Australia: Public-private cooperation in the preservation of Gwydir wetlands in New South Wales (#254)
The 200,000ha Gwydir wetlands in northern New South Wales (NSW) are a terminal inland delta of the Gwydir River. These ecologically important wetlands lie in the heart of one of Australia’s largest agricultural areas, and have been suffering for the past 20 years due to water extraction for irrigation, most notably for cotton growing.
Following completion of the Copeton Dam on the Gwydir River in 1976, irrigation schemes grew rapidly to the point where demand outstripped the capacity of the dam by almost one-fifth. The upstream diversion of water for irrigation had a significant effect on downstream pastoralists, whose grazing productivity declined by up to 73%. The drying-out of wetlands also saw a marked increase in cereal cropping on these areas, resulting in a further wetland loss. The wetlands are also a vital breeding ground for 165 bird species, many of which are classed as endangered or vulnerable.
With the help of the World Wildlife Fund Australia and the National Parks Association of NSW, private landholders listed their combined area as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. This in turn led to legislation safeguarding the supply of water for the cattle, the irrigation schemes and for the breeding birds, all of which were dependent on the same source. A formal plan called the Gwydir Water Sharing Plan is being developed and is expected to include agreed management principles and objectives, clarified responsibilities, and an agreed conflict resolution process.
- Gaining formal recognition of the biodiversity values of a floodplain area, whether through Ramsar listing or some other mechanism, can provide leverage within catchment or river basin management frameworks for maintaining appropriate water allocations and flow regimes.
- It is important to have an ‘honest broker’ in processes attempting to secure significant conservation outcomes among private sector stakeholders.
- The Ramsar listing was made possible, in large part, through the trust that was developed between the landholders and the WWF project officer.
- Protected area designation can have major benefits beyond the area boundaries.
Importance of case for IWRM
This case demonstrates how gaining formal recognition of the ecological importance of an area can lead to the security of both the quantity and quality of a water resource for use for cattle grazing, agricultural irrigation schemes and wildlife. The situation is unusual as it is uncommon for private landholders to undertake such an initiative.
Ms. Sarah Moles