Food and Water Futures

The Food and Water Futures program explores the practical challenges and policy opportunities of meeting resource needs to support equitable distribution and prosperous economic activity.

Particular foci include policies relating to carbon neutral systems and supply chains, safe and sustainable food production, efficient water use and ‘smart’ infrastructures, quality monitoring and control, and meeting the resource needs of a warming, populous world.

For more information, contact the Food and Water Futures research program co-directors:

  • Assessing water markets around the world

    By Sarah Ann Wheeler

    Around the world there is growing interest in establishing water markets as a mechanism to share water and to help meet the challenge of water scarcity. But when and where is a region ready to implement a water market? These questions are answered in Water Markets – A Global Assessment, a new book edited by Sarah Ann Wheeler. It brings together an up-to-date overview of water market development around the world and assesses the conditions under which successful markets can emerge. Here Sarah shares some of the book’s key findings.

    Water is basic to sustainable development. Water scarcity is central to many of our most pressing issues regarding water security and justice. Given the importance that water has in addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the fact that water is intrinsically linked to many targets and outcomes across most of the goals, understanding the tools available to address both current and future water scarcity is essential. The challenge will involve reconciling water supply and demand as water extractions increase. Water issues are often described as a ‘wicked problem’  because they have multiple, interconnected causes; whilst having many possible solution perspectives (Quiggin 2019).

    Turning from supply to demand

    Solutions to water scarcity fall broadly into two categories: supply augmentation and demand management. Supply augmentation generally involves infrastructure or engineering solutions to increase water supply (eg, dams, irrigation infrastructure and the construction of weirs) or substitution (eg, desalinated water) – and has traditionally been the most promoted method to address water scarcity. Water demand-side management includes educational measures (eg, information and campaigns), regulatory and/or planning processes (eg, legislation and regulation) and economic incentives (e.g. pricing, subsidies, and/or property right changes that allow water markets) (Wheeler & Garrick, 2020). Ideally both demand and supply responses should be integrated to address water security.

    Given that the choice of cost-effective supply augmentation projects is diminishing around the world, increasingly water demand management – and in particular water markets – will need to be further considered. As a water economist, some of the most common questions I am asked include:
    – When and where is a region ready to implement water markets? And
    – What advice do practitioners need on how suitable their jurisdiction and water situation is for water markets?

    Benefits and costs

    Water markets are a critical policy tool that can be used for managing scarce supplies. Both informal and formal water markets exist all around the world, but their use and application remain relatively limited in many countries and the creation of water markets is often contested.

    Formal water markets involve the transformation of water public property rights to one where some water use rights are divisible, transferable, privately managed that can be bought or sold (in whole or part) (Griffin et al, 2013). Informal water markets involve water users in a particular area sharing a water resource in some form, without regulations governing that sharing.

    Economists, in particular, emphasise the power of markets to effectively and efficiently reallocate resources. On the other hand, there are many critics of water markets who argue that ‘water is too different to sell’ and that it is ‘immoral’ to trade water. Often water markets are blamed for every ill possible, and arguments often become mired with other privatisation arguments in general (Grafton et al, 2016). For example, in Australia, water markets have been blamed as the reason why the environment is suffering; why farmers end up leaving farms; for increased corporate ownership and takeover, and for increased immoral behaviour.

    Such arguments against water markets are not always grounded in truth and facts, have not read the extensive academic literature that exists and ignore all the many varied benefits that markets provide. In particular, markets have been shown to be a very strong risk management tool for farmers – and in an era of climate change and substantial reductions in water supplies – this can be critical. As it often is, the truth about water markets lies somewhere in the middle of all these arguments – it has both benefits and costs/drawbacks. The question then becomes: Where can water markets be best used and applied, and what is needed for their successful implementation?  

    Being ready for markets

    In previous research , I sought, along with colleagues, to establish a water-market-readiness framework to establish the steps needed for regions to be able to implement water markets (Wheeler et al. 2017). This framework listed three crucial stages for water markets.

