Skip to main content

International River Symposium

News, speeches and media


Speaker: Peter Varghese AO, Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


Today, I'd like to talk about water security – an issue that will be an increasingly challenging one for the global community in the 21st Century.

While it isn't always credited with the same importance as traditional geopolitical threats or the major economic trends that are reshaping the global order, water security is one of the most urgent questions we face.

Across the Indo-Pacific, water scarcity is now a critical constraint.

According to the Asian Water Development Outlook, sixty per cent of the world's population lives in Asia, but 80 per cent of Asia's rivers are in poor health. Over-use or poor management of rivers puts economies and human health at risk.

Agriculture today accounts for more than three-quarters of all water withdrawn from water systems in the region.

Demand for food and animal feed crops is projected to grow significantly – maybe even double – out to 2050.

The Pacific, in particular, faces many challenges with respect to freshwater resources – pollution, saline intrusion into groundwater, soil erosion, waste water and so on.

The challenge of managing water use, of guaranteeing that the many nations in our region can all access the water they need for human consumption, agricultural and industrial use, and to preserve their local environments and habitats, is one that could prompt disputes.

The decision by one state to build a dam for irrigation, or to divert water for their use or the use of their citizens.

The decision by another to regulate flows to maximise the potential of a hydroelectric facility.

Or, even more bluntly, the decision by one group – whether a state or a non-state actor – to take physical control of a water asset.

Each of these decisions has major implications for neighbouring states, and for communities living within them.

In my speech today I want to point to some of the specific geostrategic points of friction faced by the global community with respect to water.

And I'll touch on some of the things Australia is doing – particularly through our strategic engagement with other countries, and through our aid program – to help mitigate some of the water security problems we face.

But I want to start with an Australian domestic example, to give you a sense of how challenging it will be to deliver lasting water security in our region.

Water security in federal Australia

On 16 July 1855, on the other side of the world, the ownership of the central part of the largest river system in Australia was decided at the stroke of a pen.

The NSW Constitution, appended to an Imperial Act signed by Queen Victoria, gave the colony that bore her name only very limited powers over the 15th longest river system in the world:

"It Is hereby declared and enacted," the NSW Constitution recorded, "That the whole Watercourse of the said River Murray, from its Source therein described to the Eastern Boundary of the Colony of South Australia, is and shall be within the Territory of New South Wales."

Well, you might say – that's a win for one colony, and a loss for another.

What does it matter, whether one jurisdiction or the other won control, back in 1855, of the River Murray?

The answer is: it matters because that wasn't the end of the question.

In fact, the fate of the River Murray remains contested, in a practical sense, nearly 160 years later.

Not the sovereignty over the river, as such – in our peaceful federation, those questions are well settled.

But almost everything else about the river has been negotiated, re-negotiated, and then negotiated again, over the course of more than a century.

Everything to do with the management, conservation and use of its waters.

With major consequences for the economic success of a very significant part of the Australian population.

Like all rivers, the Murray – or the Murray-Darling, if we think about the basin as a whole – is a major economic and social asset.

It generates 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural income.

It is a source of drinking water for populations across NSW, Victoria, and Adelaide.

And it is a critical part of Australia's eco-system, vital to the natural health of flora and fauna across Southeast Australia.

A century or more of water reform

After Federation, the three states and the Commonwealth took more than a decade to develop a plan to manage the river.

In 1911, the premiers reached agreement in Melbourne.

In September 1914, a century ago this month, then Prime Minister Cook agreed, and the following year, legislation passed the Commonwealth parliament.

What gave particular urgency to the question was a severe drought, from 1911 to 1916, that in some years caused the Murray to dry up.

Everyone had an interest: in a reliable flow of good quality drinking water, in pooling and controlling water for irrigation and flood mitigation, in transport, navigation, electricity generation and so on.

Weirs, locks and dams would be built, over the subsequent decades, that enabled the construction of our Australian society.

As new technologies and ideas have emerged, so did new ways of using the river – and new waves of divergent interests.

The interests of farmers, of industrial users like miners, and of city dwellers.

Of humans on the one hand, but also of livestock, and of native flora and fauna.

Often, the interests of one community were in conflict with another.

In 1926, the question of the laying of power cables across the river – a use not covered by the 1914 agreement – came up.

