Australia pisses away the little water it has

9 05 2016

cow_drinking_australia_dryWater, water nowhere, with little left to drink.

Australians are superlative natural resource wasters, but living in the driest inhabited continent on the planet, you’d think we’d be precious about our water use.

You’d be wrong.

On the contrary, Australia has a huge water footprint (defined as “the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the people of the nation”). For internal domestic use (i.e., not including agricultural and industrial uses, or water imported directly or within other goods), Australians use about 341000 litres per person per year (data from 1997–2001), which is six times the global average of 57000 litres per person per year (1).

Agricultural production is one of the chief consumers of freshwater around the world. For example, the global average virtual water content of rice (paddy) is 2.29 million litres/tonne produced, and for wheat it is 1.33 litres/tonne. Growing crops for biofuel in particular has a huge water footprint — depending on the crop in question, it takes an average of 1400–20000 litres of water to produce just one litre of biofuel (2). If an agricultural product comes from livestock — say, meat, leather, or wool — the water content is typically much higher because of the feed required to keep the animal alive. For example, it takes about three years to raise beef cattle to slaughtering age, with an average of 200 kg of boneless beef produced per animal. This requires about 1,300 kg of grains, 7200 kg of pasture or hay, and 31000 litres of water for drinking and cleaning. This means that the total amount of water required to produce 1 kg of beef is about 15340 litres (1). For Australia, which has over 20 million or so cattle at any one moment, the water footprint alone should at least be cause for concern the next time you tuck into a steak dinner.

Australia’s lust for deforestation and irrigation means that even the little water we have left is becoming useless, and it is destroying our already depleted soils even more. The rapid and expansive clearing of Australia’s forests brutally upset the delicate water balance in the soils of our ancient landscape. Much of inland Australia has been inundated by seawater at various times over the last several hundred million years, a product of plate tectonics and large shifts in global temperatures leading to impressive sea-level changes that periodically flooded our relatively low-altitude landscape. Additionally, oceanic winds carrying sea salt have transported huge quantities of salt to the land, and the erosion of salt-bearing parent rocks over millions of years all mean that Australian soils have an unusually high salt content. When the land is disturbed and irrigated over large areas, salt migrates to the surface, effectively poisoning the soil for plant growth. Widespread throughout Australia now, this salinity problem affects well over 3 million hectares of arable land in the south, with the majority of that area in Western Australia and New South Wales. The economic implications are measured in the billions of dollars of lost agricultural opportunity, with the prospect of much more area of saline deserts forming in Australia’s arable lands over the coming decades.

What are our options then? Eating more vegetarian meals, stopping all deforestation, and reforesting large areas of marginal agricultural land are good places to start.

CJA Bradshaw

References

  1. Hoekstra & Chapagain. 2007. Water footprints of nations: water use by people as a function of their consumption pattern. Water Resour Manage 21: 35-48
  2. Gerbens-Leenes et al. 2009. The water footprint of bioenergy. P Natl Acad Sci USA 106:10219-10223


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10 responses

30 11 2016
In conversation with Current Conservation | ConservationBytes.com

[…] capita emission rates in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation Development). We are one of the highest per capita water users on the planet, even though we live in a desert. We are superlative wasters. Do we need to address […]

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20 07 2016
More things stay the same, more we retrogress | ConservationBytes.com

[…] of the highest per-capita greenhouse-gas emitters on the planet, has one of the highest per-capita water uses of any nation, leads the world in mammal extinctions, continues to deforest its already forest-poor […]

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28 06 2016
The Conversation: Eat locals: swapping sheep and cows for kangaroos and camels could help our environment | Euan Ritchie

[…] need for nutritional supplements (such as salt licks), and are physiologically more efficient at conserving water. This could lead to a more sustainable supply of food and income for farmers, without the dizzying […]

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23 05 2016
Eat locals: swapping sheep and cows for kangaroos and camels could help our environment – Free Online Stuff

[…] need for nutritional supplements (such as salt licks), and are physiologically more efficient at conserving water. This could lead to a more sustainable supply of food and income for farmers, without the dizzying […]

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23 05 2016
Eat locals: swapping sheep and cows for kangaroos and camels could help our environment | Em News

[…] need for nutritional supplements (such as salt licks), and are physiologically more efficient at conserving water. This could lead to a more sustainable supply of food and income for farmers, without the dizzying […]

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14 05 2016
jimthegeordie

Hi, Alan,
Both of the processes you mention involve large resources which, while valuable, can be slow and expensive. A chap called Robert Vincin (Google him for info) has had great success in carbon capture (which can include reafforestation) in Northern Asia and West Africa. However, he is fixated on government and UN projects.
My “elsewhere suggestion” refers to entries in some climate change amelioration contests organised by MIT in USA. In both my entries, my theses propose tools for engaging local communities all round the world to repair or transform their localities so that the usage of the land, whether for agriculture or carbon capture, is optimal. If you are interested, here are links to my proposals:-
http://climatecolab.org/contests/2016/buildings/c/proposal/1330409
http://climatecolab.org/contests/2016/adaptation/c/proposal/1329202

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13 05 2016
onebendintheriver

I think you’re right that we don’t value our water enough, except, suddenly, in a drought. One area where Australia is good is in town water supplies, which have some of the lowest leakage rates in the world (around 5%) compared to 30-50% in some other western countries, including California.

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10 05 2016
wilful

I remain deeply sceptical of claimed water consumption for beef cattle, from my lived experience. Our small herd of about 50 requires drinking water and that’s it. All grass and all natural rainfall, and the creek continues to flow (poor quality due to nutrients, not due to lack of water), so I just don’t know how they’re supposed to be consuming so much.

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9 05 2016
jimthegeordie (username for Jim Wright, living in Melbourne)

You have forgotten to mention the 30% of water lost to evaporation over a year, nor the fact that farmers don’t really like large dammed-up areas as they take away useful land for grazing or cropping. I worked on an underground car park in Melbourne which is covered by grass, substantial trees and other garden plants. It was extraordinarily cheap to build, because of the repetitive nature of the design. We have very few places left in Australia for large dams, so I have suggested elsewhere that we look for wide and relatively shallow dam sites on farms and cover them with a similar deck. This would allow the area above the roof to be used for agriculture and save a lot of the water previously evaporated. They could also be joined up in a pipe network to support local communities and so forth.

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9 05 2016
Alan

Reforesting large areas – how to do this effectively? Do we use something like Biocarbon Reengineering are doing – using drones for this? (http://www.biocarbonengineering.com/) Or the “Green Army”? What might work in Australia?

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