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Not so green, less than clean
by Claire Miller
Environmental Reporter

Australia is the driest inhabited continent, but its people per capita are the second most profligate water consumers in the world, after North America. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia uses a million litres of water per person per year and rising.

Agriculture accounts for about 70 per cent of water use, with consumption rising about 20 per cent from mid-1994 to mid-1997. More than half is used to water pasture for livestock or grow grain, while sugar, rice and cotton collectively account for a third of agricultural water use. Water scarcity is considered the main constraint on future economic growth.

Despite its aridity, Australia is in theory water-rich compared with many other countries. But much of the water is in rivers in the remote north, far removed from the main population, agricultural and industrial centres in the south-east. The environmental devastation wrought by diverting the Snowy River inland into the Murray-Darling Basin river system warns against attempting any grand engineering solutions to divert northern rivers south.

The environmental and economic problems of the southern water scarcity are most apparent in the one-million-square kilometre Murray Darling Basin, which covers one-seventh of Australia but produces 40 per cent of our agricultural wealth. About 80 per cent of water in the basin rivers is diverted for agricultural, urban and industrial use. So much is taken from the Murray that it now barely reaches the sea, even with the additional water from diverting the Snowy.

The unnaturally low flows are causing widespread ecological degradation, with water quality and biodiversity declining in the rivers, wetlands and estuaries. This is damaging fishing industries as well as agriculture.

In addition, polluted farm runoff high in fertilisers, nutrients and salts is increasing the incidence and severity of toxic algal blooms. In 1991, the Darling River was rendered biologically dead for months by a 1000-kilometre toxic bloom.

Competition for water between cities and country is also increasing as population grows. Melbourne's Thompson dam was built in the mid-1980s to "drought-proof" the city. The Thompson River is not, however, in Melbourne's catchment but in Gippsland. The diversion of water from the Thompson River has created shortages for irrigators and industry in Gippsland and damaged the ecological balance in the Gippsland lakes. Reduced freshwater inflows to this massive coastal wetland are affecting fish breeding patterns and contributing to increased toxic algal blooms. The economic damage in a region that relies on fishing and tourism is incalculable.


Green     Salinity    Biodiversity Loss    Landclearing Logging
Water    Global Warming    Further Reading - Websites

The Age Publication
1st November 2000

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