Back to Contents

Ecologically Sustainable Development

Sustainable water use

Is it possible?

Imogen Schoots
Water Project Officer with the Nature Conservation Council of NSW

Alarming figures recently released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that Australians are the second highest consumers of water in the world, yet we are the driest inhabited continent! And the amount of water stored for each Sydneysider is over four times that stored for each Londoner. Australia has more stored water than almost any other nation.

There are many other barriers to sustainability. Much of the water we use is delivered by an inefficient system where water is wasted through evaporation and seepage from creek beds, pipes and other infrastructure. Half the volume of water diverted from its primary source may be lost by the time the water is actually used for its intended purpose.

The cost of a resource should indicate its value. Instead, water pricing within NSW does not include environmental externalities such as river degradation. A megalitre of water in Sydney currently costs 90c, which is over 1,000 times cheaper than the cost of an equivalent amount of petrol. This barely covers delivery and infrastructure maintenance costs.

The hydrological alteration of natural river and groundwater systems for irrigation purposes is affecting ecosystems in ways which are still being discovered. The greater the disturbance to a natural flow regime, the less sustainable the catchment.

Water traditionally has not received attention as a serious natural resource issue. Perhaps this is because it is not seen to be as emotive or ‘sexy’ as ancient forests being massacred by chainsaws. In reality, the scale of mismanagement is probably very similar.

To summarise, water use in NSW is unsustainable because:

1 we over consume;

2 we store considerably more water than we need;

3 too much is wasted;

4 water is under-priced; and

5 ecosystem responses are rarely considered when decisions about flow volumes are being made.

By analysing these main issues a picture can be created, piecing together ways towards sustainability. So, what would the achievement of sustainable water use involve?

Consumption rates can be addressed through pricing as a means of reducing wastage by water users. Mechanisms such as water use efficiency and demand management strategies can also help curb consumption rates.

The impacts of dams and weirs (including thermal pollution) are now being identified and addressed. The need for so many dams and weirs on our river systems is being reassessed (though the mind-set is changing slowly), and we are now seeing some weirs being removed.

The development of sustainability indicators may assist with determining exactly how water delivery for environmental purposes (that is, environmental flows) can be achieved.

The Water Management Bill 2000 – tabled recently in State Parliament – provides the greatest opportunity in decades to attempt to make water planning and management in NSW more sustainable. This is the first time in 90 years that the legislation is being rewritten, and represents the first time that the environment will be recognised as a legitimate user of water. With the Bill being debated in Parliament later this year, we have some time at least to work towards legislation which provides for sustainable management of this precious resource.

NCC’s "Healthy Rivers + Healthy Communities demand water for life" campaign focuses on how water management into the new millennium can become sustainable.

The true test is yet to come.

 Imogen Schoots is a Water Project Officer
 with the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.

Healthy Rivers + Healthy
communities demand
water for life!

NCC has recently launched its water campaign. The aim is to foster a new approach to water sharing and to promote sustainable water management into the new millennium. The campaign recognizes the global importance of water to humans as well as to the environment, and is aimed not just at the rural sector but also at urban centres. With the tabling of the NSW Water Management Bill in Parliament, now is the opportune time to raise the profile of ‘water’ as a serious issue for all of NSW, including urban centres.

To mark the occasion NCC has produced a postcard. 
For more information on the campaign or the postcards, call 02 9279 2466; 
or see our website
or e-mail

 National Parks Association - Home Page
Other editions of the National Parks Journal

Top of page