Murray-Darling water a focus of international legal interest

Published 06 January 2011

kennedy_paisleyAn international meeting at the University of New England this week has revealed that lawyers involved in the regulation of water use all round the world are looking with great interest at conflict over the management of water resources in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin.

The “Water Law” colloquium, on Wednesday the 5th and Thursday the 6th of January, was hosted by the UNE School of Law’s Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law (AgLaw Centre). It brought experts in water law from Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, Iceland, South Africa and the United States together with their Australian counterparts to discuss the role of law in addressing conflicts over water. “The rest of the world is looking to Australia and the Murray-Darling Basin,” said Professor Denise Fort from the School of Law at the University of New Mexico, USA.

Professor Fort said the inclusion of ecosystem management in plans for the regulation of water use in the Murray-Darling Basin was particularly exciting, and she emphasised the importance of ongoing scientific experiments to inform the framing of regulations flexible enough to take account of variable environmental factors.

She also emphasised the importance of community participation in the regulation process. And it was this “human” dimension of water regulation that was the focus of the UNE colloquium, titled “Water Law: Through the Lens of Conflict”. “The Murray-Darling Basin draft plan has largely neglected that dimension,” said Dr Amanda Kennedy, Deputy Director of the AgLaw Centre and one of the organisers of the colloquium. During the two days of the colloquium, and for several days of more informal talks beforehand, the participants discussed how laws could address the “human dimension” more effectively.

Speakers at the colloquium examined water law and its social implications in relation to subjects such as climate change, the environment, agricultural water use, trans-boundary water flows, property rights, international waters, and energy and mining. Among the presenters were Professor Du Qun, Deputy Director of the Research Institute of Environmental Law at Wuhan University, China, speaking on “Trans-boundary water flows, conflict and the rule of law in China”, Kristín Haraldsdóttir from the Institute on Natural Resources Law at Reykjavik University, Iceland (“Property rights to water and social conflict – an example from Iceland”), and Janice Gray from the Faculty of Law at the University of NSW (“Groundwater and property: a site of contestation”).

Janice Gray discussed the still unresolved issue of groundwater as “property”, and the implications of the fact that “people are now facing the realities of the over-allocation of groundwater”. “The ‘out-of-sight-out-of-mind’ attitude towards the use of groundwater is going to have to change,” she said.

UNE’s Professor Paul Martin, the Director of the AgLaw Centre and the convener of the colloquium, said that the discussions during the meeting would form the basis of “significant inputs” to a large international conference in South Africa in August. Papers from the colloquium will be published in the first issue of the new International Journal of Rural Law and Policy to be published mid-year by UNE’s School of Law.

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here shows UNE’s Dr Amanda Kennedy with one of the presenters at the colloquium, Professor Richard Paisley from the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia in Canada.