Dr Graham Harris, Chief of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) Land and Water Division, told the World Water Congress in Melbourne that water use efficiency is the key to Australia’s future.

“Water is rapidly becoming the limiting resource on this continent,” he said. “Already most of our rivers are dammed or regulated. We are not limited by the overall volume of our water – just the way we use it.”

Dr Harris said that Australia’s culture is still largely one of “develop and be damned”, with many people still believing water is abundant or unlimited. “We still extract unsustainable volumes of surface and groundwater from this land – and new dams and bore fields are still planned. Any attempt to curb access and to ‘cap’ extractions from our rivers is regarded as a threat to personal freedom.”

Dr Harris warned that depleted water resources are already a source of conflict in Australia: “Australia faces a major series of decisions in the next decades – how to make the continent sustainable for future generations.”

Dr Harris said that despite far-reaching water reforms, realistic water prices and improvements in water use efficiency, much remains to be done to achieve sustainability in the Australian water sector. He pointed out that Australia’s irrigation areas are in desperate need of upgrading, while there is room for much more efficient use of water and storm water in the cities.

To achieve the next step, Dr Harris argued that Australians need to recognise that they have achieved short term agricultural productivity and social progress at the expense of the environment. He warned against putting off tackling problems such as the state of Australia’s rivers and the salinity crisis “until we can afford to fix them”.

If, for example, nothing were done to prevent the pollution of Port Phillip Bay until it was “pea-green and eutrophic”, then the only solution would be to plant trees across the total area where the city of Melbourne now stands – a clearly absurd proposition, Dr Harris said.

“Here we see the conflict with simple market economics. The market economy works well while the environmental damage is being done,” he said. “But what happens once the point of no return is reached? Who now pays for the cost of the clean-up, even assuming it is possible? Even if we agree on how to fund the restoration of the environment, where do we begin?

“Australia’s ecosystems are immensely complex systems which have taken millions of years to develop – yet they are being altered and destroyed in the blink of a geological eye. We need a new commitment to tackle the large scale questions. We need to develop new social attitudes, a new vision for the future and a commitment to fund the policy instruments to achieve it,” Dr Harris said.

“What we actually need is a new era of ecological and social activism, coupled to a new vision of a truly sustainable future – one committed to repairing the damage so that we can truly claim to be “Y3K compliant”,” he said.

Dr Harris called for the development of a new ‘environmental engineering’ industry embodying a partnership of government, industry, the community and science.

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