14 billion litres of untreated wastewater is created each day in developing countries, but we don’t know where it all goes



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Jacqueline Thomas, University of Sydney

To limit the spread of disease and reduce environmental pollution, human waste (excreta) needs to be safely contained and effectively treated. Yet 4.2 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, lack access to safe sanitation.

In developing countries, each person produces, on average, six litres of toilet wastewater each day. Based on the number of people who don’t have access to safe sanitation, that equates to nearly 14 billion litres of untreated faecally contaminated wastewater created each day. That’s the same as 5,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

This untreated wastewater directly contributes to increased diarrhoeal diseases, such as cholera, typhoid fever and rotavirus. Diseases such as these are responsible for 297,000 deaths per year of children under five years old, or 800 children every day.

The highest rates of diarrhoea-attributable child deaths are experienced by the poorest communities in countries including Afghanistan, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Given the global scale of this problem, it’s surprising sanitation practitioners still don’t know where exactly all the human excreta flows or leaches to, due to absent or unreliable data.

Poor sanitation to worsen under climate change

Inadequate sanitation is not only a human health issue, it’s also bad for the environment. An estimated 80% of wastewater from developed and developing countries flows untreated into environments around the world.

If an excess of nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorous) are released into the environment from untreated wastewater, it can foul natural ecosystems and disrupt aquatic life.




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This is especially the case for coral reefs. Many of the worlds most diverse coral reefs are located in tropical developing countries.

And overwhelmingly, developing countries have very limited human excreta management, leading to large quantities of raw wastewater being released directly onto coral reefs. In countries with high populations such as Indonesia and the Philippines, this is particularly evident.

A coral reef underwater, with clown fish swimming by.
Sewage discharges in proximity to sensitive coral reefs, particularly in the tropics.
Shutterstock

The damage raw wastewater inflicts on corals is severe. Raw wastewater carries solids, endocrine disrupters (chemicals that interfere with hormones), inorganic nutrients, heavy metals and pathogens directly to corals. This stunts coral growth, causes more coral diseases and reduces their reproduction rates.

The challenges of climate change will exacerbate our sanitation crisis, as increased rain and flooding will inundate sanitation systems and cause them to overflow. Pacific Island nations are particularly vulnerable, because of the compounding impacts of rising sea levels and more frequent, extreme tropical cyclones.

Meanwhile, increased drought and severe water scarcity in other parts of the world will render some sanitation systems, such as sewer systems, inoperable. One example is the mismanagement of government-operated water supplies in Harare, Zimbabwe leading to the failure of the sewerage system and placing millions at risk of waterborne diseases.

Even in more developed countries like Australia, increased frequency of extreme weather events and disasters, including bushfires, will damage some sanitation infrastructure beyond repair.

Global targets to improve sanitation

Improving clean water and sanitation have clear global targets. Goal 6 of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals is to, by 2030, achieve adequate and equitable sanitation for all and to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater.

A man emptying a pit latrine in urban Tanzania
A man emptyies a pit latrine in urban Tanzania.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

Achieving this target will be difficult, given there is an absence of reliable data on the exact numbers of sanitation systems that are safely managed or not, particularly in developing countries.

Individual studies in countries such as Tanzania provide small amounts of information on whether some sanitation systems are safely managed. But these studies are not yet at the size needed to extrapolate to national scales.




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So what’s behind this lack of data?

A big reason behind the missing data is the large range of sanitation systems and their complex classifications.

For example, in developing countries, most people are serviced by on-site sanitation such as septic tanks (a concrete tank) or pit latrines (hole dug into the ground). But a lack of adherence to construction standards in nearly all developing countries, means most septic tanks are not built to standard and do not safely contain or treat faecal sludge.

A hole in the ground, lined with two bricks, and a blue bucket beside it
A typical pit latrine in rural Tanzania.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

A common example seen with septic tank construction is there are a lot of incentives to build “non-standard” septic tanks that are much cheaper. From my current research in rural Fiji, I’ve seen reduced tank sizes and the use of alternative materials (old plastic water tanks) to save space and money in material costs.

These don’t allow for adequate containment or treatment. Instead, excreta can leach freely into the surrounding environment.

A white pipe juts out of a blue plastic tank and into the ground.
A ‘non-standard’ septic tank, which uses plastic, in Fiji.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

A standard septic tank is designed to be desludged periodically, where the settled solids at the bottom of the tanks are removed by large vacuum trucks and disposed of safely. So, having a non-standard septic tank is further incentivised as the lack of sealed chambers reduces the accumulation of sludge, delaying costly emptying fees.

