With parliament about to go into its summer recess and an El Nino summer in the offing, meaning less rain (particularly in the eastern states) and raising the prospect of water restrictions in major urban areas, I thought it timely to have a look at what happens to water in Australia — how much we have, who uses it, who value adds to it and what the government is doing.
I think you all know about the ‘water cycle’. Basically our planet has a finite amount of water that has remained unchanged for millennia: the only thing that changes is the form that water is in. Taking a hypothetical 100-year life of a water droplet on our planet, as it is at the moment, it would spend about 97 years in the ocean, about 22 months as ice, around three weeks in lakes and rivers, and less than a week as water vapour in the atmosphere (which can become available as rain).
In other words, 96.5% of the earth’s water is in the salt water of our oceans: there is another one percent of saline water in groundwater and saline lakes. So we have about 2.5% freshwater but of that 1.8% is captured in ice and snow, and for human use our freshwater (in lakes and rivers, groundwater and in the atmosphere as potential rain) is only about 0.7% of the earth’s total water — but that still amounts to a lot of water, about 10.65 million cubic kilometres (although 10.5 million cubic kilometres of that is groundwater). There is 1000 gigalitres of water in a cubic kilometre and a billion litres of water in a gigalitre which means our estimated total freshwater resources are something like 10.65 million trillion litres — yes, mind boggling! Out of that only 2,120 trillion litres is readily accessible in rivers.
How does Australia fare in all this? — not very well but perhaps better than you think. Our rivers make up only 1% of the world’s river flows but, on the other hand, we have only 0.3% of the world’s population. In 2008‒09 we used 8,955 gigalitres of surface water and 380 gigalitres of groundwater, compared to 10,712 gigalitres and 448 gigalitres respectively in 2004‒05. (That was a period of drought and the 2008‒09 figures reflect reduced water availability as the drought lengthened — we subsequently had wet years in 2010 and 2011.) But in 2004‒05 we still received, across Australia as a whole, almost 2.8 million gigalitres of rain. So where did it all go? Well for a start most of it, about 2 million gigalitres, fell in the least populated areas, in north Queensland, northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In that year almost 90% of that rainfall disappeared in evaporation and transpiration — the latter being use by plants. Only 243,000 gigalitres was run off to replenish rivers and 49,000 gigalitres recharged groundwater. In addition we had 44,000 gigalitres stored in large dams for a total water stock of 336,000 gigalitres but that compared to a total water stock of 415,000 gigalitres in 1996‒97 before the drought. It is the norm that we have access to only about 10‒15% of our total rainfall which is at the lower end of such averages when compared to other countries.
It is all that rainfall in northern Australia that leads politicians to talk about ‘northern development’ but as CSIRO pointed out in 2009:
A lot rain falls on northern Australia, but its arrival is restricted in time and uneven in its distribution. Where and when it occurs is generally impractical for water resource development and there are large variations in how much comes year to year. There is little or no rain for three to six months every year … The landscape is generally not amenable to storing water and the climate is not conducive to keeping it.
So we have two major problems: the majority of our rain does not fall where the majority of people live and our rainfall is so variable. The latter leads to Australia having one of the highest storage to usage ratios of any country: our major dams generally provide from three to six years of usage whereas many countries store only one or two years’ usage, or in some cases less than a year.
Who uses the water we do have? For those of us — most of us — living in urban areas, you may be pleased to know that residential usage accounts for only about 9% of Australia’s total water usage (it has been as high as 11% in some years). That means that when water restrictions are in place it is not about the total amount of water we are using but the falling levels of our local water storage.
By far the majority of water use in Australia is for agriculture: around 65% (although it has fallen as low as 50% in drought years) and 90% of that is for irrigation of crops and pastures. In 2012‒13, agriculture used 12,780 gigalitres out of total water usage of 19,749 gigalitres (note that this is more than double the total usage in 2008‒09 when we were in drought and is more reflective of our ‘normal’ usage). You might think, yes, that is necessary — after all, we do need to eat.