Likewise, half a century later, faced with dramatically increased salinity and poor drinking water in Adelaide, then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser oversaw a new negotiated Agreement, designed to address water quality.

And again, in the early years of this century, Prime Minister John Howard and the premiers of the time faced the challenge of environmental flows.

So did Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

And here is the point: even in the only continent in the world where everybody lives in one country, where we all speak one language, where we've never had a civil war – even in Australia, water sharing has been perennially fraught.

Now set that dynamic of change and competing interests on an international stage.

How much harder, when the players involved come from different cultures, speak different languages, are at different stages of development and indeed may be historical rivals or difficult neighbours?

Each country and community has its own sense of what ideas and projects are important to its particular national identity.

Its own sense – and interpretation – of history.

Global water security challenges

Before I took on my current position, I was Australia's High Commissioner in India. I saw firsthand the challenge of managing water resources in large river basins, in particular the Ganges and Yamuna.

New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it a point of his term in office to clean up the sacred Ganges River – currently a grossly polluted waterway – within the next five years.

That is an environmental, health and industrial challenge on a major scale.

But Prime Minister Modi also has strategic water questions to resolve.

One of the feeder rivers of the Ganges is the Brahamputra. Nearly 3,000 kilometres long, its headwaters are in Tibet. It runs through India's Arunachal Pradesh before it joins with the Ganges, and leads out to the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh.

If you go back to the Brahmaputra's source, you will see China is building hydroelectric dams high on the Tibetan plateau.

That is upstream from where the Brahmaputra becomes vital for Indian agricultural production on the Assam plains.

And upstream from where it – with the Ganges – becomes the lifeblood of Bangladesh.

The importance of the Brahmaputra to the many, varied communities living along its edges is clear.

Yet China and India have no firm model or agreement for managing the use of its waters – leaving it a potential source of friction between the world's two largest and fastest-rising powers.

That said, senior officials of the two countries are meeting and talking it through.

Likewise, think about the Mekong.

Consider the geostrategic and economic challenges with six different countries – all with multiple, important, plans for using its water.

China, which is not a member of the Mekong River Commission, has planned or already built more than 20 dams to provide clean power, essential for its growth.

As many of you well know, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand have also built dams and they remain an option for Cambodia.

Clearly, it's critical that all the nations of the Mekong work cooperatively for the benefit of all the people of the region.

A lack of transparency between nations is a troubling prospect -
Vietnam, the world's second largest rice exporter, and the 65 million people in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos dependent on the Mekong's fishing, irrigation and aquaculture.

Land use is changing rapidly, as economies modernise and develop new industries, like biofuels.

Energy demand is continuing to grow.

Water security challenges are playing out across the Indo-Pacific, but these issues are not confined to our region.

In the Middle East, the Jordan River remains central to the disputes between Israel, Jordan and their neighbours.

At the same time, Sana'a in Yemen risks becoming the first capital in the modern world to run out of a viable water supply.

Ethiopia is building a $4 billion hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile, near its border with Sudan, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

That name gives you a sense of what I mean by national identity – this is a dam that isn't conceived just as a piece of infrastructure, but a part of a sense of national self, not unlike the Snowy Mountains Scheme in the Australian context.

But on the other side of the border, the proposal has been steadfastly opposed by Egypt, which argues its rights to the water were set out in a number of 20th Century legal arrangements.

Cairo points to treaties from the 1920s and 1950s that – it says – gives Egypt rights to the waters of the Nile.

In times of war, water resources become obvious focal points – consider the recent attempt by ISIS to take over Iraq's Mosul Dam.

But even outside of periods of conflict, water can be a source of friction between states with very different perspectives, and very different needs.

Stronger relationships and regional architecture

That is the problem, but – you might ask – what is Australia to do about it?

There are two things, principally, that we already do.

Firstly, we do many of the same things for water security as we do to guarantee and strengthen Australia's broader national security.

We work hard to strengthen our key bilateral relationships, to build mutual understanding and channels of communication.

Australia values all of our bilateral friendships, but focuses particularly on our relationships with the United States, China, Japan, India, Indonesia and Korea.

Together, these are our most important security and economic partners. Long-standing historical allies like the United States, vital economic partners like Japan, China and Korea, and increasingly important democratic partners like Indonesia and India – all are vital players in maintaining a global web of security and economic progress.

