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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2055

Mr ORGAN (1:07 PM) —As the government itself acknowledged in this place on 24 June, managing Australia's fresh water resources effectively and efficiently is one of the most important environmental and resource management challenges. The government has further acknowledged:

The long-term health of our fresh water ecosystems also depends on us minimising the negative impacts of agricultural and urban water consumption.

Although the government is keen to be seen to be doing something about the water crisis in this country—and this is an important step, and so I support the final comments of the previous speaker—what it has proposed falls short of the initiatives and leadership required to address this crucial issue. As the previous speaker said, there is a lot more yet to be done.

To genuinely address the water crisis, Australia needs more than the initiatives proposed in this legislation. A national water efficiency labelling and standards scheme, as proposed by the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Bill 2004, will require water efficiency labels to appear on a range of common water-using products like washing machines, dishwashers and toilets. Establishing a regime for the setting of minimum water efficiency standards is a great start, but these initiatives do not go far enough. As the government acknowledges, these initiatives are focused at the household water use level. However, at just under 1,800 gigalitres per year—that is, 1,800 billion litres per year—household water use accounts for about 16 per cent of the consumption of the main supply of water in Australia. This is only the second largest share of mains water use. Agriculture, at around 8,400 gigalitres per year, accounts for around 75 per cent of consumption. That is 75 per cent versus 16 per cent; thus domestic water use comes a distant second to agricultural usage. This is clearly where initiatives regarding water use must be focused. This bill says nothing of how the federal government has been and will be addressing the key aspect of water use in the country by the agricultural sector. This is another missed opportunity.

However, in regard to the legislation before us, the purpose of the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Bill 2004 is, as I said, to establish a water efficiency scheme for a range of important water-using products. Through the scheme, the government wants to empower consumers by providing them with information about the water efficiency of products so that they can contribute to water conservation directly through the purchase of more water efficient products. This information will predominantly come in the form of labels on products covered by the scheme, but will also come from the associated web site and promotional material. This is an important initiative which will no doubt address issues of water use in urban areas to a certain extent; and, as I said, the government must be commended on its action in this area.

But so much more must be done as Australia, and indeed the world, is facing a water crisis which deserves more substantial attention. A water efficiency labelling scheme is only one small part of the jigsaw. In my seat of Cunningham, in Wollongong in the Illawarra, we have been graced with ample water supplies, with plenty of fresh water available in the dams associated with the Illawarra catchment area. We are a bit spoilt, but we only need to look around us or at the TV on any day to see that there is drought throughout this country—there are even drought conditions in the Sydney basin and water restrictions are in place. That is due to weather effects and to increasing usage of water. We are all going to have to think very hard about how we use water in the future.

Through the scheme proposed in this bill, the government wants to empower consumers by providing them with information about the water efficiency of products so that they can contribute to water conservation directly through the purchase of more water efficient products. This information will, primarily, as I said, come in the form of labels. So much more needs to be done, and a water efficiency labelling scheme is only one small part of the jigsaw in regard to the government's initiatives in this area, although at this point it appears to be a substantial part of the government's program.

The House of Representatives Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, which was dealing with the issue of water in this country, released its report at the end of June. The committee said that urgent research into sustainable use of fresh water sources is needed, along with a new federal ministerial portfolio to oversee it. The report also suggested the need for a national policy on recycling and reuse of stormwater and treated effluent, and the mandatory installation of rainwater tanks, subject to suitable health codes being in place. CSIRO modelling shows that a 10,000-litre rainwater tank in a typical Sydney house would reduce imported water demand by 48 per cent and stormwater run-off by 35 per cent.

On the subject of water tanks, I was impressed to read about a water saving device called RainBank, which is being developed in Australia by Davey Pumps. RainBank can reduce household demand for mains water by up to 40 per cent. RainBank automatically switches the water source from the domestic mains to rainwater in a household tank when a toilet is flushed or a washing machine is used. The product won the Savewater! Award in 2004 and is an Australian innovation which could make a substantial contribution towards addressing our urban water use. This product is a remarkable piece of technology that the government should be championing nationwide. If the government is genuine about domestic water use and bringing down some of the usage rates, what about more actively promoting the use of these products and subsidising their development, and what about accepting the recommendations of the committee and making rainwater tanks a mandatory requirement?

There is so much more that can be done. Sadly, the government is missing an excellent opportunity to more proactively address the water usage crisis that is currently facing this nation. Our use of all our resources needs to become more sustainable, and we need some leadership from the government in this area. The crisis facing the Murray-Darling is an excellent example of where greater government action is required.

The water crisis in Australia has generally been well documented. It was reported around the world at the start of last month that Australia will suffer from severe water shortages and more wild weather if we fail to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. This is another issue that is affecting the water crisis currently facing this country and that this government is failing to adequately address. A report by the Australian Climate Group says that an increase in the average temperature of just one or two degrees Celsius could devastate farmland. It says the solution is to cut greenhouse gases by 60 per cent by 2050.

Australia, which has one of the world's highest gas emissions on a per capita basis, has not ratified the Kyoto protocol on climate change. The Australian Climate Group—an alliance of conservationists, scientists and economists—sees this vast continent becoming a land increasingly at the mercy of natural disasters such as floods, droughts and cyclones. Its report claims that an increase of just a few degrees in the average temperature could trigger serious economic losses. There are fears that other drought-prone regions in the Southern Hemisphere, including parts of Africa, could suffer similar problems if emissions remain unchecked. The study insists that water shortages in Australia are clearly linked to global warming. Australia's plans to confront these challenges are described as `unacceptable'.

