I worry a lot lately about water.
It’s a categorical fact that Australia is the driest inhabited continent on the planet. It’s well known. We have a lot of droughts, and we have a lot of long droughts. We’re affected by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and we’re affected by the lesser known Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation. New Guinea casts a rain-shadow over northern Australia. We have huge deserts that dry all the water out of any air that passes over them. Australia is just a bloody dry place.
So it’s a pity that we’re so ridiculously bad at conserving water.
Australia is the driest continent in the world, but per capita, Australians are among the top ten water users in the world. I consider this to be one of those crazy statistics that Australia comes up with once in a while just to mess with me; the last good one I heard was that Australia, the least forested country in the world, is also the biggest exporter of woodchips. Anyway. Most of the water that is used in Australia is used for agriculture; if my university lecturers are to be believed, the break-up of water use in Australia is about as follows: ten percent residential, twenty percent industrial, seventy percent agricultural.
The thing is, though, if that water were effectively and efficiently used, I could live with that quantity of water and use it to grow food. Unfortunately, it just isn’t the case. Many farmers in Australia use flood irrigation rather than the more efficient drip irrigation scheme. Instead of water being dripped directly onto soil at the base of plants, it’s flooded across a field. This is a bad idea, mostly because of how much water it uses and how little we have, but also because it contributes to erosion and the saturation and salinisation of our soil.
It’s not like there haven’t been attempts to move farmers to drip irrigation systems. There have been many, and they have failed. I would like to be able to explain why but I can’t. It seems obvious to me that using less of your resources at any given moment means that you will have more later, and are less likely to run out completely, but this argument seems to run farmers by. Likely it has to do with the fact of water allotments from our rivers – the source of irrigation for a majority of our agriculture. It’s the usual tragedy of the commons, individuals seeking personal gain immediately, because they don’t trust the majority to do the right thing, and everyone thereby contributing to sink the system. I can’t get past the fact that by taking too much water out of rivers, farmers are directly screwing themselves in the future.
This is true, incidentally. Farmers typically rely primarily on river water. When that runs low, they tend to move to irrigating from groundwater. What that ignores is that rivers feed groundwater, and the primary sources for rivers, far upland, are also groundwater. Taking water from that system and feeding it to plants, which are then exported, means the system then has to wait for the next rainfall to be replenished. And while we can move between using river and groundwater resources, we have yet to come up with a way to make it rain. If we overuse any of our watersources, there isn’t actually anything we can do to make them come back. Nor can we rely on other resources to replace them because, as I’ve explained, the water is interconnected.
Apparently the government solution to all of this is to build a desalination plant – the one way to get new water into an otherwise closed system. This is brilliant in the same way that tourniqueting a bleeding wound is brilliant; it will stop the blood flow. Regrettably, in most cases the tourniquet will damage the body it is supposedly helping, cut of blood supply, and lead to gangrene and the amptutation of a limb – or death. This is actually a pretty good metaphor for desal plants, given the way they will contribute to climate change and actually worsen our water problems. Ignore that aspect for a minute: desalinated water is just impractical. For one thing, it’s too expensive to use anywhere outside of cities. For another, farmers buy water by the ton and kiloton, not the litre. Desalinated water is never going to produce enough water to be used in agriculture, and really that’s where the shortages are.
The thing is, though, if we were better at using our water to begin with, farmers wouldn’t deal with the kind of shortages that they do. If farming used less water, more water would be available, and each individual farmer would need less water to farm. It’s so obvious it’s mind breaking it hasn’t already been done.
But Australia is bad at efficiency. We’re much better at wringing our hands once the damage has already been done. And so I worry about water.