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Are we planning for Australia's water future?

CEO Gary Jones writes on the need for a long-term vision for Australia’s water supply.

Whether you believe in a big Australia, a small Australia, or something in between, you can be sure that our population will keep growing over the next century. And demand for a safe secure supply of clean water, delivered with high reliability, will grow with it.

The Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) has recently published an analysis of challenges we face as a nation in supporting the water needs of our expanding population to 2056. To quote the WSAA report: ‘the gap between supply and demand will be large if new water sources are not developed for urban Australia’. The challenge is not unique to Australia.

To meet 2050’s urban population demand for water, a 2007 OECD Outlook predicted that many countries will have to look seriously at the proportions of their water allocated to urban and agricultural uses. It estimated that agricultural water consumption in China and Africa will need to be halved, and in India and South Asia cut by a third. Globally, the OECD predicted that water use by irrigated agriculture will decline from 63 per cent to 41 per cent to meet urban population needs.

Is a similar redistribution from agriculture to urban uses also inevitable in Australia, or will we take the new and expensive high-technology desalination supply route favoured by many middle-eastern countries?

WSAA is urging governments to enable irrigation water to be bought for use in urban areas, according to a recent newspaper article*. As WSAA acknowledges, there are powerful political arguments for and against such transfers, as well as the economic ones. Both sets of arguments are complex, and they have been explored in some detail by others better placed than me to do so (e.g. John Quiggin, 2006).

Nevertheless, I believe there is a national conversation that has to be had around the long-term sources, level, reliability and quality of water that all major use sectors in Australia can expect over the coming century. This is a fundamental question of national economic efficiency in water allocation and use, and solving it must involve all users: rural food producers, urban consumers, mining, energy and other industries.

New sources or redistribution?

There has been a spurt in ‘rural to urban’ water transfer projects in recent years – the Sugarloaf pipeline (Goulburn to Melbourne); Goldfields Superpipe (Goulburn to Ballarat) and Murrumbidgee to Canberra (no pipeline; purchased water transferred between owners at source within Tantangarra Dam) are three well known examples.

Rural-urban trading impacts directly on the irrigation industry because the water that is ‘transferred’ to cities – whether via market-based purchases or through direct government intervention – is that which is earmarked to supply irrigation.

So far, the volume of water being transferred is relatively small, totalling just over 100 GL annually. It is unclear how much more water might be purchased from irrigators for towns and city use over the coming decades. How that might impact on Australia’s capacity to grow enough food for our burgeoning population is also unclear, especially given the other imposts the industry is currently facing (re-setting of sustainable yields, climate change, environmental water buy-backs).

Are rural-urban transfers the significant threat to irrigation that they are feared to be by many in that industry? We won’t know if we don’t seek to explore and understand the situation in an intelligent and objective way.

What other water sources are available to meet our future population’s water demand?

While we can’t be certain exactly what that population will be, we can conservatively expect to be supplying a population of around 33 million by 2050 and around 55 million by 2100, with the vast majority of those people living in large towns and cities as they do now.

Based on the current annual per capita urban water use of 106 kilolitres per person (Australia’s capital city average), another 33 million people in 2100 will need an extra 3500 gigalitres of water to meet urban household, business and industrial needs.

According to WSAA, major gains in demand management have been made over the past decade, or are already in the planning ‘pipeline’ for the next 15-20 years. Not a lot more can be expected beyond that.

Image courtesy of Goulburn-Murray WaterImage courtesy of Goulburn-Murray Water

WSAA estimates that per capita urban water use will not change up to 2026, with further use efficiencies being counter-balanced by relaxations in water restrictions. By 2056, per capita demand will decrease, but by less than 10 per cent overall.

For the next 15 years, WSAA is optimistic that re-cycling and desalination (at currently planned levels) are adequate to fill the supply gap. Beyond that, more desalination is one obvious option. Australia is fortunate in that most of our people live on the coastal fringe where desalination is feasible – for demographic and geographic reasons, many other countries do not have that option. Water supply from desalination is also ‘high security’, being independent of climate and rainfall changes.

On the downside, desalination involves significant energy consumption costs and associated global warming concerns. Desalination-dependent countries such as the United Arab Emirates are working towards green energy sources to drive desalination plants, and in the desalination plants in Perth and Sydney we see the same green energy objectives being applied in Australia with wind-energy driving plant operations. Furthermore, the energy needs of desalination plants are likely to decrease as low pressure and other technological improvements come on line.

Building more dams in an increasingly dry climate seems like a pretty high risk strategy, and the environmental costs are nearly always high.

In the absence of other alternatives, it seems inevitable that desalination will play an increasing role in Australia’s future urban water security, and our population will have to wear any cost and energy implications. Water charges rose 12 per cent last year and there is no end to these price rises in sight, as more expensive ‘new’ water sources – re-cycling, desalination or otherwise – are brought on line.

It is ironic that if you look up ‘Australia’ on any world water table you will see that we have a comparatively high renewable water availability per capita (19,700 kL/person/year; compared with global median 4,300 kL/person/year). Moreover, we withdraw less than 10 per cent of our renewable water resources every year (c.1,200 kL/person), and use less than one per cent overall for urban drinking water (106 kL/person).

Plainly our potential national lack of urban water in 2056 will not be an actual lack, so much as a lack of political will and creative problem solving to decide on how our water can and should be allocated and distributed – and how population can be managed and regionally planned to harmonise better with water supply geographics.

In 2008, I was part of an Infrastructure Australia working group that called for ‘A National Water Supply Strategy, drawn from an evidence-based National Audit and driving a rolling infrastructure investment plan, linked to water security standards.’

As I have said above, I believe it is time to start working on something like that. We would be negligent not to have a strategic overview of how water is provided to different sectors of the economy over the coming century, and on what rational basis – economic, environmental and/or social.

The threats and immense challenges posed by climate change, and the inevitable need to grow water-supplies for our population, whether a ‘big’ population or otherwise, demand no less.

Further reading

Visit Inside Water to read more from Gary.

Quiggin, J. (2006), Urban water supply in Australia: the option of diverting water from irrigation. Public Policy, 1(1), 14–22.

WSAA (2010), Implications of population growth in Australia on urban water resources. Water Services Association of Australia: Occasional Paper No.25, July 2010

Global water use data
OECD Environment Outlook Baseline 2007, Pacific Institute

*A. Hepworth 2010, ‘City-dwellers may get rural water’, The Australian, August 02.

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