Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
Our planet earth is a very watery place as the sea occupies over 70% of the Earths surface.Coincidentally, water makes up 70% of our human body mass.
The bulk of our fresh water resides in the polar icecaps, which are gradually melting due to global warming. Fresh water sources are from surface catchments, lakes and rivers and underground sources, and water as a finite resource has been largely taken for granted in the developed world until fairly recently.
Our cradle of civilisation began with the birth of agriculture, allowing stored grains to be used as required without the need of a nomadic lifestyle in search of seasonal food. Civilisations great leap forward however came from the use of irrigation, allowing many varieties to be grown with less dependence on seasonal rainfall.
Our Pioneers were blissfully unaware of the consequences of large scale irrigation in arid areas and its resultant salination effects over time on the soil. In Australia away from our dense populations on the eastern seaboard, the country is fragile, dry and one without the rich volcanic soil seen in many other parts of the globe, except for a few isolated pockets. This is the legacy of 4 billion years under the sea which washed out most of the soils nutrients. The aboriginals occupied the land prior to colonisation for 45,000 years but the early settlers reshaped the landscape in the shadow of British farming practices, with extensive tree felling and overgrazing by sheep and cattle. The combination of tree felling and irrigation raised the water levels causing salination problems in many parts of the countryside: miles and miles of desolate, salt filled land with pools of salt water render land unusable. Similar outcomes are prevalent in parts of the USA, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan, all effected by salination.
Irrigation impacted adversely on our largest river system, the Murray, which flows along the eastern side of South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria borders. Irrigation from the Murray sustains this region which produces 50% of Australia’s fresh fruit and vegetables, but at a terrible cost to the river and its eco system. Irrigation water drawn from the Murray has resulted in so little water remaining in the once mighty river its flow was insufficient to carry any fresh water into the ocean.
This environmental position for the river if allowed to continue would have a devastating affect on its biology, eliminating most species.
Fortunately there is a ground for cautious optimism today as both our Commonwealth and Sate Governments have put aside substantial funds directed to restoring an environmental flow of water to the Murray river, but at the time of writing no conclusive settlement has been reached.The new water deal will see 120 billion liters of water returned to the Murray River from farmers in exchange for funds for upgrades to irrigation and other farming infrastructure. Some irrigation systems loose up to 40% of water to evaporation. The deal has been welcomed by Farmers but remains bogged down because of interstate rivalries involving the "unbundling" of state water rights.
The framework will not be implemented until agreement is reached with other states on issues such as the value of water. Under the Bill rivers will be legally entitled to a certain amount of water known as an environmental water reserve.The bill demands a review of the state's water resources every 15 years, in part examining how events such as climate change and bushfires affect levels.
Today there is also an industry being built up around water. The idea is that water rights could be traded, like other commodities; ensuring users pay a market price for those facilities to be made available. The rights would only aggregate in total to the level calculated as sustainable by respective country authorities. I like the idea rivers will be legally entitled to a certain amount of water known as an Environmental Water Reserves as I think it’s another practical way of entering a covenant with nature. It’s vitally important for Australia as it is even more so, for the developing world. To day the developed world still uses around 70% of all available water for irrigation
Overall we are learning from past mistakes and per capita use of water in Australia has reduced by 20% per year for the past few years. I think farming and looking after the environment go hand in hand. Both can co-exist as an expression of long term sustainability. It's often Farmers who are the ones most interested in preserving their environment to farm in a sustainable way.
Notwithstanding some of these positive aspects of reduced agricultural water usage the provision of fresh drinking water remains one of the largest challenges for the world to day. But that’s another topic.