Are there incentives to integrate to land and water management across northern Australia?

Rural conditions Water Australia Northern Territory Queensland Western Australia

The aim of this work is to understand what incentives exist to encourage integration in land and water management across northern Australia. Integration is seen as important in improving planning and management of resources in the context of climate change and development pressure. The north Australian region is made up of three jurisdictions, the two states of Queensland and Western Australia, and the Northern Territory. It is a sparsely populated region, with over a quarter of the Australian estate and only 2% of the nation’s population. However, the region makes a significant contribution to national exports and is recognized for its ecological values, and its prominent Indigenous population who have customary rights to land and water. The region produces over half the nation’s annual runoff during the wet season.


Increasingly there is a focus on northern Australia as the next frontier for irrigation development. A report by the North Australian Land and Water Taskforce in 2009 suggested irrigation could expand by up to 200% in the region, though in a form that is distinct from southern Australia given soil, hydrological and biophysical characteristics of the region. Population is increasing and climate change projections point to increased temperatures and evapotranspiration, as well as more intense rainfall and cyclonic events, and in coastal areas storm surges and erosion, while in inland areas there is predicted greater incidence of drought and bushfire (CSIRO, BOM and BRS 2010a, b). The linear and non linear forces that may shape northern Australia’s landscape highlight the need for integrated land and water management as a tool for adaptation. Integration can improve the coordination of government adaptation programs, as well as efforts between government and non government actors (vertical integration), and encourage coordination between sectors (horizontal integration).

Integration is both a process and an objective, to more closely align the policies and structures of institutions responsible for natural resources management (including water planning and land management). The aspiration is to provide a holistic perspective which takes account of the inter-dependencies between resources, ecosystems and humans in natural resource management. Traditionally in the interests of specialization and transparency, different departments were responsible for managing resources independently (so for example, water, forestry and land were managed separately). However, increasingly it is realized that encouraging coordination to improve efficiency in service delivery, collaborating with stakeholders and addressing environmental problems through multi-disciplinary efforts, offers the promise of improved outcomes and dealing with greater complexity. It is argued that to encourage integration there must be a change in structural arrangements (such as legislative change, creation of a written agreement between agencies and non government actors) and the creation of processes and rules to support integration (such as whether any decisions are binding) (Margerum and Born 2000). Implementing integration is challenging, there are barriers such as departments defending their territory, short term planning, and encouraging integration in practices at the individual level (such as reducing practices that cause salinity or eutrophication, or reducing land clearing to improve biodiversity). Often the individual may bear the costs of broader land and water objectives, and this may prevent integration from taking full effect. Encouraging integration through incentives may overcome this barrier and support efforts to manage land and water holistically.

In northern Australia there are few market based incentives to encourage integration of land and water management. Most attempts at integration have been formal structural or policy efforts to encourage coordination between governments. For example, the Federal Government has sought to improve vertical integration between levels of government in program and service delivery through the creation of regional Natural Resource Management (NRM) bodies, and there have been national efforts to create consistent policies on salinity, (the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality) and promote water reform (the National Water Initiative 2004). In Queensland the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 has established a uniform process for development assessment; and in the Northern Territory there is a private agreement between indigenous land owners and ConocoPhillips to promote traditional fire management that reduces carbon emissions. The use of incentives to better align land and water use among farmers and landholders is mostly informal across the north. The use of Payment for Ecosystem Services and Tradable Rights Allocation System may offer ways to successfully implement integration and improve natural resource management in light of increased development and climate change.

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