Foreign ownership of Australian water: 2022 statistics

The Australian Taxation Office has published its annual report covering the state of its register of foreign ownership of Australian water – with Canadian investors still the largest holders of water entitlements.

The amount of Australian water entitlements with at least some level of foreign ownership continued to increase in the 12 months to June 30, 2022, according to the latest Register of Foreign Ownership of Water Entitlements.

The report, published at the end of August 2023, found the total volume of water entitlements in Australia with a level of foreign ownership increased from 4,389GL in June 2021 to 4,503GL in 2022.

Using the Bureau of Meteorology’s measure of the total volume of water entitlements on issue, which it states to be 39,800GL at June 30, 2022, the percentage of water with a level of foreign ownership also increased, to 11.3 percent (from 11.0 percent the year prior and 10.99 percent in June 2020).

This is the fifth edition of the water register, with data collected by the Australian Taxation Office and reported annually to the Australian Treasury, which then publishes it.

Of this total volume of foreign-held water entitlement, 67.2 percent of it is owned by the top 10 countries. Canada remained the largest holder of water, with 2.1 percent of the total volume, increasing to 833GL from 810GL last year.

The US remained second on 711GL, also up from last year’s total of 626GL. China held onto third place but has seen a significant drop in the amount of water it holds, from 604GL in 2021 to just 323GL in 2022, amid a broader pullback from Chinese investors in the Australian economy.

The UK also saw a drop, from 377GL to 315GL, but was still fourth in the table. Singapore entered the top 10 on 174GL after not featuring in the list last year (when it held interests in 80GL of water entitlements). Belgium dropped out of the top 10.

France, Germany, Hong Kong, Switzerland and the Netherlands rounded out the top 10.

Agriculture is the main use for water entitlements held by Canada, China, the US, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Germany and Singapore, with industry the main use for France and mining the main use for the UK and Switzerland.

Among all owners of water entitlements, agriculture was still the main use at 69.3 percent. The amount of foreign-held water being used for agriculture increased by 9.0 percent year-on-year, from 2,865GL to 3,122GL.

The report also shows that, of the clients recorded on the water register, 89.6 percent of them also feature on the agricultural land register – with just 10.4 percent only featuring on the water register. The clients included in that 10.4 percent use water for other means including manufacturing, tourism, research, mining, energy and trading.

The register shows that approximately 51.5 percent, or 2,320GL, of foreign-held water entitlements are within the Murray-Darling Basin, with the remaining 2,183GL outside the MDB. The amount within the MDB equates to 11.7 percent of the total water entitlement on issue in that region (19,772GL).

Around 3.7 percent (166GL) of all foreign-held water entitlements are in the form of irrigation rights issued by irrigation infrastructure operators, while approximately 8.8 percent (396GL) of all foreign-held entitlements are managed through leases.

The amount of surface water rights owned by foreign interests in the southern Murray-Darling Basin has seen the biggest change over the past three years, increasing by 13 percent since 2020 while northern Murray-Darling Basin surface water and overall groundwater have remained largely flat, with only slight declines in that period.

The amount of water entitlement held by foreign interests increased in every state and territory except Western Australia, which saw a decrease of 13.9 percent (a fall of 139GL).

WA was still the state with the highest percentage of foreign-held water at 19.8 percent, only narrowly beating Queensland where foreign interests own 18.4 percent of that state’s total entitlement. South Australia is the only other state or territory in double digits, with 15.2 percent of its water entitlements in foreign hands.

South Australia saw the largest year-on-year increase in water entitlement purchased by foreign entities, rising from 289GL in 2021 to 413GL in 2022, an increase of 42.9 percent (albeit the volumes of water are much lower than in several other states).