Thirst Case Scenario Water Management

Saturday, 01 February 2003


    Unless serious attention is paid to the world's water resources, there are going to be more parched throats around the world, reports Fiona Stewart.

    Thirst case scenario

    Unless serious attention is paid to the world's water resources, there are going to be more parched throats around the world, reports Fiona Stewart

    It's easy ... just turn on the tap. Fancy something more upmarket--supermarkets have aisles full of mineral water. In Sydney, one shop sells water, just water, hundreds of brands of mineral water from around the world. So what 'ss the problem? The problem is that two-thirds of all the people on earth use less than 60 litres of water a day. Australians use more than twice that during a single shower which puts us among the biggest users of water in the world. In Africa, an average Masai family survives on just four litres of water per person per day while a Los Angeles family uses almost 500 litres per person per day. Globally, some people have to pay as much as 20 per cent of their income to private water vendors to ensure an adequate supply of potable water. Potable does not necessarily mean that the water tastes good.

    The world's six billion people are already appropriating 54 per cent of all the accessible freshwater contained in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers. By 2025 humankind's share will be 70 per cent. This estimate reflects the impact of population growth alone. If per capita consumption of water res ources continues to rise at its current rate, humankind could be using over 90 per cent of all available freshwater within 25 years.

    On a global basis, 69 per cent of all water drawn for human use is soaked up by agriculture (mostly irrigation); industry acc ounts for 23 per cent and domestic use accounts for about 8 per cent. These global averages vary a great deal between regions. In Africa, for instance, agriculture guzzles 88 per cent of all water withdrawn for human use, while domestic use accounts for 7 per cent and industry for 5 per cent. In Europe, most water is used in industry (54 per cent), while agriculture'ss share is 33 per cent and domestic use 13 per cent. Almost 70 per cent of all available freshwater is used for agriculture. Over pumping of groundwater by the world' s farmers exceeds natural replenishment by at least 160 billion cubic metres a year. It takes a huge amount of water to grow crops: one to three cubic metres to yield just one kilo of rice, and 1000 tonnes of water to produce one tonne of grain.

    Land in agricultural use has increased by 12 per cent since the 1960s to about 1.5 billion hectares. Current global water withdrawals for irrigation are estimated at about 2000 to 2555 cubic kilometers every year. Pasture and crops take up 37 per cent o f the Earth's land area.

    Poor drainage and irrigation practices have led to waterlogging and salinisation of about 10 per cent of the world's irrigated lands (30 million hectares of the world's 255 million hectares of irrigated land) according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). A combination of salinisation and waterlogging affects another 80 millions hectares.

    Agriculture is responsible for most of the depletion of groundwater, along with up to 70 per cent of the pollution. Both are accelerating. Many of the world' s most important grainlands are consuming groundwater at unsustainable rates. Collectively, annual water depletion in India, China, the US, North Africa and the Arabian peninsula adds up to a hefty 160 billion cubic metres a year-- equal to the total annual flow of two Nile rivers.

    Water withdrawals for industry total 22 per cent of total water use but this is up to 59 per cent in high income countries while it comes to only 8 per cent in low income countries. The annual volume used by industry will rise from 752 km3/year in 1995 to 1 170 km3/year in 2025 and, by then, the industrial component is expected to represent about 24 per cent of total freshwater withdrawal.

    Some 300-500 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes accumulate each year from industry. Industries based on organic raw materials are the most significant contributors to the organic pollutant load with the food sector being the most important. In high income countries, the contribution of the food sector to the production of organic water po llutant is 40 per cent compared to 54 per cent by low income countries.

    Hydropower is the most important and widely-used renewable source of energy and represents 19 per cent of total electricity production. Worldwide there are now about 45,000 large dams in operation.

    Built to provide hydropower and irrigation water and to regulate river flow to prevent floods and droughts, these dams have had a disproportionate impact on the environment. Collectively, they have inundated more than 400,000sq/km of mostly prod uctive land--an area the size of California. Fully one-fifth of the world's freshwater fish are now either endangered or extinct. Up to 80 million people have been displaced by dams, forced to relocate to other, often less productive, land.

    A study by the World Commission on Dams, published in 2000, found that large dams have a very mixed record. On one hand: in 140 countries, dams provide cheap hydroelectric power. On a global scale, dams account for 19 per cent of the world' s electricity generation and supply; through irrigation, almost 16 per cent of the world' s food. Some dams continue to operate after 30-40 years, providing water and electricity. Hydropower plays a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions: developing half of the world's economical ly feasible hydropower potential could reduce greenhouse gases emissions by about 13 per cent.

    On the other hand large dams have led to the loss of forests and wildlife habitat and the loss of aquatic biodiversity--both upstream and downstream. With up to 80 million people displaced and many more living downstream suffering from unintended effects (e.g., loss of fisheries), mitigation efforts have, for the most part, been cosmetic and ineffective.

    Feeling thirsty? Unless serious attention is paid to the management of the world's water resources now, that is likely to become a permanent condition.

    Conserving Australian resources

    How water is administered will have a huge bearing on our prosperity in the years to come, reports Fiona Stewart

    This year has been declared as the International Year of Freshwater by the UN General Assembly and on World Water Day, March 22, the third World Water Forum in Kyoto will see the release of the World Water Development Report, the first-ever UN system-wid e report on the state of the world's freshwater resources.

    Three years in preparation the report will be the foremost water-related information product to be issued by the UN during 2003.

    The World Water Vision, presented to the Second World Water Forum i n The Hague in 2000, argued that while there are water crises in many parts of the world, they are not crises caused by a lack of resources but crises caused by poor water management. This is an argument supported by many academics and environmentalists.

