Current levels of water use are completely unsustainable in Australia — the world’s driest inhabited continent. Excessive water use, especially by heavy industry and water-intensive agribusiness, is causing irreparable damage to our fragile ecosystems and creating chronic water shortages.
Conventional free-market economics aims to solve this problem by putting a price on water and allowing it to be traded by those who can afford to purchase it.
This approach allows governments to ignore the real challenge of conserving water properly and rationing its use according to need. Trading in water encourages speculation and the most profitable rather than the most sustainable and socially just uses. It leads to poor farming practices and increased prices for residential use.
This is the approach of the Australian government’s National Water Initiative. It is also insufficiently funded to achieve the wholesale conversion of water infrastructure and reduction in water demand that the ecosystems along the Murray-Darling basin need to recover.
A serious water conservation policy has to target the big industrial and agricultural water users. Currently the lack of water conservation by industry and agribusiness means that the efforts of householders to conserve water are being wasted.
Water is not simply a commodity or an input into industry and agriculture: it is the central element of our ecosystems.
Instead of market-based approaches we advocate an all-round plan for water sustainability based on a thorough scientific assessment of rivers, wetlands and water tables. Data collection and research, including public research, is increasingly funded by mining and other corporations and results suppressed or reworked. Public research must be non-biased, accessible by all and in public hands.
The knowledge of Indigenous communities is an essential part of making that assessment and developing sound proposals for water conservation.
In the country, measures to preserve normal water flows in rivers and wetlands and implement low-input sustainable farming practices are essential. In the cities, measures to reduce water waste and start harvesting storm water and rain water and recycling waste water are essential.
There is enough water for everyone if comprehensive conservation measures were adopted and its use fairly allocated. Such an approach would remove the need to build further large, environmentally damaging, dams.
To achieve water sustainability, public ownership and democratic, accountable management of water resources is essential. Unless the water supply is publicly owned, the profit motive will always disrupt scientifically-based water conservation measures.