Debunk water myths to secure water future

Posted 25 August 2007

Three myths may be preventing Australia from achieving a secure water future an environmental economist has told the recent Water Matters Colloquium held at The Australian National University.

"Myth number one is that the water crisis is all about a lack of supply or the current drought. The second myth is that improving water efficiency is always good for the environment and the third myth is that water markets by themselves can resolve the conflict between use, or should I say overuse, and non-use," Professor Quentin Grafton of ANU argues.

"It might seem strange to argue that a lack of supply is not the fundamental cause of our water crisis, especially since the 12 month period ending March 2007 was the driest 12 months for the River Murray in 115 years of historical inflow records.

"More rain and inflows would be very welcome by all - no doubt many people have breathed a sigh of relief with last week's heavy rain - but would it secure our water future? The answer is no unless we also address water demand. The fact is that in the Murray-Darling Basin too much water is diverted relative to supply available to maintain a 'healthy' river. It's estimated the Murray River needs at least an extra 1,630 thousand million litres of water each year in environmental flows to have even a moderate chance of having a healthy working river.

"Demand in the cities, with the exception of Darwin and Hobart, is also too high relative to supply available in catchments. Both urban households and farmers are not paying a high enough price for the water they use. Even where increased supply is possible through recycling or desalination, such supply will cost money and the increased water availability will need to be charged at a much higher price than many households currently pay.

"This brings us to the second myth. Improving water efficiency would also appear to be good for everyone - users and the environment. Certainly the Commonwealth and state governments think so and plan to spend billion of dollars on infrastructure to increase delivery and on-farm water efficiency.

"However, water losses can be caused by 'true' losses, such as evaporation and transpiration that reduce water available to farmers and to the environment, or by 'apparent' water losses that include water that seeps back to the hyrdrological system. True losses reduce water for farmers and environmental flows while apparent losses actually increase downstream flow. Improvements in water efficiency that only reduce apparent losses will actually reduce the water available to others downstream and for the environment."

Professor Grafton said water markets, as they are currently set up and by themselves, are not a solution for environmental flows.

"Water trading currently does not provide individual incentives to address the issues of water quality such as salinity and turbidity. Nor is there proper consideration in the price of water that water use in one location may generate different environmental costs than the same use in another location. By making water scarce such that surface water commands a positive price there is an incentive to source less costly supplies in the form of groundwater, especially where there are no effective caps on withdrawals, or even divert surface water over and above any legal allocation. All of these have environmental costs."

Source: Australian National University

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