    Stage I involves establishing enabling institutions. For example, this includes having available information on current and sustainable (capped) water extractions, hydrology, regulations, legislation and monitoring to monitor and govern water markets.

    Stage II involves facilitating trade, which includes assessing the benefits of trade, developing water registers and reducing transaction costs.

    Stage III of the framework involves regions that have had water markets in place for a considerable amount of time and are now in a loop of reinforcement and improvement. It involves scanning for issues and problems, and implementing reform to address issues, as well as continuing to reduce transaction costs wherever possible.

    The southern Murray-Darling Basin in Australia represents a region that is at Stage III of the water-market-readiness framework. It is important to note that water markets take time to get right. It has taken formal water markets in the Murray-Darling Basin decades to reach this point. 

    Water Markets: A Global Assessment applies a water-market-readiness framework in 28 regions, 20 countries and 6 continents.

    Water markets around the world

    More widely, how are water markets performing around the world? In my new edited book: Water Markets: A Global Assessment , 41 authors applied this water-market framework in 28 regions, 20 countries and 6 continents (Wheeler, 2021).

    Key findings of this assessment included the following:

    • Majority of regions/countries in Africa and Asia have very little of the key fundamental market institutional conditions needed to implement water markets successfully. Only case study areas in China and Zimbabwe indicated that they were anywhere close to reaching Stage II of the water market framework
    • Europe and South America also do not have many of the fundamental factors needed for successful formal water markets. For example, France, Italy, Spain, UK and Chile need to work on issues such as unbundling of rights; transferable rights; understanding trade impacts; implementing a hard extraction cap (albeit England and Chile have made some progress in this area); monitoring and enforcing water extraction; trustworthy water registers and trade and market information. As such, Europe countries were more likely to be at Stage I of the framework, with Spain, UK and Chile rated at around Stage II (but with significant gaps still remaining).
    • North America and Oceania regions represent the most advanced water markets in the world. However, these countries can also show great variety in water market development. For example, regions within the US are at very different stages of water market development, with the same existing for Australia. As such, overall regions within these countries have reached Stages II to III of the water market framework.

    Overall, the book’s assessment suggests that the widespread implementation of formal water markets is not yet possible for many countries, as they have not achieved the first steps of establishing property rights, water extraction caps, strong independent water institutions and impartial governance. Without these elements in place formal trade may not only not solve problems of water scarcity, indeed it might even make the situation worse.

    Some of the outstanding water issues that countries have to deal with include:

    a) Establishing sustainable (and adaptable) water extraction caps: The importance of establishing sustainable water extraction (groundwater and surface-water) caps is critical.

    b) Water accounting: basic hydrological information such as sound measurement of all inflows; water consumption; recoverable return flows; and flows-to-sinks return flows, need to be included in a water accounting framework. Another side of water accounting also involves removing many subsidies (in either resource use or for irrigation infrastructure provision) that are present in regions that distort both decision-making and efficient water extraction.

    c) Measuring, monitoring and enforcing extractions: The continual development of satellite and thermal technology in measuring water extraction and consumption may provide one of the most cost-effective measure for countries to adopt in the future, and is being used in a few countries currently.

    d) Cultural values: The cultural values of rivers of indigenous owners in various countries will need much greater attention going forward, in terms of both initial distribution of property rights and in reallocation in other areas.

    The lessons above apply the most to countries or regions developing water markets, but many elements also apply to regions with the most sophisticated water markets. Water market institutions represent a continual journey of adaptation as external factors change.

    Although water markets bring numerous benefits, they need very careful implementation and they only exist within institutions and structures which allow and govern the transfer of water. The most sophisticated water markets in the world in the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia highlight the need for continual adaptation and adjustment of water markets, as has been suggested by the reforms suggested by the ACCC  and the Productivity Commission  in 2021.

