Water markets were first introduced in Australia in the 1980s, and water entitlement and allocation trade have been increasingly adopted by both private individuals and government.Irrigators turned to water markets (particularly for allocation water) to manage water scarcity and Governments to acquire water for the environment (particularly water entitlements. It is expected that further adoption of water markets will be essential for coping with future climate change impacts. This report reviews the available literature related to the relationship between southern Murray-Darling Basin (sMDB) water markets and anticipated climate change effects; the economic, social and environmental impacts of water reallocation through markets; and future development requirements to enhance positive outcomes in these areas.

The use of water markets by irrigators can involve both transformational (selling all water entitlements and relocating or switching to dryland) and incremental (e.g. buying water allocations/entitlements, using carry-over, changing water management techniques) adaptation to climate change. Barriers to both adaptations include: current and future climate uncertainty; poor (or non-existent) market signals; financial constraints; information barriers; mental processing limits; inherent attitudes toward or beliefs about climate change; institutional barriers and disincentives to adapt.

A better understanding of trade behaviour, especially strategic trade issues that can lead to market failures, will improve the economic advantages of water trade. There remains community concerns about the impacts of transfers away from regional areas such as reduced community spending and reinvestment; population losses; loss of jobs; declining taxation base, loss of local services and businesses, regional production changes; and legacy issues for remaining farmers. However, it is hard to disentangle these impacts from those caused by ongoing structural change in agriculture. Rural communities that are most vulnerable to water scarcity under climate change and water trade adjustment include smaller irrigation-dependent towns. Communities less dependent on irrigation are better able to adapt. Further, where environmental managers use water markets to deal with water variability and to ensure ecological benefits, irrigators are concerned about its impact on their traditional use of markets to manage scarcity.

Climate change and water scarcity management are intertwined, suggesting that policy, institutional and governance arrangements to deal with such issues should be similarly structured. Water users will adapt, either out of necessity or opportunity. The cost of that adaptation at individual, regional and national levels—particularly to future water supply variability—can be mitigated by the consideration of the existing advantages from future opportunities for water marketing in Australia.

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