Don’t Drink the Water

Bob Obi Obi flood 2011Australia’s fickle weather can pick you up one day and dump on you the next; months of drought can turn in a heartbeat to flooding rains that ruin crops, damage property and erode the land. Rainfall can be prodigious – notoriously wet places like Tully in far north Queensland or Springbrook and Maleny (south east Queensland), can receive 100mm in 15 minutes and some of those places have recorded up to a metre of rain in a week or two. Unhappily for farmers in the arid interior who depend on water to grow food and sustain livestock, much of this precious water runs out to sea. Some is captured in dams, but Australia’s notoriously high evaporation rate together with the country’s growing population (not to mention industry), soon enough sucks the water level down to normal, then low. Authorities impose water restrictions, although the constraints are usually self-imposed. If the Toyota Prado’s been out in the bush, the owner is probably going to wash it, water restrictions or not.
We all waste water, alas, even those of us who claim to be conservationists. Washing dishes – run the tap until the water turns hot, and then put the plug in. You just let four or five litres run away down the storm drains. When brushing their teeth, most people let the tap run. There are so many ways in which first world householders waste water. Think of impoverished African villagers making the daily trek to the well to cart a bucket of not very clean water. Much about how we manage water comes down to common sense and having an unselfish attitude to this most precious resource. Without water, everything dies.
So we need to share it around. As Nelson Mandela once said: “Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.” This nicely distils life’s necessities into one terse sentence.
Water is becoming big business in Australia’s agriculture sector where big global investment groups like Kidder Williams (not to mention a few mainland Chinese companies), are buying up water rights – legislated water allocations for farmers and irrigators.
It is not difficult at all to find registered water brokers, whose job it is to stitch up irrigation entitlements for landowners.
Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water. By 2030, 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Environmental Outlook to 2030 report The OECD says water scarcity will worsen, due to unsustainable use and management of the resource as well as climate change. The number of people living in areas affected by severe water stress is expected to increase by another 1 billion to over 3.9 billion by 2030.
“Do Something” – a community organisation which tries to raise awareness about environmental issues, says that while Australia has the luxury of quality tap water, Australians have developed a habit of buying bottled water. According to <>, we spend more than $500 million a year on bottled water. In 2009, Australia produced 582.9 million litres of bottled water, and these figures would only have increased since then. In most cases, a litre of bottled water costs as much or more than a litre of petrol. Moreover, the manufacturing process of producing, packaging and selling bottled water is not environmentally sustainable.
This subject came to life for me again while driving through South Australia. The Murray River provides 40% of the State’s water, which probably explains why South Australians get twitchy about irrigators upstream in other States tapping into an ever-diminishing resource. In South Australia, a network of above-ground water pipelines keep people focused on the fact that they live in one of the more arid parts of a dry continent. We followed one such pipeline 143 kms from Keith, a prosperous grain growing centre not far over the border from Victoria, to Tailem Bend. That particular pipeline was built in the 1960s, including 800 kms of branch mains, so someone had a long-term plan. Fifty-plus years on, a lot of one and two-term governments faced with crippling drought opted for expensive, power-hungry desalination plants. SA has one of those now too, but it gets mothballed when it is not needed, which raises all sorts of questions about the cost of water conservation. As we trekked northwards to Port Augusta, we followed another water pipeline, which brings water from the Murray River at Morgan to Port Augusta, Whyalla and Woomera. This too was built years ago to provide water security to remote, arid towns.
We lived through a lengthy period of dire water restrictions in south east Queensland when a combination of drought and over-use saw the major dams dwindle to below 30%. It was amazing how quickly the conscientious among us adapted to collecting shower water in buckets, restricting hand-held garden watering to our allotted days/hours and driving around in dirty cars. But once the crisis was past and torrential rain had filled the dam, we tend to lapse back into our wasteful ways.
A study by Rheem Australia found that almost half of Australians spend six minutes or more in the shower and 26% of Australians have two or more showers a day. When one is in a caravan and winter temperatures remain in single figures through the day, one sometimes forgets to have a shower at all. Here in Coober Pedy we have to stump up 20 cents for a three-minute shower – the morning is looking good!
We have all developed middle class, first-world attitudes to water – we expect it to be of pristine quality, and if it isn’t, then off we go to the supermarket to buy a 10 or 15-litre carton. I confess to buying a lot of bulk spring water last time we went to the outback; it doesn’t take long for our treated city water stomachs to start heaving with frequent changes in water quality as we travel. Bluegrass band Uncle Bill recorded a song called “Don’t drink the water” which resonates loudly in the outback where aquifer water often smells so much like unleaded petrol you don’t want to believe that after boiling it is OK to drink.
On this outback trip, after filtering local water and finding it unpalatable, I went into a local Coles and bought 20 litres of spring water for $10. Hypocrite? Maybe, but I feel less queasy already.

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Al Buchan
July 23, 2014 12:24 am

Q. What will happen to all the waste water contained in those gigantic tailing ponds, those vast pools of water that accompany every Coal Seam Gas Well dotting our countryside, when the rains come?

Those ponds contain an undisclosed toxic chemical cocktail of unimaginable consequence to our environment!

Dread the thought… that those mining ‘experts’ sleep safe at night, dreaming of the belief that the solution to pollution is dilution! Uggghhh….