    Given that widespread formal trade may not be possible for many countries around the world, there is an important role for increased informal water market trading. Increased promotion of informal markets, and simple ‘swapping’ of water, should be encouraged to promote economic efficiencies. Setting up simple ‘water trade’ exchanges (versus a widespread formal water market) is also important.

    Looking ahead

    In the future, the continual evolution and development of satellite and thermal technology will help in both monitoring and measuring both surface and groundwater extractions, and consumptive use. However, this will need to be coupled with enforcement, physical monitoring checks, unbundled and transferable rights.

    Other future developments in the water market space will include further institutional development, consideration of cultural property rights, the interconnectedness of water resources, human behavioural consequences from implementing markets, and better ways of dealing with market failure issues such as externalities.

    They are not perfect and they take considerable effort to establish, however, continual adaptation will ensure that water markets, in conjunction with other supply and demand management policy water tools, remain a robust and important tool for policy makers to use to address water scarcity around the world.



    ACCC (2021). Murray-Darling Basin Water Markets Inquiry – Final Report. Canberra.

    Grafton RQ, J Horne & SA Wheeler (2016). On the marketisation of water: Evidence from the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia. Water Resources Management 30: 913-926.

    Griffin RC, DE Peck & J Maestu (2013). Introduction: Myths, principles and issues in water trading. In J. Maestu (Ed.). Water Trading and Global Water Scarcity: International experiences (pp. 1-14). RFF Press Water Policy Series.

    Productivity Commission (2021). Water Trading and Markets: Supporting Paper B, National Water Reform 2020 Inquiry Report no. 96, Canberra.

    Quiggin J (2019). Economics in two lessons: why markets work so well, and why they can fail so badly. Princeton, NJ, United States: Princeton University Press.

    Wheeler SA, A Loch, L Crase, M Young & R Grafton (2017). Developing a water market readiness assessment framework. Journal of Hydrology, 552: 807-820.

    Wheeler SA, & DE Garrick (2020). A tale of two water markets in Australia: lessons for understanding participation in formal water markets. Oxford Review of Economic Policy 36: 132-153.

    Wheeler SA (Ed) (2021). Water Markets A Global Assessment. Edward Elgar Publishing, London 

    Dr Sarah Ann Wheeler is a Professor of Water Economics with the School of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Adelaide and is the immediate past President for the Australasian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society. Her research interests include water markets; irrigated farming, climate change, Murray-Darling Basin, organic farming, water scarcity and mental health.

    The views expressed in this article belong to the individual authors and do not represent the views of the Global Water Forum, the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance, UNESCO, the Australian National University, World Bank, Oxford University, or any of the institutions to which the authors are associated. Please see the Global Water Forum terms and conditions here .

    This article was originally published in the global water forum  on 16 November 2021.

  • COP26: Why keeping 1.5 alive is critical for a reef ‘in danger’

    By Ella Vallelonga.

    Earlier this year, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee recommended   the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to climate-induced risk. They stated, there is “no possible doubt that the property is facing ascertained danger  .” 

    The recommendation followed a review of policy and risk mitigation approaches, including the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, the Cumulative Impact Management Policy, the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan (2017-2022) and the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2019. These reports determined the long-term outlook of the reef to have declined steadily since the initial ‘in danger’ recommendation in 2015.

    The final decision to list the reef as world heritage ‘in danger,’ was delayed until February 2022. As a result, UNESCO advised that the Australian Government urgently accelerate climate action in line with the Paris Agreement.

    This call for climate action came prior to COP26 , when Australia had no credible emissions reductions targets, nor plan to deliver net zero. With new reporting  suggesting that only 2 per cent of Great Barrier Reef corals remain unaffected by bleaching, the question is: are the commitments made at COP26 ambitious enough to save the GBR?

    What does COP26 mean for the reef?

    COP26, or the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, has aimed to unite global leaders in the fight to secure positive climate futures. The summit, flagged as the most critical climate event of the decade, proposes to ramp up global action to ensure the 1.5 and “well below” 2 degrees  targets of the Paris Agreement, and the objectives of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, are achieved.