Some of the bigger agricultural users of water were:
And then we add sheep, cattle and other grain crops (wheat, sorghum and so on) to make up most of the rest (about 17% of our total usage). It should also be noted that up to 80% of our total water usage occurs in the Murray-Darling Basin.
- cotton, 3,285 gigalitres — 17% of our total water usage
- dairy farming, 1,967 gigalitres — 10%
- rice, 1,780 gigalitres — 9%
- fruit and nut trees, 1,467 gigalitres — 7%
Mining and manufacturing each use about 3‒4% of our water: mining used 614 gigalitres in 2012‒13, and manufacturing 530 gigalitres. Mining in WA alone used 241 gigalitres or about 40% of the water used in mining.
In 2012‒13, agriculture generated about $3 million of production for each gigalitre of water used. [from ABS Data Cube here, open Monetary tables and then Table 7.] That compared to $191 million per gigalitre for mining and $192 million for manufacturing: or to convert that to litres, agriculture creates 0.3 cents of product per litre of water compared to about 19 cents per litre for manufacturing and mining. That doesn’t mean we should get rid of agriculture but it does raise questions about what we are achieving for the use of all that water. I am aware that water efficiency has improved in the agricultural sector, that even rice growers in Australia use about half the world average amount of water for each kilogram of rice, and that irrigation channels are being improved and enclosed to help reduce water loss. Despite that, the fact that we earn only a third of a cent for each litre of water used leaves a lingering doubt as to the agricultural sector’s overall efficiency.
What about the rest of us sitting on our suburban blocks? — what do we do with that 9% of water we use? For a start we actually use about 40‒44% of it outdoors, in our gardens and washing cars and structures. Indoors the shower is the biggest user of water accounting for about 20‒25%, then our toilets, around 10‒15%, and only around 8% for essential drinking and food preparation. Plus it is estimated that we lose about 4% in leakages. Those figures are my estimates from considering a number of sources as there are significant variations between Australian cities and, of course, in times of drought when outdoor use may be subject to restrictions.
Using the 2012‒13 household consumption of 1,851 gigalitres those percentages translate to approximately the following amounts of water:
So every person in Australia, in their homes, uses in total only 56% of the amount of water used by the cotton industry, and slightly less than the dairy industry and slightly more than the rice growers.
- outdoor use, 780 gigalitres
- total indoor use, 1,070 gigalitres, including
- shower and bath, 430 gigalitres
- toilet, 260 gigalitres
- drinking and food preparation, 150 gigalitres
We have more than enough water for everyone but most of it is not where most of us live. From what is available for most of the population, we use two-thirds of it for agriculture. The 9% of the water we use in our homes is less than 0.5% of our total water stock while agriculture uses about 4%. Overall, Australia uses around 5% of its water stock each year. Some countries, with more reliable water resources, use as much as 20% of their water stock each year.
Governments across Australia are very conscious of water issues. The National Water Initiative (NWI) was agreed at COAG in 2004 and the National Water Commission was established to oversee its implementation. Some of its aims included:
A review of the NWI in 2011, while finding that much had been achieved, also called on all governments to recommit to the NWI and that they ‘must resolve to stay the course on their reform commitments’. That implies that some governments were backtracking or, at the least, not continuing to pursue the reform agenda. And in 2014, for the tenth anniversary of the agreement, the Chair of the National Water Commission was still writing:
- effective water planning across all jurisdictions
- nationally compatible and secure water entitlements
- conjunctive management of surface and ground water, recognising the connectivity between them
- resolution of over allocation and overuse
- open water markets
Some important actions from the initiative remain unfinished. These will only be achieved if governments stay the course on their water reform commitments.
Having made those comments, the National Water Commission was abolished in June 2015 (that was when the Act received assent although the announcement was originally made late in 2014). Its role of reviewing the implementation of the NWI was passed to the Productivity Commission. Initially water issues, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, remained with the Department of the Environment.
Although the full extent of the National Water Initiative’s aspirations is yet to be fully realised, we have a framework that 10-years on, is proven and robust.
There is a lot of research being undertaken by the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), the Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) and the CSIRO. The ABS also produces an annual ‘Water Account’ and the BoM produces annual statements of water assets and water liabilities.
