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The extreme fallout from the decision to slash people’s water entitlements in the Murray-Darling Basin highlights the significance of water as an environmental issue.
This water shortage is closely linked to climate change. The 13-year drought might have broken in Australia, but the problem is not going away. Research released by the South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative, reported here, reveals that the Murray-Darling Basin and much of the south-east of Australia is getting drier, despite the long overdue rains this year.
Water has become the new oil. Like energy, it has become the most critical resource. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global warming will change precipitation patterns around the world. It will melt mountain glaciers, and worsen the extremes of droughts and floods. A study by the UK Meteorological Office predicts that severe droughts in Europe, now occurring once every 50 years, could occur at least once a decade.
According to the World Health Organisation water scarcity affects one in three people on every continent of the globe. This issue is getting worse because water needs rise with population growth and urbanisation which increases household and industrial uses. About 1.2 billion people live in areas where water is scarce. One quarter of the global population are in developing countries that face water shortages because of a lack of infrastructure to get water from aquifers and rivers.
More than 10 per cent of people around the world consume foods irrigated by wastewater which can contain chemicals or bacteria. Poor water quality increases the risk of such diseases as cholera, typhoid and dysentery. Water scarcity can result in such diseases as trachoma, typhus and plague. It can also see more people storing water in their homes. That becomes a threat to public safety because it increases the risk of contamination and also becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes spreading malaria.
The CSIRO’s Dr Bill Young says we need to get smarter with the way we use water, saying that “the realities of climate change have forced urban water managers to rethink strategies to secure water supplies and meet future demand for water.’’
“There is broad agreement that in some places we have over-allocated water for irrigation leading to environmental degradation. This has been exacerbated by the recent drought. In spite of good recent rains in the southern Murray-Darling, the expectations are for more frequent and more severe droughts in the future,” writes Young.
The Murray-Darling changes are just the beginning. What other strategies do we need as well?