Another key challenge with data collection is how to determine if the sanitation infrastructure if functioning correctly. Even if the original design was built to a quality standard, in many circumstances there are significant deficiencies in operational and maintenance activities that lead to the system not working properly.




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What’s more, terminology is a constant point of confusion. Households — when surveyed for UN’s Sustainable Development Goal data collection on sanitation — will say they do have a septic tank. But in reality, they’re unaware they have a non-standard septic tank functioning as a leach-pit, and not safely treating or containing their excreta.

Fixing the problem

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 6 requires nationally representative data sets. The following important questions must be answered, at national scales in developing countries:

  • for every toilet, where does the excreta go? Is it safely contained, treated on site, or transported for treatment?

  • if the excreta is not contained or treated properly after it leaves the toilet, then how far does it travel through the ground or waterways?

  • when excreta is removed from the pit or septic tank of a full on-site latrine, where is it taken? Is it dumped in the environment or safely treated?

  • are sewer systems intact and connected to functioning wastewater treatment plants that releases effluent (treated waste) of a safe quality?

Presently, the sanitation data collection tools the UN uses for its Sustainable Development Goals don’t answer in full these critical questions. More robust surveys and sampling programs need to be designed, along with resource allocation for government sanitation departments for a more thorough data collection strategy.

And importantly, we need a co-ordinated investment in sustainable sanitation solutions from all stakeholders, especially governments, international organisations and the private sector. This is essential to both protect the health of our own species and all other living things.




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The Conversation


Jacqueline Thomas, Lecturer in Environmental and Humanitarian Engineering, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Victoria just gave 2 billion litres of water back to Indigenous people. Here’s what that means for the rest of Australia



GLaWAC

Troy McDonald, Indigenous Knowledge and Erin O’Donnell, University of Melbourne

For the first time in Victoria’s history, the state government has handed back water to traditional owners, giving them rights to a river system they have managed sustainably for thousands of years.

The two billion litres of water returned to the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) this month means traditional owners can now determine how and where water is used for cultural, environmental or economic purposes.

The decision recognises that water rights are crucial for Indigenous people to restore customs, protect their culture, become economically independent and heal Country.

The hand-back to Gunaikurnai people is the crucial first step in a bigger, statewide process of recognising Indigenous people’s deep connection to water. It also serves as an example to the rest of Australia, where Indigenous rights to water are grossly inadequate.

Water from the river has
Gunaikurnai woman Alice Pepper on the banks of the Mitchell River. Water from the river has been handed back to traditional owners.
GLaWAC

Water’s rightful home

Gunaikurnai people hold native title over much of Gippsland, from the mountains to the sea.

The water hand-back comes ten years since this native title was secured, and since Gunaikurnai people entered into the state’s first Traditional Owner Settlement Agreement with the government. Under this agreement, GLaWAC is a joint manager, with Parks Victoria, of ten parks and reserves in Gippsland, including the Mitchell River National Park.

Victorian water minister Lisa Neville said the hand-back was a key milestone in her government’s 2016 Aboriginal Water Policy. That plan aims to:

  • recognise Aboriginal values and objectives of water
  • include Aboriginal values and traditional ecological knowledge in water planning
  • support Aboriginal access to water for economic development
  • build capacity to increase Aboriginal participation in water management.

GLaWAC engages closely with government agencies that control how water is shared and used and these partnerships are highly valued. But it is only through owning water that traditional owners can really control how water is used to care for Country and for people.

For the moment, the water will be staying in the river. Its use will be decided after discussions between GLaWAC and Gunaikurnai community members.

The Mitchell River
Indigenous poeple must own water to control how they care for Country.
GLaWAC

Barriers to water ownership

In 2016, the Victorian government committed A$5 million to a plan to increase Aboriginal access to water rights, including funding for traditional owners to develop feasibility plans to support water-based businesses.

There are significant barriers to reallocating water to Victoria’s traditional owners. Water is expensive to buy, hold and use. Annual fees and charges can easily run to tens of thousands of dollars a year in some locations.

Using water to care for Country supports well-being, the environment and other water uses, including tourism and recreation. But, unlike using water for irrigation, there may not be any direct economic return from a water hand-back. This means water recovery for traditional owners must include ways to cover fees and charges.




