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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 91

Senator WONG (6:05 PM) —I rise to speak on the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Bill 2004, and I indicate that the opposition is intending to support this bill. When we talk about water efficiency and especially about the supply and use of fresh water, it is worth remembering a few important facts. Some 97.5 per cent of the world’s water is salt water and is unfit for human use. The majority of fresh water is beyond our reach, locked in polar snow and ice. Less than one per cent of fresh water is useable, amounting to only 0.01 per cent of the earth’s total water. This would be enough to support the world’s population three times over, if used with care.

Unfortunately water, like population, is not distributed evenly. Asia has the greatest annual availability of fresh water and, disturbingly—as we all know—Australia has the lowest. In fact, Australia’s rainfall is the lowest of the continents, excluding Antarctica. This low rainfall, combined with very high evaporation, leads to low river flows. Despite this, we in this country still have one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world. While two-thirds of all the people on earth use less than 60 litres of water a day, the average Australian uses more than twice that amount during a single shower.

Access to clean, safe water is fundamental to public health and our quality of life. Australians expect that, when we turn on our taps, the water that comes out will be clean and safe. That expectation is deeply ingrained in our way of life. However, our growing population, combined with our drought-prone climate, means that we simply have to learn to do more with less. Indeed, we are likely to have more frequent droughts if the predicted effects of global climate change kick in. That is something I hope Senator Ian Campbell is aware of; I note that the government continues to maintain its position against ratifying the Kyoto protocol.

Nevertheless, I am hopeful and believe that Australia can become one of the most water efficient communities in the world. However, we all have to take responsibility to rethink where water comes from, how it is used and how to reuse it. Water shortages across Australia in recent times, particularly in New South Wales, Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia, have shown that the efficient use of water is not simply a response to the current drought. It is, in fact, an essential step in learning how to live with less water without compromising our way of life. I note that in my home state of South Australia the state government has made significant efforts to move to permanent water conservation measures for urban use.

There are no simple solutions to our water shortage. What is needed is a multifaceted approach that combines new sources, new efficiency measures and innovative ways of reusing our waste water. Clearly, water remains one of the key environmental challenges for Australia. Indeed, after climate change it is probably our most serious challenge. There have been many manifestations of this in recent times. In Perth there are plans for a desalination plant costing an estimated $350 million because there are no local sources of water to meet that city’s needs. In South Australia—the driest state in the driest continent—we have our own water shortage problems. A great deal of work is being done on salt interception schemes around the River Murray which are aimed at preventing the deterioration of Adelaide’s drinking water. Such work is extremely important because, as we know, if nothing is done by 2020 Adelaide’s water is predicted not to meet World Health Organisation guidelines two days out of five. On this note, one of the things the Howard government could do is to deliver the 1,500 gigalitres of water which is required to restore the Murray to health and to ensure Adelaide in particular maintains a safe drinking water supply.

Melbourne was on stage 2 water restrictions for most of 2003. Sydney’s problems with water have a very high profile, with restrictions on sprinklers or watering systems, washing cars, filling pools and general garden watering. As of last Thursday, Sydney’s main water supply, Warragamba Dam, was only filled to 43.4 per cent of its capacity. I am sure that most people in Sydney know water use is a serious issue.

The question of water use and water efficiency that is before us in this legislation is a very serious challenge facing the country. The purpose of the bill is to provide for the establishment and operation of a scheme to apply national water efficiency labelling and minimum performance standards to certain water use products. The aim of water efficiency labelling is to encourage the uptake of water efficient products and appliances in domestic and commercial areas. This bill’s objects are to conserve water supplies by reducing water consumption, to provide information for the purchasers of water use products and to promote the adoption of efficient and effective water use technology. It also provides for the establishment of a national water efficiency labelling and standards scheme to be implemented cooperatively by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. It provides for penalties to be put in place for those who fail to comply with the registration, labelling and minimum efficiency and performance requirements and for an enforcement regime. The government estimates the bill will reduce consumption of water in households and non-residential buildings by five per cent by 2021.

Whilst this is an objective the opposition supports, we consider that it is a manifestly inadequate objective. We need to use water better and reduce our consumption of water in households and non-residential buildings by five per cent in a much shorter time frame. We need to reduce water consumption much more rapidly than by 2021. This is hardly an ambitious project. It is also expected that there will be some greenhouse gas reductions through reducing water heating associated with these measures. The legislation is being funded from savings identified in the Measures for a Better Environment package and it picks up on recommendation 4 of the Senate inquiry into urban water use.

I understand that those who have been consulted, including the product suppliers and retailers, have actively supported the introduction of this scheme and that it has not been opposed by industry generally. The bill addresses the mandatory labelling of most water use products, but in relation to mandatory performance standards it only applies to toilets. In the view of the Labor Party, the legislation is far weaker than it could have been and the environmental benefits will not be fully realised if the government’s agenda stands as it is in the bill. We believe there is a case for standards to apply far more broadly. It is the view of the opposition that water efficiency performance standards ought to apply to more water use products.

We make these points against the background of the comments with which I opened, that we are one of the highest per capita consumers of water in the world. In Australia each person uses around 350 litres per day, and our national reuse of effluent is just 14 per cent. If we could do more to reclaim and reuse stormwater, treated sewage effluent, treated industrial discharge and grey household waste water, we would be in a much better position to deal with shortages and it would boost our environment and our economy.