Building our bilateral ties with these six countries and others is an investment in future security, helping us build the habits of consultation and dialogue that are essential for managing tensions, whether over water or anything else.

Regionally, too, we work to embed the regional architecture that performs the same role.

APEC, ASEAN and the East Asia Summit – these are the vital institutions for ensuring regional understanding.

The East Asia Summit represents a potential anchor for our region's peace. Still in its early phase of development as an institution – it was only two years ago that we helped secure the US as a member of the grouping – the EAS stands to serve as a stabiliser for our region in challenging times.

I believe it can help manage some of the inevitable tensions among those major power relationships.

Likewise, on a global scale, the G20 which Australia currently chairs and the United Nations on whose Security Council we sit as a non-permanent member are important institutions that allow countries with very different perspectives to come together on common ground.

Investments in water through Australian aid

We can also work to build a more robust future through our aid program.

In her June major policy statement on aid and development, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop defined the objectives of Australia's aid program as to promote prosperity, reduce poverty and enhance stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

She identified agriculture, fisheries and water as one of six priorities for investment, reflecting not just our expertise and strengths, but also regional barriers to growth, and key poverty challenges.

Australia's has a century of intensive experimentation and learning on water, culminating in the last two decades of substantial reforms to our own water governance.

Australia will assist partner countries to better manage water resources through sharing Australia's world-renowned policy and technical expertise.

Improved water governance, increased public accountability and effective regulations will help governments in the region to provide basic water supply and sanitation services to their citizens, while protecting the sources of freshwater and maintaining river health.

The aid program will give high priority to developing innovative models for public-private sector partnerships that leverage finance and ideas from a wide range of sources to achieve development outcomes.

Recognising that Australia has substantial expertise and technology to offer countries in the region, the Government is also currently exploring the option to establish an Australian Water Centre, connecting Australian public and private sector water experience and expertise to demand from other governments and multilateral agencies.

Australia has long worked with the Mekong River Commission.

Expanding this cooperation with countries in the region will remain a high priority.

Australia's national water modelling platform, SOURCE, has proved itself in Australia, and is now adding value to hydrological modelling, water accounting and decision-making by our partners in India, Pakistan, Nepal, China and other Mekong countries.

In South Asia, Australia is working with the United Kingdom and Norway in a World Bank-managed South Asia Water Initiative, addressing water resource management challenges on the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus.

In November 2013, Minister Bishop announced a second phase of the India Australia Water Technology Partnership. The second phase will extend the partnership to Indian states, building on the fruitful partnership with the Indian Ministry of Water Resources.

And in the Pacific, Australian funding through the Pacific Regional Infrastructure Project has supported twinning programs under the auspices of the Pacific Water and Waste Association. Under the program, two NSW utilities, Hunter Water and Mid-Coast Water, have provided training and technical advice to the Water Authority of Fiji and Tonga Water Board respectively.


Ladies and gentlemen, water security is one of the many pressing challenges we face.

It is far from our only security challenge, and often, more immediate, dramatic security challenges understandably capture our attention.

The battle for control of the Mosul and Haditha Dams in Iraq is certainly part of the story of recent months. But, for good reason, the response to ISIS has been a much broader one, encompassing military efforts to blunt their offensives and humanitarian efforts to support the people they threaten and displace.

But water security is one of the suite of critical long-term issues with which we will have to grapple in this century.

Relationships will be – as in other areas – of critical importance. When there are conflicting demands for water assets, it will be our willingness, as an international community, to collaborate and negotiate, that will help maintain peace.

Along the way, supporting economic growth and reducing poverty – the twin goals of our aid program – will help mitigate the challenges of water security.

Australia still has a lot to learn, but we also have much to share.

Australia's experience in managing complex water challenges in the face of water scarcity, and our strong policy and technical expertise, is globally recognised.

Our experience in managing our largest river basin, the Murray-Darling, draws international interest, not least because it has been – by virtue of our sometimes problematic federal structure! – a century-old negotiating exercise.

Hopefully it is a pointer to a future in which we can – despite national, cultural and linguistic differences – peacefully work our way through the many, competing water interests ahead.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 16 September 2014
Back to top