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Australia has an ugly legacy of denying water rights to Aboriginal people. Not much has changed


Victoria’s water entitlement framework is also consumption-based – it is designed for water to be taken out of rivers, not left in. This can make it hard for traditional owners to leave water in the river for the benefit of the environment. So water entitlements and rules should be changed to reflect how traditional owners want to manage water.

Lastly, many traditional owners lack access to land where they can use the water. Or they may wish to use water in areas that, under natural conditions, would be watered when rivers flood, but which are now disconnected from the waterway. To help overcome this, traditional owners should be given access to Crown land, including joint management of parks. GLaWAC’s partnership agreements are a good example of how this might happen in future.

GLaWAC water team Uncle Lloyd Hood and Tim Paton.
GLaWAC water team Uncle Lloyd Hood and Tim Paton. Water rules should be changed to reflect how traditional owners manage water.
GLaWAC

Change is possible

While significant barriers to water access remain, this hand-back shows how real water outcomes for traditional owners can be achieved when there is political will and ministerial support.

The water is part of six billion litres on the Mitchell River identified as unallocated, meaning no-one yet has rights over it. The remaining four billion litres will be made available on the open market, for use by irrigators or other industries. It can be extracted only during the colder months from July 1 to October 31.

The extraction and use of the water by Gunaikurnai people will be linked to specific locations, and the licence is up for renewal every 15 years. GLaWAC will work with state agency Southern Rural Water to ensure that the licence conditions match the water plans of traditional owners.

This step is crucial. There have been many instances in other states where traditional owners have obtained water, but been unable to use it due to barriers on how it can be used, and annual fees and charges.

Mitchell River scene
Water extraction form the Mitchell River will be limited to colder months.
GLaWAC

Overcoming a history of injustice

Traditional owners across Australia never ceded their rights to water. Yet Aboriginal people own less than 1% of the nation’s water rights. Righting this wrong is the “unfinished business” of national water reform.

Even when political commitments are made, there has been little progress. For example, in 2018 the federal government committed A$40 million to acquire water rights for Aboriginal people in the Murray-Darling Basin, but no purchase of water rights has yet occurred.

This woeful and unjust situation is also reflected in Victoria. Before the Gunaikurnai hand-back, only a tiny handful of Aboriginal-owned organisations and one traditional owner, Taungurung, owned water rights in Victoria, and the volumes were small. In these cases, water recovery was not a formal hand-back from the state, and included a donation from a farmer.

Across Australia, Aboriginal people are watching the Victorian water reform process with great interest. The water returned to Gunaikurnai people builds momentum, and increases pressure on governments across Australia to take water justice seriously.




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Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


The Conversation


Troy McDonald, Chairman of Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Knowledge and Erin O’Donnell, Early Career Academic Fellow, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environment Law, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Recovering water for the environment in the Murray-Darling: farm upgrades increase water prices more than buybacks



Murray Darling Junction, Wentworth NSW.
Hypervision Creative/Shutterstock

Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES); David Galeano, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

It’s been 13 years since the Australian Government set out to develop the Murray-Darling Basin Plan with the goal of finding a more sustainable balance between irrigation and the environment.

Like much of the history of water sharing in the Murray-Darling over the last 150 years, the process has been far from smooth. However, significant progress has been achieved, with about 20% of water rights recovered from agricultural users and redirected towards environmental flows.

One of the most difficult debates has been over how the water should be recovered.

Initially most occurred via “buybacks” of water rights from farmers. While relatively fast and inexpensive, opposition to buybacks emerged due to concerns about their effects on water prices and irrigation farmers and regional communities.

This led to a new emphasis on infrastructure programs including farm upgrades in which farmers received funding to improve their irrigation systems in return for surrendering water rights.

While these farm upgrades are more expensive, it was thought that they would have fewer negative effects on farmers and communities.

However, new research from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences finds that – while beneficial for their participants – these programs push water prices higher, placing pressure on the wider irrigation sector.

Two types of water recovery programs

The Murray-Darling Basin operates under a “cap and trade” system. Each year there is a limit on how much water can be extracted from the basin’s rivers, based on the available supply.

Water users (mostly farmers) hold rights to a share of this limit, and they can trade these rights on a market.

To date 1,230 gigalitres of these water rights have been bought from farmers via buyback programs at a cost of about A$2.6 billion.




