By Michael Mobbs
1 February 2012 –This is a map which will change Australia’s future in the next 10 years. (1)
The map shows the area of land covered by the coal, petrol, oil and minerals mining leases given or being given over the Queensland catchments of the Murray Darling rivers. It foretells the finale of the rivers’ story.
Over 60 per cent of the catchments are to be mined.
The mining is taking both the water in the rivers and in the ground. This mining consumes about as much water as farming.
The area to be mined is so completely spread across the rivers and their catchments, so clear in its end result for the rivers and grounds water that it’s almost impossible to comprehend how governments could allow it.
The mining will take so much water from farming it will cause the quantity of food grown in the Murray-Darling Basin in the next 10 to 20 years to at least halve. About 40 per cent of Australia’s food is grown there.
The amount of ground and river water is expected to decline by at least 5- 15 per cent during these coming two decades; the data is clear and does not include the new mining leases.
“. . . there is very little spare capacity in the water budget [of Australia’s continent] for new activities or for using more water in existing activities; in other words, the Australian continental water budget is precariously balanced . . . Too many aquifers are already being over-extracted, with extraction at rates greater than natural rates of recharge . . . Groundwater use across Australia doubled between 1983 and 1996 . . . In most states groundwater extraction exceeds licensed allocations (Australian Water Resources Assessment 2000) . . . The commercial return on the water used in many agricultural industries is often small. For example, the beef cattle industry uses 800 litres of water to generate $1 of product value, and the seed cotton industry uses about 1600 litres of water to generate $1 of output. Rice in the husk uses almost 7500 litres to produce $1 of output . . . “
Ecohydrology: vegetation function, water and resource management, Eamus, Hatton, Cook & Colvin, CSIRO 2006 pp 3, 5]
In a 2012 report the near-terminal state of the rivers was made clear in the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation report:
“The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW) notes that while the last 50 years witnessed a notable increase in food production, “in too many places, achievements have been associated with management practices that have degraded the land and water systems upon which food production depends.”
Today a number of those systems “face the risk of progressive breakdown of their productive capacity under a combination of excessive demographic pressure and unsustainable agriculture use and practices,” the report says.
No region is immune: systems at risk can be found around the globe, from the highlands of the Andes to the steppes of Central Asia, from Australia’s Murray-Darling river basin to the central United States . . . But one of the “warning signs” flagged by the SOLAW report is that rates of growth in agricultural production have been slowing in many areas and are today only half of what they were during the heyday of the Green Revolution.”
- See the report
The water cost of what we eat
Product global average water litres footprint
Table of water use for everyday products
|Product||Global average water use for production|
|1 A4 sheet paper||10|
|1 kg of potato flakes||900|
|1 litre milk||1,000|
|1 kilo cane sugar||1,500|
|1 cotton shirt||2,700|
|1 kg rice||3,400|
|1 kg chicken meat||3,900|
|1 kilo pork||4,800|
|1 kg cheese||5,000|
|1 kg beef||15,500|
|1 kg of leather||
Source: The Water Footprint Network
Because the same, finite amount of river and ground water is owned several times over by farmers, there’s not enough for every farmer. Theft, as the data from the 2000 report above indicates, is consistent, widespread and accepted by farmers and government.
The final destructive act for the rivers is the granting of mining leases by Queensland, New South Wales and Victorian governments across millions of hectares of the river catchments and, with the leases, more licences to take more water. But there isn’t enough water for the farmers or the miners, and the data showing this was established 10 years ago and was publicised internationally.
Why is this happening?
Governments’ history of self-interested behavior – over-allocation of water to farmers and miners for political gain – explains their current conduct, it appears. And the money. Each of the states expects to receive over $40 billion in royalties from the mining they’re approving.
A water squandering madness is underway from mining out there far from the eyes of we city folk this side of the Great Dividing Ranges.
I can imagine the tragedy being averted only if the authors of the rivers’ destruction – the miners, the governments, the politicians –were to live there and depend on this resource for their food and water. Then they’d “get it”. But they don’t and they won’t.
We’re living through gross mismanagement of a scale that’s greater than that which has gone before us in our 200 years here.
I can’t believe what the map tells my eyes.
(1) Maps have been created by Bathurst Burr and graphic artist, Saima Ali based on maps published by the Queensland Murray Darling Catchment Authority in the report, Mining and Energy Industry Impact on Natural Resource Management in the Queensland Murray-Darling Basin Geoff Penton CEO QMDC; and available here
Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach and author (of Sustainable House now in its second edition) who advises, teaches and speaks on sustainability issues. He works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. See www.sustainablehouse.com.au