    With tropical GBR corals exceedingly sensitive to elevated sea surface temperatures and marine heatwaves, commitments made at COP26 to keep 1.5 alive  are critical to not only managing global temperature, but reef wellbeing.

    As temperature averages rise, so does the rate and intensity of events of mass coral bleaching . According to Distinguished Professor Terry Hughes and Professor Sean Connolly, instances of mass bleaching  in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017 and 2020 have caused the Great Barrier Reef to resemble “a checkerboard of bleached reefs.”

    So, what exactly has Australia committed to?

    Despite being criticised as a major climate laggard for lack of credible Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and a lousy net zero plan relying on a “gross manipulation ” of data, Australia remains determined to not strengthen its 2030 target. Instead, the government has reiterated the insufficient, Abbott-era commitment   to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 rates by 2030.

    Sporting a clear lack of ambition, Australian leaders are adamant on pushing the narrative that Australia “meets and beats ” its global commitments. With emissions projections  suggesting, Australia will exceed its 2030 targets by 9 per cent, carrying us to 35 per cent below 2005 emissions levels by 2030.

    By this logic, commitment to emissions reductions targets are trivial if we are to beat them anyways. This means that there is little to no accountability to ensure Federal measures are taken to ensure this target is in fact exceeded, or to commit to stronger targets in the future.  

    Regardless of this projected 9 per cent lead, The Climate Council still recommends  that Australia cut emissions to 75 per cent below 2005 rates by 2030 and reach net zero by 2035. This is the kind of ambition the reef deserves.

    Looking at our Plan to Deliver Net Zero: The Australian Way, we have drastically missed the mark. The plan, spearheaded by the coalition, unsurprisingly still relies on maintaining fossil fuel economies and subsiding new technology, for instance carbon capture and storage, rather than supporting adaptation, implementing new policies, or easing the transition to renewable energy.

    Prior to COP26, warning by the UN stressed that current NDCs would not be sufficient in mitigating 1.5 degrees warming, let alone in preventing 2.7  degrees of warming.

    Despite Australia’s blatant inaction, new long-term commitments in light of COP26 are now projected to bring warming to 1.9  degrees. This temperature doesn’t quite meet the “well below” criteria of the Paris Agreement, but it is a positive leap forward from catastrophic warming.

    What exceeding 1.5 degrees means for the GBR

    In order to keep 1.5 alive, COP26 needs to see NDCs and net zero commitments continue to be updated and enhanced. In pushing for a climate justice, developed countries need to be held accountable for their inaction, while developing countries need to be supported in their adaptation and transition towards climate resilience.

    Although 1.9 degrees seems like a win, the reality is, the rates of GBR survival past the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 are grim. For the GBR, this 1.5 degrees means a 70-90 per cent  loss of reef life, with 2 degrees of average warming meaning a 99 per cent decline of coral reef ecosystems.

    The Great Barrier Reef, despite indecision is ‘in danger’ and without swift climate action, the outcome remains the same. Exceeding Paris Agreement targets for the GBR will mean a loss of life, of biodiversity, of meaning, livelihood, knowledge, identity, and culture. There is no “well below” 2 degrees for the reef, at 1.5 we lose it.

    And so, the success or failure of COP26 places the reef in a critical zone swinging between living and dying. The COP21 Paris Agreement set 1.5 as the deadline, the question is can COP26 stop us before we “meet and beat” it.

    Ella Vallelonga is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology & Development Studies at the University of Adelaide. Her research examines intersections between ecological loss, adaptation and social understandings of water, with attention to water-related conflict and human-reef relations. 

    This article was originally published in the Fifth Estate  on 11 November 2021.