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Drought and climate change are driving high water prices in the Murray-Darling Basin


The other type of program is farm upgrades which offer farmers funding to improve their irrigation infrastructure in return for a portion of their water rights.

To date 255 gigalitres of water has been recovered through farm upgrades at a cost of about $1 billion.


Annual volume of water rights recovered for the environment since 2007-08

For infrastructure projects the financial year refers to the contract date. The actual transfer of entitlements may occur in a later financial year. The volume of water recovered is expressed in terms of the long-term average annual yield. The estimates do not include water recovered through state projects (160 gigalitres) or water gifted to the Commonwealth (15 gigalitres). Off-farm infrastructure includes water recovered through projects that are a combination of on-farm, off-farm and land purchases.
Sources: Department of Agriculture Water and Environment, Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder

Water recovery has increased prices

As would be expected, the dominant short-term driver of prices is water availability, with large price increases during droughts. The dominant longer-term drivers include lower average rainfall related to climate change and the emergence of new irrigation crops including almonds.

While water recovery has played less of a role, buybacks and farm upgrades have still reduced the supply of water to farmers and increased prices to some extent.




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Our modelling suggests water prices in the southern basin are around $72 per megalitre higher on average as a result of water recovery measures, with the effects varying year-to-year depending on conditions.


Modelled water allocation prices with and without water recovery

Price refers to volume weighted average annual water allocation prices across the southern Murray Darling Basin. Water recovery reflects the cumulative volume of buybacks and farm upgrades at each year. Water recovery began in 2007-08.
ABARES modelling

Farm upgrades increase prices more than buybacks

Farm upgrades are often viewed as an opportunity to save water and produce “more crop per drop”.

But they can also encourage farmers to increase their water use as they seek to make the most of their new infrastructure: sometimes referred to as a “rebound effect”.

While there have been concerns about rebound effects for some time, there has been limited evidence until recently.

Less-wasteful irrigation can save water, as long as there’s no ‘rebound’

As would be expected, our study finds that upgraded farms have benefited in terms of profits and productivity. However, we also find large rebound effects, with upgraded farms increasing their water use by between 10% and 50%.

To get the extra water they need to buy it from other farmers, putting pressure on prices. We find the resulting price impact to be much more than the impact of buying back water. Per unit of water recovered, it is about double that of buybacks.

These higher water prices increase the risk that irrigation assets – including some newly upgraded systems – could become stranded as price sensitive irrigation activities become less profitable.

No easy answers

Recovering water through off-farm infrastructure is one alternative, however the most effective projects have already been developed, leaving cost-effective water saving schemes harder to find.

This brings us back to buybacks. Because buybacks are cheaper than farm infrastructure programs, there is more scope to combine them with regional development investments to help offset negative impacts on communities.

The challenge is that in a connected water market the flow-on effects on water prices and farmers can be complex and difficult to predict, making it hard to know where to direct development investments.




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Billions spent on Murray-Darling water infrastructure: here’s the result


A potential middle ground is rationalisation, where parts of the water supply network are decommissioned, and affected farmers are compensated both for their water rights and for being disconnected from water supply. This approach has less effect on water prices and allows regional development initiatives to be targeted to the affected areas.

However, rationalisation can be hard to implement given it requires negotiating with all affected farmers and all levels of government.

Given the complexity of the Murray-Darling Basin, water policy is far from simple. While it is clear more water will be needed to put the basin on a sustainable footing, there are no easy options.

Further progress will require careful policy design to help ease adjustment pressure on farmers and regional communities.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES); David Galeano, Assistant Secretary, Natural Resources, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New Zealand government ignores expert advice in its plan to improve water quality in rivers and lakes



Tracey McNamara/Shutterstock

Michael (Mike) Joy, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

New Zealand’s government has been praised for listening to health experts in its pandemic response, but when it comes to dealing with pollution of the country’s waterways, scientific advice seems less important.

Today, the government released a long-awaited NZ$700 million package to address freshwater pollution. The new rules include higher standards around cleanliness of swimming spots, set controls for some farming practices and how much synthetic fertiliser is used, and require mandatory and enforceable farm environment plans.

But the package is flawed. It does not include any measurable limits on key nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) and the rules’ implementation is left to regional authorities. Over the 30 years they have been managing the environment, the health of lakes and rivers has continued to decline.

For full disclosure, I was part of the 18-person science technical advisory group that made the recommendations. Despite more than a year of consultation and evidence-based science, the government has deferred or ignored our advice on introducing measurable limits on nitrogen and phosphorus.




