Howard’s water plan faces resistance

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The Australian government’s A$10bn ($8bn, €6bn, £4bn) plan to overhaul the drought-ridden country’s inefficient water management system will face stiff state resistance on Friday at a meeting of state and federal leaders.

The plan, proposed a month ago by John Howard, the prime minister, is the most ambitious attempt yet to tackle Australia’s growing water shortage. However, its success hinges upon Mr Howard’s persuading state governments, which have authority over water policy, to hand over most of that power to the federal government, especially the management of the Murray-Darling basin, Australia’s most important water resource.

Mr Howard is hoping to break the impasse today at a special water summit in Canberra with the premiers of the four states that are most affected by his plan, but three of them will be offering counter proposals that would keep authority over water at the state level.

Steve Bracks, premier of the state of Victoria, has joined a growing chorus of politicians who have attacked the proposals for the Murray-Darling basin, which stretches from Queensland in the north-east to Adelaide in the south. His own plan would feature continued state control of the basin.

Mike Rann and Peter Beattie, the premiers of South Australia and Queensland respectively, will present their own joint alternative plan. “It’s up to him [Mr Howard] to accept what is reasonable and fair,” Mr Beattie said on Thursday.

New South Wales is the only state that has so far indicated that it would be willing to hand over water management responsibility to Canberra.

Mr Howard is trying to improve his environmental credentials in the run-up to federal elections later this year. He has come under attack from Kevin Rudd, the new leader of the Labor opposition, over his refusal to sign the Kyoto treaty on climate change. Mr Howard’s government announced this week that Australia would ban traditional incandescent electric light bulbs in favour of more energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs.

With the water plan, Mr Howard’s Liberal-led coalition government is dealing with state governments all controlled by Labor but with conflicting economic interests. Ahead of Friday’s meeting, he urged state premiers not to let the plan get “caught up in the politics of a federal election year’’. But Mr Rann retorted: “Mr Howard is more concerned about his political health than the health of the river.’’

A key part of Mr Howard’s plan foresees investing almost A$6bn in new infrastructure such as water pipes in an attempt to save 3,000 gigalitres of water a year. As a sweetener, to regain control over the Murray-Darling basin, Canberra would set aside A$3bn to buy back water licences from irrigators.

Some of the state leaders instead want a new independent body to be put in charge of water planning and have expressed concerns about the sharing of funding among the states. They have presented alternative ways to divert water from neighbouring rivers into the Murray-Darling system.

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