NOT SO DRY CONTINENT: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Australia has water options
, September 11, 2004
Recently, the Prime Minister called for 20-year vision projects to build the Australian economy. Of vital importance is the development of Australia's water supplies.
Based on the popular assumption that Australia is a "dry" continent, greens, bureaucrats and politicians have pursued the policy line of least resistance on the looming shortage of water. They have largely looked at reducing water available to irrigation farming, as well as improved water efficiency measures. Governments have bowed to the green lobby, adopting a "no new dams" policy.Water policy
When the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) met in June to adopt a National Water Initiative, Jennifer Marohasy, director of the Environmental Unit of the Institute of Public Affairs, argued that governments' water policies should start with the knowledge that Australia was one of the most water-rich nations on earth.
In an article addressing the COAG water meeting, Marohasy said in the Australian Financial Review
(June 26): "Delegates attending the COAG meeting would do well to approach the National Water Initiative with positive pragmatism.
"After all, planet earth is 70 per cent covered by water and, in terms of available fresh water per capita, we have a lot of water in Australia.
"According to the World Resource Institute, we have 51,000 litres of available water per capita per day. This is one of the highest levels in the world, after Russia and Iceland, and well ahead of countries such as the United States (24,000) and the United Kingdom (only 3,000 litres per capita per day).
"Most of this water falls in the north. This doesn't mean we should pipe it south to the Murray Darling Basin, but it does mean we have choices.
"In Australia, we divert only five per cent of average annual run-off. Of the five per cent we divert, we even export much of it as food, including rice, wheat and sugar.
"Many businesses are doing it tough, particularly in areas of continuing drought and where there is no developed water infrastructure. The bottom line, however, is that as a nation we are not really that thirsty," she concluded.
Extending her argument, much of Australia's agriculture is in the Murray Darling Basin. It produces about 40 per cent of our agricultural production, from a river system that has an average flow of 22,700 gigalitres, or about six per cent of Australia's annual fresh water run-off. (One gigalitre is 1,000 Olympic-size swimming pools).
In contrast, 60 per cent of Australia's fresh water run-off is above the Tropic of Capricorn. Yet, north Queensland (excluding the super-wet belt) produces only about one per cent of the nation's agriculture while having far more water available than the Murray Darling Basin.
Consider the magnitude of the available water in northern Australia's river systems, against that of the Murray Darling Basin:
- The Murray Darling Basin (MDB): 22,700 gigalitres.
- Queensland's north-east coast: 91,500 gigalites - four times that of the MDB.
- Gulf of Carpentaria: 130,500 giglitres - 5.7 times the MDB.
- The Timor Sea rivers: 81,200 gigalitre - 3.5 times the MDB.
Some of the northern rivers making up these massive flows could be tapped with diversions and some dams, without threatening their environmental flows.
One option would be to develop areas of northern Australia and, over time, shift more agriculture into these regions.
Another would be to tap some of this water to develop rural industries on the large, salinity-free, deep black-soil plains of western Queensland.
Another option, proposed by infrastructure specialist Professor Lance Endersbee, would be to pipe some of this water south. The Australian continent tilts towards the centre, causing water falling west of Queensland's northern Great Divide to flow south-west, through the channel country and into Lake Eyre. This tilt would allow water to be piped south, much of the way in low-pressure pipes.
Senator Bill Heffernan has pointed to the urgent need for a national water audit. Some basin areas are not yet comprehensively mapped for their surface water and ground water capacities. Nor is there a clear picture of the health of our water systems.
The recent Senate inquiry into the Living Murray proposals slammed the popular myth that the health of the Murray is deteriorating. With only one dissenting voice, the Senate committee urged that no moves be taken to curb farmers' water rights and to increase environmental flows down the Murray until there is a full scientific audit.
Much scientific work is yet to be done on Australia's water supplies. Then an informed public debate is needed on how the "not so dry continent" uses its abundant water supplies.