-off and the smallest area of permanent wetlands of all the continents. Despite Australia’s great size, only six per cent of our landmass is arable. Australia’s environment can only be described as exceptionally fragile.
South Asia also faces its own unique set of water challenges. It has access to only around eight per cent of global water resources for more than 21 per cent of the world’s population. The three major Himalayan river basins – the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra – which support the economies and livelihoods of more than 700 million people are facing huge and complex challenges associated with climate change, natural disasters and hydropower development. And South Asia’s rapidly increasing population, urbanisation and industrialisation are all driving greater demand for water, energy and food.
Water challenges in India
India faces a myriad of water-related challenges. However, the indications are that water scarcity will be the most serious. Over the last two years, more than half of India’s states have experienced the driest and hottest periods on record. Who could forget the 51 degree centigrade week this past May in Rajasthan – many say, India’s hottest ever? Until the arrival of the monsoon, both the agricultural and energy sectors were buckling under India’s drought conditions. Groundwater, which supplies some 85 percent of India’s drinking water and meets more than 60 percent of agricultural needs, is in many regions being over extracted; while in others, its quality is being compromised by pollution and chemical contamination.
These patterns are repeated across the globe and they pose momentous challenges. But, as awareness of these issues is rising, so too is the momentum to respond.
The Symposium and the global water agenda
It is the encounters and exchanges over the next few days that represent the very purpose of the International RiverSymposium (IRS). The IRS provides a platform to: facilitate knowledge sharing and education; showcase ‘best practice’ river basin management approaches; and, importantly, recognise and reward those making a difference. And as an international platform, the Symposium is connecting you not just with each other, but to the global water agenda.
This global agenda has received new impetus through the inclusion of an explicit water goal in the Sustainable Development Goals, and the creation of a High Level Panel on Water, by the UN Secretary-General and the President of the World Bank. Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has accepted the honour of joining ten other Heads of State on the Panel. These leaders are working together to focus international attention and action on Goal Six, which commits to universal access to safe water and sanitation, as well as sustainable use of water resources.
Membership of this Panel will further Australia’s existing efforts to share our significant experience and expertise in sustainable, efficient and equitable water management.
Australian water expertise and cooperation with India
A large part of Australia’s expertise developed in response to our own water crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s single most important water resource and food bowl. Over the last three decades, the Australian Government has invested heavily in a program of water reforms, including: increasing our scientific understanding of the issues; developing the right policy frameworks; and building the required institutions.
This experience and expertise is now being shared across the world – in the US, China, South America, South-East Asia, and of course, South Asia.
Australia is sharing what we can, that might be of most interest and use to others.
But, as with all the countries represented here today, we need to keep experimenting and learning.
I am pleased to say that Australia and India have a strong and growing relationship on water, underpinned by a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in 2009; and renewed in 2014 in front of our respective Prime Ministers. Australia and India share similar Centre-State arrangements for water management, so Australia’s experience in navigating the political landscape of water reform is particularly relevant to India.
Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, along with eWater, has been working with Indian counterparts at Centre and State level, to develop basin planning approaches in the Brahmani Baitarni [brah-MAR-ni bait-AR-ni] basin. More recently, the Australian Water Partnership has been coordinating Australian technical assistance to support the development of India’s National Hydrology Project.
Lastly, Australia is working with countries across South Asia to achieve better management of shared water resources, through our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s twelve-year Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio.
All of this engagement is built around strong and constructive partnerships in many countries. Taken together, these engagements will support improved water, food and energy security across South Asia.
Rivers and aquifers pay no heed to state or national boundaries, yet the livelihoods of communities on both sides of any border depend on their effective management. Cooperation and collaboration between communities and governments will be critical if enduring, sustainable and equitable management of South Asia’s water resources is to be achieved.
Gender and water
Gender equality is another element which is vital to sustainable water management. On this point I would like to congratulate the organisers on the inclusion of the seminar ‘Women and Water’ in this year’s Symposium. Promoting gender equality through all aspects of our development agenda is an important priority for the Australian Government; but there is a particularly important relationship between water and female safety, dignity and economic empowerment. Gender inequalities around land tenure, access to education, roles in government, livelihoods, personal safety and health are all related in various ways to access to water. It is therefore critical that gender equality is prioritised in decision-making and management frameworks related to water. Research indicates that water projects undertaken with social inclusion at their core achieve better outcomes and are more sustainable. Active consideration of gender issues in the water context is therefore deservedly a part of this Symposium.
…and back to the IRS, closing
Events such as the IRS play a critical role in building a common, evidence-based understanding of complex, intertwined issues.
Earlier, I referred to the momentum for change: Each of you here today is a part of the global momentum to safeguard water resources for future generations. Meeting here in New Delhi offers an opportunity to share your different perspectives, experience, knowledge and ideas and to forge new partnerships and approaches to tackling these great challenges.
The sustainable management of water is critical to many of the challenges facing the world’s population in the twenty first century. All of you here today are in some way working towards this huge task and I wish you all success in your exchanges and deliberations over the days to come.