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Real Australians, aware of their water footprints, won't walk on the grass

By Julian Cribb - posted Monday, 15 December 2003

Over a lifetime, the average Australian uses around 100,000 tonnes of water – somewhat more than is displaced by the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.

We live in an arid continent - but it isn’t the continent’s fault that it’s short of water. It’s ours. Put it down to the fact that in a country called Australia there aren’t many genuine Australians.

Twenty million transplants, only a very few of whom have learned real respect for the H2O. But hardly a single person whose daily water use is tuned to the water cycle of Australia itself.


The challenge of this century is going to be for us to learn to how live like real Australians – creatures attuned to the vast, episodic, erratic climate cycles and hydrology of our land, like those emblematic Australians, the kangaroo, the gum tree and the Murray Cod.

That challenge is now upon us because, in our haste for progress and wealth, we have turned an infinite substance into a finite one.

For the kind of uses we put it to, we have just about run out of water – especially in the southern part of the continent – mainly because we haven't got our heads around the ideas of respect and re-use, and we have little idea of the size of our "water footprint" on the wider landscape.

We flirt with the problem with dual-flush toilets and economy shower roses, by not sending our towels to the laundry every day and fitting timers to our garden hoses. But we’re really just pretending to be water conscious.

We come nowhere near the core of the problem, which is that to support each of us for a lifetime consumes 100,000 tonnes of water. Most of that water is actually employed to grow food, timber, make steel or other consumables. As a consumer you haven’t the faintest idea of the embodied water content of your car, your chair, your beef, your rice, your house, your T-shirt, your soap, your newspaper or your cricket bat. This accounts for around nine tenths, or more, of our personal water use.

So we need a new way to think and talk about water, not only in our daily lives but especially in our consumption patterns - one which informs us of the volume of water devoured by every item that we buy or use.


We can rate manufactured products for energy content – why not for water content too? We need a “water friendly” droplet rating systems for all consumables, to help consumers in supermarkets and clothing stores, hardware marts or garden centres make waterwise decisions - not just objects that use water directly, like pumps and washing machines, but all objects that have used water at any stage of their life cycle. This way, Australians, especially urban Australians, can begin to appreciate the true scale of their "water footprint" on the landscape.

Also, if we can rate everything society uses or enjoys in water drops (embodied water) instead of dollars, it will create a common “green” currency – which may address one of the problems of environmental accounting.

The second challenge is to overcome our squeamishness about drinking recycled water. When you think about it, every molecule of water on the planet is at least 4000 million years old, and has probably been through innumerable fish, insects, dinosaurs, plants, trees, bacteria and other people. So when we recycle our urban waste water, we're doing what is completely natural. The technology exists to ensure it is clean, pure and disease-free.

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This article is based on a paper presented to “Water: The Australian Dilemma”, the 2003 annual symposium of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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