    In Australia, Dr David Mitchell, adjunct professor of the Johnstone Centre, School of Environmental and Information Sciences at Charles Sturt University' s Thurgoona Campus, believes the people in charge of water management in this country are insufficiently aware of the complexity of the Australian water system.

    "They are not sensitive to changes which lead to problems such as blue-green algae," he said. "And if the problem is recognised, there have been inadequacies in the treatment up until now."

    Mitchell was previously chief of the CSIRO Centre for Irrigation and Freshwater Research as well as director of the Murray-Darling Freshwater Research Centre.

    He maintains there needs to be a careful assessment of water needs on a national basis and then for those to be recognised as assumptions not facts.

    "Then we need to look at strategic planning directed towards the long-term survival of human populations in Australia at an acceptable socio-economic level within an environment which is valued for its intrinsic worth and managed sustainably," he said.

    Professor Don Bursill, CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Quality and Treatment agrees and believes governments can play an important role in achieving improved water management practices.

    In an address to the Eighth National Conference of Parliamentary Public Works and Environment Committees in Adelaide late last year, he posed the question: "What can governments do and how?". Top of his list was leadership, stewardship and management.

    "In my view, leadership is about formulating a vision and having the capacity to capture the hearts and minds of the community at large with that vision," he said. " Stewardship is about the oversight of the water resources of this country and the associated aquatic ecosys tems with the intention of ensuring their sustainability and their protection for future generations. It is about rejecting waste, inefficiency and opportunism, eliminating mismanagement and reducing pollution of our essential, life sustaining water resources."

    Bursill described the management role as about implementing strategies and actions to meet objectives that will hopefully ensure the vision is achieved and the stewardship role is responsibly exercised.

    "If all the knowledge, skills or technology is not available to achieve the vision, this is not a reason to abandon the vision, but these requirements for success define a research agenda to be pursued as part of the list of strategies and actions," he said.

    Outlining the scorecard or "bottom line" of some of Australia's key water resources, Bursill described the Murray-Darling system as being under great pressure and in severe decline.

    "Its management to date has been characterised by opportunistic short-term over-allocation of the resource for short- to medium-term economic gain," he said. "Little real regard has been paid to the water requirements of the river ecosystem itself. Anyone that has been involved with allocation policy issues will know that it is a commonly held view among water licensees that water flowing past ones property is a wasted economic opportunity. More sadly, a similar view can be found too frequently in the natural resources agencies around the country," he said. "Across much of the basin, water is used in a very inefficient manner. This is in keeping with its relative abundance (in most years) and the low cost of water."

    He claimed allocation policies lean heavily towards maximising water use.

    Although he cited South Australia is an exception, where only 40 per cent of the minimum entitlement flow to SA and 13 per cent of the mean annual flow is allocated to irrigation. Adelaide is limited to less than 2 per cent of the mean annual low in to South Australia and these upper limits are fixed whether the season is in drought or flood.

    "Most efforts to change this over-allocation situation in the basin have usually been headed off by parochial interests at many political and societal levels and the river system is the main loser," he said.

    Bursill pointed out that some 80 per cent of irrigation water in Australia was applied to crops by simple flood irrigation, with only 4 per cent by sprinklers, 2 per cent by drippers and 1 per cent through micro sprinklers.

    "Why have we such low uptake of more efficient irrigation technology and why is it that archaic irrigation methods are still the dominant 'quote technology' in place?" he asked. "In the 13 years to 1998 cotton production trebled and it now uses 10 per cent of all water used in Australia."

    Rice growing has increased some tenfold in 40 years and uses 7 per cent of Australia's total water use for a contribution of 0.02 per cent of GDP. Bursill agrees these two industries lead the world in efficiency of production, but questions whether it's wise to use so much water on rice and cotton production in such an arid part of this country?

    When pressing authorities for a reason why little action has been taken to fix the waste in the irrigation systems in NSW and Victoria, he was told it would cost too much. "This was the same response given by the government in England when confronted by the m ovement to abolish the slave trade. It was a view held by the vested interests involved. Perhaps the same holds true for the upgrade of irrigation infrastructure?" he conjectured.

    "This country seems to be incurring cost over runs of some $5 billion in cur rent defence procurement contracts and the Australian community spends an even larger amount each year in gambling losses. Yet we cannot fix the wastage in our main river system.

    "If the cost of conventional solutions to the rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure is considered to be unaffordable, where is the research effort to solve this problem when a solution promises so much in water savings?"

    Getting the environment right

    How do companies know they are getting it right when they report on their environmental performance? A draft guide released last November by the Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr David Kemp, aims to help answer that question with a series of indicators and methodologies for public environmental reporting. The Minister has called for widespread comment on the guide, An Australian Guide to Indicators and Methodologies for Public Environmental Reporting.

    A recent KPMG survey of the top 100 companies in 19 countries found that, overall, 45 per cent of the world' s top 250 companies now publish a separate corporate report with details of environmental and/or social performance, up from 35 per cent in 1999. But while Japan has the highest percentage of top 100 companies producing corporate environment or social reports (72 per cent), followed by the UK (49 per cent), US (36 per cent) and the Netherlands (35 per cent), Australia lags behind at only 14 per cent.

    Just 50 Australian companies have listed their reports on Environment Australia's public environmental reporting library since it was launched last year. According to Kemp, managing and reporting on environmental performance makes good business sense. Companies that are actively looking to red uce environmental risks and impacts are not only more environmentally sustainable but are also potentially more profitable and competitive.


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