This government is failing to realise that increasing numbers of Australians are profoundly concerned about the impacts of climate change and the water crisis facing this nation. It is not just out in the country, where they are facing drought; it is in urban areas, it is in city areas, and it is in areas such as my own electorate of Cunningham on the coast of New South Wales.

In this context, slapping labels on products to aid consumers with purchasing products and thinking that this is addressing the big issue simply will not do. It is a great step, but it is just not enough. More action is required on the part of the government to address the underlying causes of the water crisis and to see themselves as part of the global community which has global responsibilities in regard to water usage and climate change.

The looming global water crisis has been well documented. As the world population continues to increase, water scarcity will affect two out of every three people by 2025, according to the United Nations' own estimates. In the 20th century, demand for fresh water grew twice as fast as the population. This imbalance is largely due to industrial agriculture, but it is also a product of unequal development in standards of living versus sound water management.

Additionally, scientists at Harvard University point out that global warming could significantly harm water availability. A warmer atmosphere could lead to higher rates of evaporation, causing droughts and more severe weather. Faster run-off rates and slower infiltration of ground water could follow. Warmer water may also promote detrimental algal and microbial blooms, which may lead to more water-borne illnesses. And, ironically, as the climate heats up, people will want to use more water for drinking, bathing, and watering.

The former Vice President of the World Bank, no less, has said, `The next world war will be over water.' Already, some competition is beginning to build between and within nations over finite water resources. Egypt has watched warily as Ethiopia has built hundreds of dams on the Nile. Syria and Iraq have squabbled over water projects with Turkey, and some of Israel's many conflicts with Jordan and the Palestinians have been over water issues. I know there are also concerns about China's damming efforts in areas such as Tibet, which is at the headwaters of some of the major rivers that flow into South-East Asia and the Indian peninsula as well.

Certain regions of the United States, including the Colorado and Rio Grande river basins, also suffer ominous shortages. Much of the American West's integral agricultural, livestock, and recreation industries have been seriously threatened by water scarcity, and the region has endured catastrophic wildfire seasons. At the same time, sprawling development is threatening critical watershed areas throughout the world. Elizabeth Ainsley Campbell, Executive Director of the Nashua River Watershed Association, warns:

Unless we become more proactive in planning for growth and setting aside open space, our drinking water will be increasingly vulnerable to pollution from fertilizers, insecticides, fuel by-products, and other chemicals associated with commercial and residential development.

In my electorate of Cunningham and around Sydney, I think we are really facing those issues as well. We need to ensure that catchments and the areas where we build our dams and where we have our water supplies are protected. It is not just the area around the river or around the dam; the whole catchment needs to be protected so that our water supplies are clean and usable.

Ground water is similarly under siege. Overpumping and rising sea levels have resulted in falling and saltwater-invaded watertables. Initial remediation of the 300,000 contaminated ground water sites in the US, for example, will cost up to $1 trillion over the next 30 years, according to the National Research Council.

Water scarcity is also a serious threat to natural ecosystems. In the United States, for example, 37 per cent of freshwater fish are at risk of extinction, 51 per cent of crayfish and 40 per cent of amphibians are imperilled or vulnerable and 67 per cent of freshwater mussels are extinct or vulnerable to extinction. We know that things such as freshwater mussels are a good sign of how healthy our waterways are.

In Australia, the statistics are also disturbing. Australia uses more water per head than any other nation in the world, and we live on the second-driest continent in the world. Governments, especially in New South Wales, have given irrigators more water than the system can stand, shrinking river flows, bringing salt to the surfaces of land and water, and starving native fish of the chance to breed. Scientists predict that, by 2020, Adelaide's drinking water will be below World Health Organisation safety levels on two days out of five. Don Henry, chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, points out that CSIRO modelling predicts that global warming will cut future rainfall in southern Australia by up to 20 per cent.

Some of the possible solutions include ending broad-scale land clearing of native vegetation, restoring environmental flows to stressed rivers and requiring farmers and ultimately consumers to pay the full costs of water used. This is an opportunity to put our world-beating irrigation technology to work in saving water that is now wasted. This is an opportunity for this government to show leadership in driving some of these reforms.

Sadly, though this legislation is very welcome, it falls short of the reforms and leadership required of this government on this crucial issue. As the Bulletin reported almost two years ago to the day, sustainability expert Dr Nicholas Fleming said:

A lack of foresight, courage and political will are the major existing barriers to improving the sustainability of urban water systems. The most effective and enduring solutions require a multi-disciplinary and holistic approach to living within the capacity of natural systems.

Two years have passed since that time, and the government has known that action has been needed on this issue, but it has failed to demonstrate the much needed foresight, courage and political will. Future generations will sadly pay the price for this failure. That is the point here: hard decisions are going to have to be made by governments, and some of those decisions are going to impact upon the profits of individuals around this country. But, for the greater good, those decisions have to be made to ensure that we have efficient and effective clean water supplies into the future. One of the core issues of living in this country is water, and it is going to be a difficult issue for governments in the future. As I said, I welcome this initiative, but I think a lot more needs to be done.