  • Grape growers are adapting to climate shifts early – and their knowledge can help other farmers

    by Bill Skinner, University of Adelaide; Douglas Bardsley, University of Adelaide, and Georgina Drew, University of Adelaide

    It’s commonly assumed Australia’s farmers and cities are divided over climate issues. This is not true. After all, farmers are on the front line and face the realities of our shifting climate on a daily basis.

    In regional Australia, our research has found many farmers are already responding to climate change threats and finding ways to adapt.

    Wine grape growers are among those who are responding fastest. That’s because their crop is extremely sensitive to weather and climatic shifts. Growers have had to learn quickly how to adapt to safeguard their industry. Think pruning for better canopy management, growing cover crops to keep the ground cooler and promote soil health, and reducing how much water they use in irrigation.

    Establishing a vineyard takes a long time – up to five years until the vines produce a full yield. Grape growers have to take a medium to long term perspective to farming, weighing up forecasts about climate change and market trends a decade or more in advance. Successful vignerons recognise the need to work together in a coordinated way to achieve positive outcomes. Maintaining local agency is crucial, and relinquishing this can open up new risks.

    Australia’s broader farming community will have to draw on similar adaptations – preparing for less rainfall in some areas, or finding ways to capture the enormous but less frequent rain bursts predicted for other areas.

    Why have wine grape growers moved early?

    Drip irrigation in a vineyard

    Vineyards have had to reduce water use

    Wine grape growers have had to act early because wine has enormous market differentiation based on variety. In turn, choice of varieties depends heavily on water and soil.

    During the 1990s and 2000s, Australian wine exports boomed. The lion’s share of the cheap and cheerful Aussie wines bound for supermarket shelves around the world came from grapes from extensive irrigated vineyards throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, where grapes are grown relatively cheaply with lots of sunshine and lots of water. But the days of water abundance are no longer guaranteed.

    Our research in South Australia’s Langhorne Creek wine region has found climate change is having most impact in respect to water.

    Historically, this region has relied on groundwater or surface irrigation from seasonal floods along local watercourses. But as groundwater suffered from over-extraction, the aquifers became saltier.

    In response, farmers sought to minimise reliance on groundwater. Some vineyards even installed desalination plants to make groundwater usable again. Community leaders spearheaded a push to cut their own allocations and seek supply from nearby Lake Alexandrina, which the Murray and other rivers empty into.

    Then came the 2001–2009 Millennium Drought, which led to the shallow lake beginning to dry up through lack of inflow. The crisis of these drought years is seared into regional memory. Without a clear end in sight, many began to wonder if the region had a future.

    The community backed a new private-public pipeline drawing directly from the Murray. When the new pipeline opened in 2009, it gave Langhorne Creek an important boost to water security. But it did so at the expense of tying its future directly to that of the Murray Darling Basin.

    Now, farming in Langhorne Creek is at the mercy of everything that happens upstream. After two years of La Niña rains, there’s plenty of water in the system. For the time being, things are good – but farmers know better than most that good times don’t last.

    In response to the broader shifts, many grape growers have increased plantings of southern Mediterranean varieties such as tempranillo or vermentino, better suited to hotter and drier conditions than traditional mainstays like shiraz and cabernet sauvignon grapes.

    To date, Langhorne Creek offers an excellent example of how a strong community can act effectively in the face of environmental threat. As the region becomes integrated into the wider basin, there will be new challenges in navigating basin-wide management policies, a broadening bureaucratisation of decision making, and falling public trust in basin management.

    While the technological fix of a new pipeline has helped grape growers overcome an immediate water supply issue, it does not defeat broader climate risk. What it does show is the need for forward thinking. The task for current and future farmers is to remain vigilant in confronting new climate risks, and responding through strong and coordinated local action and political cooperation. The Conversation

    Bill Skinner, Postdoctoral research associate, University of Adelaide; Douglas Bardsley, Associate professor, University of Adelaide, and Georgina Drew, Associate Professor and Program Director, Stretton Institute, University of Adelaide

    This article was originally published in The Conversation on 22 June 2022.