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Water woes and water wars

Posted by Matt Dalgleish on 26 February 2018
Matt Dalgleish

All this bickering about water and access to water is doing my head in at the moment. You would think it is a crucial element to our survival the way the commentators are carrying on about it... actually, wait a minute – it is!

So many statements floating around about this key issue at present;

  • Climate change pressures are impacting the Mediterranean style climate enjoyed by much of the nation resulting in dryer winters and water storages emptying.
  • Underinvestment in water infrastructure is an ongoing concern.
  • Government parties are arguing and blaming each other and using water scarcity as a ploy for election, but not trying to fix the issue.
  • Less water is becoming available for agriculture, resulting in food prices to increase.
  • Successive governments have ignored the impact of previous droughts, didn’t acknowledge or act on these early warning signs and it is leading us into the water predicament we are currently facing.

If you think I’ve been referring to the Murray Darling Basin issue I haven’t – the statements listed above are actually sourced from the current discussions around the looming water crisis in Cape Town, as residents shudder under the spectre of “day zero” – when water is no longer available.


The scary thing for Australia is that many of the statements outlined above could be used to describe the farce that is the Murray Darling Basin Plan at the moment.

Cape Town residents have been facing extremely tight water restrictions of 50 litres per day and praying for rain. However, ineffective government policy and residents not following the restriction guidelines by consuming 87 litres per day is bringing day zero closer – it is currently scheduled to arrive in April/June 2018.

“if the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water - unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource”

Ismail Serageldin – Vice President, World Bank, Auguist 1995

Perhaps the Cape Town crisis is a window into our future if the Murray-Darling Basin Plan isn’t sorted out in an effective manner and the current situation can be summarized as such;

  • State governments are in disagreement with each other about the distribution of the Murray Darling Basin water.
  • Some states want more water to be put towards irrigation and agriculture, whilst others want portion of water to be put towards environment and rectifying river health.
  • Activists claim that the environment is suffering due to an over-allocation of water to agriculture and that there have been too many dams constructed that feed off the Murray Darling Basin, affect environment negatively.


 It is important to note the precarious nature of water as a resource in both a global and Australian setting. Only 2.5% of the planets water is classified as fresh water, but nearly 70% of this is locked away in ice. In terms of water demand, on a global scale, 70% of water use is taken up by the agricultural sector.

Much of the agricultural use of water refers to “green water” or water that is stored as sub soil moisture. In contrast, “blue water” or water that is held in rivers, lakes, dams and underground aquifers is used via irrigation techniques when “green water” is scarce, or unreliable. Unfortunately, some irrigation techniques are inefficient and can lead to a depletion of “blue water” sources.

Australia is the driest continent on the planet, behind Antarctica. However, last time I checked Antarctica wasn’t a hub of agriculture and not many people lived there - so from that perspective we are at the pointy end of water usage in Australia. The image below outlines the average long term seasonal rainfall pattern across the globe and it highlights how little rainfall is received at the more southern latitudes of the nation during the year in Australia.


This is not felt more keenly than by those farmers and residents at the end of the Murray Darling Basin flows in South Australia. On a trip to Renmark last year I was rather impressed by the investment in water efficiencies and infrastructure in the region – making best use of this most vital and scarce resource, but they have to be, as they are at the end of the chain. We need to take more notice of the methods used in South Australia to conserve water and make sure the water use is as efficient as it can be, with fair allocations, all along the Murray Darling Basin region.

Governments arguing over the politics of the Murray Darling Basis matter is impacting the actual issue at hand, resulting in the problem not being seen as an immediate and key priority.  As can be seen in the Cape Town scenario, this can lead to a water crisis that ultimately will see residents, agriculture, industry, the economy and the environment suffer as a consequence.


Topics: water, weather, markets

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