WWF-Canada Blog:

What can the Great Wet North learn from the Dry Down Under?

Water is a hot topic in Australia. We don’t have a lot of it, or we have too much of it all at once. The slow soaking rains of Vancouver are only imagined in the wildest dreams of many Australian farmers.

So what can my fellow residents here in B.C. learn from the experience of my native land, the driest continent in the world?

First, some background on geography. The Murray-Darling Basin covers 14% of Australia’s total land area, and is often called Australia’s Food Bow as it contains the majority of the country’s irrigated agriculture. The Basin contains 23 river valleys, and runs from the north of the country in Queensland, through several states, and finally reaches the ocean some 3,375 km later in South Australia. It’s a huge area and has been severely affected by drought

Water reform is one of those areas where you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Last month the Murray-Darling Basin Authority released the draft Basin plan, which will set new sustainable diversion limits. While there is no single volume of water or number that will guarantee the health of the Murray–Darling Basin, the plan acknowledges the need for rules and constraints.

The foreword to the new plan shows how heated the debate over reforming water allocation has been:

“Different state governments have different views. Typically, Victoria and New South Wales argue for minimal change while South Australia strongly argues for a larger volume of water. At times they seem to be almost diametrically opposed.

Situation normal!

The conservation movement want more,  farmers and irrigators want less. Scientists want more science. Again, situation normal!

Everyone has “right” on their side. For every claim there is a counter claim.”

To save you all wading through the legislation yourselves (letters of thanks will be accepted), I’ve been reading it and I think it’s got good bones. The plan has pissed almost everyone off, which when you’re in government, generally means you’ve hit a middle ground somewhere.

Environmental groups like GetUp! are campaigning against the Basin plan saying the environmental water allocations are too low and it’s not going to do anything to help the river, but the numbers are not concrete. That’s the whole point of legislation – you put in a framework that is flexible enough to adapt to changing climates and situations. Especially when you’re developing water legislation.

This is the challenge that B.C. is going to face. The B.C. provincial government is developing the new Water Sustainability Act and plans to release draft legislation by the summer of 2012. What’s going to be really difficult is convincing people that something needs to be done about water allocations now.

Water scarcity is not something people in B.C. deal with regularly. It’s not in the forefront of their minds (except in the height of summer). Many Vancouverites won’t panic at the sight of a running tap, and think that it’s fine to leave it running while they brush their teeth, or fill a glass and drink it before filling the second glass. Having lived with permanent water restrictions in Melbourne, I do feel that panic-filled urge to turn the tap off.

I have to remind myself not to shout at the guy outside a store who is hosing down the street with water instead of sweeping the leaves away. In Australia, doing that is illegal. I’m still not used to taking a shower without an egg timer in there with me so I know when three minutes is up and it’s time to turn the water off. And don’t even get me started on how wasteful it is to have a bath, and then take a shower to ‘clean off’ afterwards! (Oh, and by the way Canada, what’s with all the baths? Do you really use them that often? I couldn’t tell you that last time I actually had a bath!)

It took over a decade of drought, trees and wetlands being severely stressed, small country towns actually drying up and having to truck drinking water in, and farmers getting 0% water allocations before the federal government felt it had the mandate to reform water legislation. That’s what the new Murray-Darling Basin plan is all about.

I hope it doesn’t take that kind of catastrophe here in B.C.

Amy Huva is an environmental chemist and sports fanatic from Melbourne, Australia. She worked for the Australian government for two years before packing her bags for the ski fields of British Columbia. She now works in the environmental industry in Vancouver and blogs regularly for CarbonTalks.ca.  All opinions expressed in this blog are her own.

  • ian says:

    A lot of half cocked comments….again. The interior of Australia is SALTY! IT’s interior lakes are mainly salt lakes, the river system(s) such as it is in Australia is rather unique in the world, they run MOSTLY from the sea to the inland – hence – salt rivers. That is what makes fresh water precious. The ELEPHANT that is not being tackled is desalination of the interior – which would a huge project, but, if undertaken and seen through would ensure Australia as a permanent producer of surplus food with an ability to “green” the inland. A SALT WATER canal from the EAST to the WEST coast, with desalination plants, a flooding within defined boundaries for YEARS by the desal plants, An extension of the Ord river to Adelaide (with a canal overpass of the other canal) A created scenario that re shapes the land, provides additional transport opportunities, fuels the economy and turns Australia in to a wonderland.

  • Susan says:

    Australia also has a big white elephant in the room when it comes to water reform which is crucial to solving the River Murray water issues.

    In the 1930’s South Australia built 7.6km of barrages across the tidal estuary of the River Murray. This essentially diminished the size of the estuary to just 10% it’s original size, and changed Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert to fresh water lakes.

    By blocking out the sea with the barrages, early Australian settlers were able to run dairies and grow crops, but by blocking the sea, many environmental problems have appeared and the huge schools of mulloway that once frequented the Lakes are gone.

    So now in modern day Australia, and even during drought, the Lower Lakes of South Australia require 2000 GL of water to be kept at flood levels. The Lower Lakes are huge and very shallow, only 8 feet in depth. They evaporate 1000 GL of fresh water each year. These Lakes put a huge unnatural demand for fresh water on the River Murray ecosystem during drought. Many of the devastating photos from the drought come from this region.

    This is the white elephant in the room that no Australian politician wants to tackle. The current debate by environmentalists frame irrigated agriculture as the villain of the river. The South Australians need every drop of water they can get to support their state economy. Only now, with pressure from other states are the barrages, basically dams, across the estuary, getting any attention at all.

    I would encourage Canadians to go onto Google Earth or Google Maps. The barrages are easily visible. And it would be great if someone would tell the Australians that estuaries are worth saving.

  • Deb says:

    As a Brit who’s settled in Australia, I’m not sure that Aus makes the best model for water conservation, even if we are the driest continent on earth. I am still shocked at the amount of water wasted here. For example, in Britain, when there are water restrictions, you can’t hose your lawn. We used to use our dirty washing-up water to water the rose bushes, or carry buckets down after a bath. In many local government areas in Aus, that’s illegal (due to health concerns) and water restrictions generally mean you can only water your lawn every other day with a hose and have to turn off automatic sprinkler systems. May environmentalists are critical of the Murry-Darling Basin Plan. Does it go far enough? Will there be enough envionmental flow to save the Koorong? I lived in Kenya for a while where average water use is about 4 litres per day. I probably used closer to 8 – for everything – drinking, cooking and washing. Personally, I think Australia still has a very long way to go!

  • PandaFan says:

    Thanks for letting us know what’s up in Australia. We think it can’t happen here but many would be surprised at all the places across Canada that experience water shortages each year. The looming spectre of climate change will only make it worse. Starting now with better water efficiency and conservation will help us save money and more importantly will save our precious environment in the long run.

  • Rob says:

    My Uncle Rum was a dryland wheat farmer near Merango Saskatchewan. His normally unflappable nature would fail him when he saw people overwatering their suburban Calgary yards.

    I was lucky enough to spend time on South Pender Island (one of the Gulf Islands between Vancouver and Victoria). We had to limit our water use there because the wells run down by September. Even on the wet coast, water supply can be limited.

    The Province of Alberta has announced that it will review its water allocation policy, and not a moment too soon. Some allocations are already unsustainable. Let’s hope Albertans will learn from the hard-won experience in Australia.

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