An integrated approach which considers all sources of water available to urban areas is needed to achieve a significant improvement in water use efficiency in urban areas. Reclaimed water can be used for a whole range of purposes, such as irrigation of city parks and sports ovals, industrial purposes and cooling water. Surplus floodwater can be used to recharge natural aquifers, and safe, treated urban effluent can be used on crops. There are many other uses. The government should be working with the states and territories to improve both water quality and the environmental outcomes of urban water management. The government should be investigating incentives for promoting stormwater and wastewater reuse and the integration of these issues in strategic planning of urban areas. The government should be using the COAG process to implement national initiatives to promote water saving measures such as rainwater tanks, water saving showerheads and tap fittings, dual flush toilets and increased use of grey water.

Another area of concern to the opposition is the research effort in relation to urban water. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth research effort in this crucial area has largely dried up. The government should be reinvigorating the role of the Commonwealth in research and development for irrigation, water reuse and innovation. Promoting water reuse research would yield many dividends, including better design and value from experimental projects and monitoring, covering gaps, integrating project results, ensuring quality control and disseminating information effectively to those who need it. Establishing an urban water research program would support innovation in the reuse of stormwater, the reuse of effluent, water conservation, water-sensitive urban design and urban water planning and management practices. The government should establish a national program of research to promote sustainable water use in Australia, with a particular focus on water reuse.

There are very significant challenges facing Australia in relation to domestic water use. Domestic households account for around 16 per cent of the consumption of mains-supplied water in Australia. That is the second largest share of mains water use after the agriculture, forestry and mining sectors, as you might expect. The main indoor use is showering, which accounts for 29 per cent of indoor consumption. In terms of overall domestic consumption, it is worth noting that the amount of water used for outdoor purposes does vary considerably between cities.

Between 1996 and 2001, the supply of water to households in the main urban areas of Australia increased by about 3.4 per cent per annum. According to information from the Water Services Association of Australia, water consumption in two state capitals is already beyond the safe yield level, meaning that additional supply or effective demand measures are required immediately. According to the association, three other capitals will be beyond the safe yield level between 2012 and 2020. That is a very serious situation and it does require action.

Back in 2002, the Senate ECITA committee completed an inquiry into Australia’s management of urban water. I note Senator Allison is in the chamber; she was on that inquiry, and I think it was one of the first inquiries I came into, late, when I first came into the Senate. That was a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, many of the Senate committee’s recommendations have not been taken up by the government. The committee commented extensively on the issue of urban demand management, indicating there is considerable scope to reduce water use and achieve efficiencies so that water-efficient appliances, which can dramatically reduce water use in the home, can be introduced. This approach, coupled with water-efficient gardens, the use of native plants, minimal lawns and efficient watering systems could yield substantial benefits. The committee found that the fundamental factor in a successful demand management program was changing behaviour—changing the behaviour of Australians, changing us so that we do not do things like hose down the driveway and gutters, water lawns during the heat of the day and have extensively long showers.

So, what will be the impact of the labelling scheme which is provided for in the bill? According to the regulatory impact statement, the impact of the labelling component of the scheme will be to reduce total household water use by about five per cent by 2021, compared with the ‘business as usual’ approach. As I indicated at the outset, we consider that to be an insufficiently ambitious target. No modelling has been done for the introduction of efficiency standards across all of the six products that were considered—that is, washing machines, dishwashers, toilets, showerheads, taps and urinals. The regulatory impact statement suggests that, for water users, the cost of water-efficient products will most likely be higher, but consumers will benefit from a net saving because water bills will be lower. The statement also considered manufacturers and importers, noting that labelling will come into force 12 months after the regulations under this bill are finalised.

As water efficiency labelling has an effect on consumer preference, the extent to which the sales of various manufacturers and importers are affected will depend on the water efficiency of their product ranges. Manufacturers and importers that offer only products of low water efficiency will obviously be disadvantaged. Retailers that carry at least some water-efficient models should be advantaged. Those that specialise in low-cost products with low water efficiency will be disadvantaged. However, as the awareness of water labels is likely to build up over time, retailers should have ample time to sell their old stocks and order in more water-efficient models.

We want to raise one concern about the labelling requirement. Whilst the labelling requirement should assist those plumbers and builders who take an interest in, or seek competitive advantage from, advising clients on water and energy efficient products, the fact is that many end users will not see the water efficiency labels. Plumbers and builders will still be free to select or recommend products, irrespective of water efficiency, as many do now, and may well remove the water efficiency labels before end users see them. However, we note there are other programs under way to raise plumbers’ awareness of water product efficiency, including the Green Plumbers program, run by the Master Plumbers and Mechanical Services Association of Australia, which does receive some funding from the Greenhouse Office.

The introduction of water efficiency labelling for various indoor water use products is unfortunately expected to have only a modest effect on household consumption, and that effect will obviously take some time to materialise. Nevertheless, the requirement for labelling foreshadowed in the bill is a positive step. However, we emphasise it is only one aspect of managing the demand for water by Australian households. It would certainly be worth while if modelling could be done on how the introduction of compulsory water efficiency standards for things like new showerheads or new washing machines would be likely to affect household consumption.

In conclusion, water is a very substantial challenge for Australia. It is a substantial challenge for our environment. It is a substantial challenge to get our water use right in rural areas and to maintain healthy river systems. It is also a substantial challenge to get our water use right in urban areas, to take action concerning ocean outfalls, to lift our water reuse and recycling and to reduce our water demand so that we can have sustainable practices in our cities and in the country. Against that background, the opposition support the legislation, but, as I have said, we do not think it goes far enough. The opposition believe the government ought be acting with a far greater sense of urgency. In the second reading amendment moved in the House we indicated that the government ought be delivering water efficiency standards for a range of indoor use products. The government ought take up what is a significant opportunity to reduce household water consumption.