Go back

The Last Drop: Protecting Australia’s Water Supply

Published 05 May 2018
Isabella Svinos

In the midst of record-long regional droughts across the globe, the United Nations last month officially launched a 10-year global water action plan that seeks to bring about greater progress in achieving the Sixth Sustainable Development Goal. The launch came on the eve of Cape Town’s forecasted ‘Day Zero,’ when it was predicted that the city would run out of fresh water. But, with billions of people struggling to access clean water and the effects of climate change intensifying, is this international response too little too late? And will Australia, a nation historically affected by prolonged and severe droughts, be able to mitigate the effects of global temperature rises and declining rainfall?

According to a recent report, almost 60% of the world’s population currently live in places of high water stress. With an increasing global population and escalation of climate change impacts, the threat is only going to rise. Many states across the globe are faced with the reality of worsening water crises and, like Cape Town, are having to deal with the economic, social and political ramifications of water scarcity. In Israel, water contamination and restrictions are adding further fuel to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Chile, farmers are having to give up their livelihoods due to increased costs and restrictions brought about through the privatisation of water supplies. In Eritrea, only 19% of the population have immediate access to safe drinking water.

Like many other aspects of climate change, water scarcity is disproportionately affecting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. However, due to a lack of political will, economic constraints and the unpredictable nature of global warming, these developments will soon affect Australia and the rest of the developed world. In Australia, water scarcity will undoubtedly cause an increase in competition between agriculture and industry for water usage; it will undermine and greatly affect domestic food production and will result in increased political pressure borne by the escalation of climate change refugees seeking asylum.

The Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) is one of Australia’s largest water sources and accounts for roughly 30% of the gross value of Australia’s agricultural production, with 84% of land surrounding the basin used for this purpose. 83% of the water consumed from the basin is directed to agricultural industries.  Since the 1980s, the average loss of ground and surface water from the MDB has increased significantly and is currently well above sustainable levels. The Murray Darling Basin Plan was created in 2012 as a means to address issues of excess water usage and conflicts between resource allocation for industries, agriculture and households. Six years and $8 billion later, however, water levels in the basin are continuing to decline at a rapid rate and rainfall deficits are failing to replenish the much-needed water supply.

Although pushed as a long-term scheme rather than a ‘quick-fix’ solution, the Murray- Darling Basin Plan will not deliver its promises of creating a sustainable solution to Eastern Australia’s water mismanagement. Instead, the big winners of the recent policy changes have been the powerful irrigators who have continued to extract billions of litres of water for cotton and crop plantations. Illegal tactics and meter tampering have also been used as ways to get around the new, stricter water regulations. Such tactics, and the failure of the plan to bring about any significant improvements to the MDB water issues have intensified conflicts between industries and communities along the river.

So, if the basin plan is failing, what else can Australia do?

By increasing the amount of water that can be recycled within agricultural, industrial and household use and investing in better water management strategies, water resources can be temporarily reserved. The focus of agricultural water policies should be to reuse water within a single process, or use harvested water for multiple purposes without treatment. After water has been reused, it should be treated and recycled for a third future use. Similarly, investment will need to be made into more efficient ways of using, producing and storing water as well as producing food. Desalination plants provide an alternative, climate-independent source of water. Stormwater harvesting, rainwater collection and modifications to urban design treatments are other technologies that should be considered for diversifying water sources. In the long term, the Federal Government must look to significant structural adjustments within the economy and enforce adequate market mechanisms to ensure the price of water use, pollution and accessibility is accounted for.

Politically, the prospect of introducing stricter policies on water use and imposing economic mechanisms for water regulation may be met by hostility. As Cape Town has shown, however, and as many other nations are now realising, global water resources are dwindling and if action isn’t taken soon to protect them, our current way of life is at stake. The question for the Australian Government now is not whether we need to protect our water supply, but whether the nation is prepared for our own Day Zero if significant changes are not soon made.

Isabella Svinos is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW. She is in her final year of studying International Relations and Global Sustainable Development at the University of Wollongong. Through her experiences travelling, volunteering and studying abroad, she has developed an interest in environmental politics and humanitarian issues. She is currently focusing her studies on climate change action and policy. Isabella also volunteers weekly with a number of local NGOs that advocate for and seek to improve Indigenous and refugee rights and policies.