We live on a blue planet abounding in water. But only 2.5 per cent of this water is fresh and over two thirds of it is locked up in glaciers. A tiny fraction makes up our lakes, rivers, wetlands and groundwater - replenished from the oceans, as the earth functions like an enormous water processor pumping trillions of litres each day up into the atmosphere and back onto the land.
Humans already use about half of this annual renewable fresh water resource. Yet over 40 per cent of the world’s population suffers from water shortage, over one billion people lack access to safe drinking water and nearly three billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.
Changes to the global climate have resulted in lower rainfall and higher evaporation in some regions, diminishing surface water supplies. Increased pollution of waterways has compounded the problem further by reducing availability of safe, clean water. Add to this mix the increasing demand for water for food and energy production and there is little wonder we face a global water crisis. Little wonder too that our rivers and wetlands are now considered to be the most threatened ecosystems on the planet.
Australians consider water conservation and management as the single most important environmental issue facing the nation today. From a global perspective, it must be difficult to appreciate why. Even though Australia has the distinction of being the driest inhabited continent, we have abundant freshwater resources relative to our small population size. Australia is in the top 20 per cent of countries in terms of total renewable water resources with more than 10 times the water availability per person compared to India, China, South Africa and even the United Kingdom, and twice as much as the United States. We also have the dam capacity to store more water per capita than any other country. So why the talk of a water crisis?
In part, the problem is that most Australians choose to live where the water isn’t - about two-thirds of the available freshwater is in our tropical north. To compound matters, the water isn’t always there when we want it because our rainfall is highly variable between years.
Australia is without question a land of droughts and flooding rains. However, to a large part, the problem is one of our own making. Australia has one of the highest rates of water use in the world - third after the US and Canada. Although much of this comes from high use in the agricultural sector, our domestic consumption is staggering - the national household average is over 300 litres a day per person.
All jokes aside, the average person in the UK uses about half of the Australian rate - even our American counterparts are less consumptive (around 260 litres per day). Where does it all go? About 40 per cent of the water delivered to our doors is poured onto gardens, 15 per cent goes down the toilet and a similar amount is used in the laundry - less than 10 per cent is used in the kitchen.
Given our deplorable record of excessive water use and the combination of rapid population growth and a few dry years in succession (the sign of things to come in a future climate), it is perhaps not surprising that our cities have arrived at the current water crisis. As storage levels continue to remain low and restrictions on water use become the norm, calls for new dams become more strident.
In the past, we have expected governments to respond by building new dams or mining new groundwater resources. More recently, “nation-building” schemes involving pipelines or canals and even super-tankers have been proposed to tap river water flowing unchecked from our northern tropical rivers. Not only have these proposals been shown to be uneconomical, they are based on the false premise that “water flowing to the sea is wasted”.
Such proposals ignore the considerable ecosystem goods and services provided by natural river flows and the wetlands and estuaries they sustain. Some of these services, including productive recreational and commercial fisheries and tourism, can easily be valued in economic terms. Others that relate to biodiversity, cultural or spiritual values cannot, and we demean them by trying.
As a society, we are becoming increasingly aware that these grand proposals come with unacceptable environmental and social costs - as is apparent with the recent debate over the proposed dam on the Mary River in southeast Queensland. There are smarter ways of dealing with the water problems we face today.
What then can be done to meet this tremendous challenge?
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