So there is a lot of data out there, even if it is not always compatible, enough for governments to be making key decisions about water usage, including social and environmental considerations.
But when Turnbull became prime minister, what happened? The Nationals insisted, as part of the new coalition agreement, that water become a responsibility of the agriculture minister: the department is now the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority was transferred so that it reported to the agriculture minister. Even national sewerage agreements were transferred.
What is clear is that the Nationals see water primarily in terms of agriculture, which already uses 65% of our water. With that level of water usage in the sector, there is perhaps an argument that the minister for agriculture should have the responsibility but does it also mean that any attempts to reduce that consumption, by increasing environmental flows, will be opposed because it may be of detriment to the agricultural sector? The Murray-Darling Basin Authority takes environmental flows into consideration but it is now reporting to the agriculture minister which means its recommendations will be weighed more heavily against the water requirements of the agricultural sector rather than environmental factors.
An example of the conflicting requirements has occurred at Menindee Lakes this year. A major cotton farm, that can produce up to 70,000 bales of cotton a year, is not putting in a crop this year because it has no water. The Menindee Lakes have virtually run dry and nearby Broken Hill also has a water supply problem. Some are blaming it on a 300 gigalitre release of water early in 2013 to help the Murray River — to ‘move sediment and salt out of the system’. The Broken Hill City Council described the release as ‘excessive and unnecessary’. Locals are not convinced that the environmental benefits outweighed the economic costs. The Menindee Lakes, however, have similar problems to those mentioned by the CSIRO for northern Australia — in hot weather the large, shallow lakes can lose up to 10 gigalitres of water a day in evaporation. How will the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources evaluate those conflicting requirements in the future?
While I accept that agriculture is an important industry, I do have doubts when it uses 65% of our water to produce only a fraction of one cent’s worth of product for every litre used. Our farmers are working to become more water efficient but when rice and cotton alone use 26% of our water, we could save 5,000 gigalitres a year without them — that is enough water for two-and-a-half years of domestic usage or more than enough to increase environmental flows and maintain inland wetlands, even to provide more water for other crops. At the least, I think the size of our cotton and rice production could be reduced in acceptance that we actually live on a dry continent where trying to grow water-intensive crops is not efficient.
As urban consumers of water we are being encouraged to reduce our 9% usage but at our own cost —we pay for more efficient shower heads, dual flush toilets and water efficient washing machines — but farmers are subsidised to improve their water efficiency:
The $626 million On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program (the programme) is assisting irrigators within the southern connected system of the Murray-Darling Basin to modernise their on-farm irrigation infrastructure while returning water savings to the environment. The southern connected system for the programme encompasses the New South Wales Murray, Victorian Murray, South Australian Murray, Campaspe, Murrumbidgee, Goulburn, Broken, Loddon and the Lower Darling (south of Menindee Lakes) river catchments.
And with a Nationals minister now in charge of water resources, that looks set to continue.
It appears that the Nationals have been waging their own quiet war to overcome the ‘greenies’ and make sure that agricultural water use dominates government water policy. In my view, there is little doubt they were behind the abolition of the National Water Commission and with the election of a new Liberal leader they were handed the opportunity to complete their ‘water coup’ and gain control of national water policy.
Politicians are meant to make decisions based on balancing competing interests and when water issues were divided between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment there was an opportunity for the competing agricultural and environmental water requirements to be fully evaluated. Now, however, there appears less opportunity for those competing interests to be taken into consideration.
Water use in Australia is a vexed issue but placing control of water policy in the hands of those whose primary interest is agriculture isn’t going to help.
What do you think?
With our limited water supply, shouldn’t Australia be giving much greater consideration as to the best uses of that water? How much for agriculture? How much for the environment? — noting that maintaining the environment is also necessary to maintain agriculture, which most farmers already know. Surely governments should realise they need to balance those requirements for now and for the future.
Next week, in our penultimate piece for the year, Ken returns to his ‘Lords and Ladies’ saga and introduces a new character, Mal C’od-turn-a-bull, in ‘Lords and Ladies, a new morality tale for a new time’.