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Australia's rivers are in dire shape and we need better data to figure out why

By Ian Cordery - posted Wednesday, 20 August 2003

Water crisis? What water crisis? This is the reaction of most Australians when the desperate situation in Australia, and particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin, is mentioned.

In our coastal cities, where 80 per cent of Australians reside, every time we turn the tap we have as much high-quality water as we care to use and it is supplied so cheaply as to be virtually free. We pay about one-tenth of a cent a litre. So where is the crisis?

Inland the reality is very different. Over a very large proportion of our continent, competition for the finite (and unlikely ever to increase) water resource grows by the day. At the same time the salt content of the water is rising. Water drawn from the lower reaches of the Murray River often has a distinctly salty taste. In a few years Adelaide's water supply, about 50 per cent of which is drawn from the Murray, will be undrinkable.


There is sporadic interest in the approaching water crisis among our political leaders and the media. Some funds have been allocated to salinity control programs, but the amounts are ludicrously small. We live on the driest inhabited land mass on Earth and need to recognise that the future wellbeing of our nation depends on wise management and care of our very limited water resources.

However, because most of us live where excellent quality water is supplied at very low cost, we are unaware of the reality of the problem, and our "leaders", being reactionary, see no need to take initiatives on areas of low public concern.

There is also a major scientific reason for our lack of progress in dealing with this. We have very little understanding of the real availability of water in our vast continent, nor of the causes of increasing salinity. Certainly we have general ideas, but we do not understand the year-to-year and decade-to-decade variations in water availability, nor of the processes and pathways by which salt reaches the land surface and waterways such as the Murray.

Instead of spending on short-term fixes, we need to invest in efforts to better understand the water and salt cycles. Can we make better use of our sporadic flooding rains, perhaps to lessen the impact of drought or to provide large profits to help farmers in the drought that inevitably follows? Where is the salt in the natural environment? What causes it to move? Water is lost as it travels downstream. So how much of the water an upstream farmer sells can be extracted by the buyer further down the river? The rules for this conversion are pure guesswork, because no suitable measurements have been made.

A major impediment to understanding the processes and causes of the water crisis is the inadequate monitoring of our water resources. We measure flows and quality, including salinity, at far too few locations, and far too superficially. Monitoring programs - a state government responsibility on which we spend about $2 for each Australian each year - are totally inadequate as a basis for in-depth research. By contrast, Sydney Water spends about $10 a person to monitor the quantity and quality of water in its small area of responsibility, which includes only about 1 per cent of the nation's water resource and which has little salinity.

A comprehensive data base is essential. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) could do well to divert its own and the nation's attention to speedily gathering factual information on the real state of Australia's water resources.


In the short term, the COAG meeting this month could encourage a water market to develop, but should maintain control of the rules and clearly state that these will be modified as the real state of our water availability and environmental water needs become better understood.

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Article edited by Ian Spooner.
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This article was first published in The Sydney morning Herald on 25 June 2003.

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About the Author

Ian Cordery is a visiting associate professor in the school of civil and environmental engineering at the University of NSW.

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