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Waterways in decline

The declining state of rivers, lakes and wetlands was the most important environmental issue for 80% of New Zealanders in a recent survey. It was also an election issue in 2017, so there was a clear mandate for significant change.

But despite years of work from government appointed expert panels, including the technical advisory group I was part of, the Māori freshwater forum Kahui Wai Māori and the Freshwater Leaders groups, crucial advice was ignored.

The technical advisory group, supported by research, was unequivocal that specific nitrogen and phosphorus limits are necessary to protect the quality of people’s drinking water and the ecological health of waterways.

The proposed nutrient limits were key to achieving real change, and far from being extreme, would have brought New Zealand into line with the rest of the world. For example, in China, the limit for nitrogen in rivers is 1 milligram per litre – the same limit as our technical advisory group recommended. In New Zealand, 85% of waterways in pasture catchments (which make up half of the country’s waterways, if measured by length) now exceed nitrate limit guidelines.

Instead, Minister for the Environment David Parker decided to postpone this discussion by another year – meaning New Zealand will continue to lag other nations in having clear, enforceable nutrient limits.

This delay will inevitably result in a continued decline of water quality, with a corresponding decline in a suite of ecological, cultural, social and economic values a healthy environment could support.




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The government’s package includes a cap on the use of nitrogen fertiliser.
Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock

Capping use of nitrogen fertiliser

The other main policy the expert panels pushed for was a cap on the use of nitrogen fertiliser. This was indeed part of the announcement, which is a positive and important step forward. But the cap is set at 190kg per hectare per year, which is too high. This is like telling someone they should reduce smoking from three to two and a half packets a day to be healthier.

I believe claims from the dairy industry that the tightening of environmental standards for freshwater would threaten New Zealand’s economic recovery are exaggerated. They also ignore the fact clean water and a healthy environment provide the foundation for our current and future economic well-being.

And they fly in the face of modelling by the Ministry for the Environment, which shows implementation of freshwater reforms would save NZ$3.8 billion.

Excess nitrogen is not just an issue for ecosystem health. Nitrate (which forms when nitrogen combines with oxygen) in drinking water has been linked to colon cancer, which is disproportionately high in many parts of New Zealand.

The New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine and the Hawkes Bay district health board both made submissions calling for a nitrate limit in rivers and aquifers to protect people’s health – at the same level the technical advisory group recommended to protect ecosystems.




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Our dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is unsustainable, and it is adding to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas footprint through nitrous oxide emissions. There is growing evidence farmers can make more profit by reducing their use of artificial fertilisers.

Continued use will only further degrade soils across productive landscapes and reduce the farming sector’s resilience in a changing climate.

The irony is that for a century, New Zealand produced milk without synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Instead, farmers grew clover which converts nitrogen from the air. If we want to strive for better water quality for future generations, we need to front up to the unsustainable use of artificial fertiliser and seek more regenerative farming practices.The Conversation

Michael (Mike) Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia, it’s time to talk about our water emergency



Dean Lewins/AAP

Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Matthew Colloff, Australian National University; Paul Wyrwoll, Australian National University, and Virginia Marshall, Australian National University

The last bushfire season showed Australians they can no longer pretend climate change will not affect them. But there’s another climate change influence we must also face up to: increasingly scarce water on our continent.

Under climate change, rainfall will become more unpredictable. Extreme weather events such as cyclones will be more intense. This will challenge water managers already struggling to respond to Australia’s natural boom and bust of droughts and floods.

Thirty years since Australia’s water reform project began, it’s clear our efforts have largely failed. Drought-stricken rural towns have literally run out of water. Despite the recent rains, the Murray Darling river system is being run dry and struggles to support the communities that depend on it.

We must find another way. So let’s start the conversation.

It’s time for a new national discussion about water policy.
Joe Castro/AAP

How did we get here?

Sadly, inequitable water outcomes in Australia are not new.

The first water “reform” occurred when European settlers acquired water sources from First Peoples without consent or compensation. Overlaying this dispossession, British common law gave new settlers land access rights to freshwater. These later converted into state-owned rights, and are now allocated as privately held water entitlements.

Some 200 years later, the first steps towards long-term water reform arguably began in the 1990s. The process accelerated during the Millennium Drought and in 2004 led to the National Water Initiative, an intergovernmental water agreement. This was followed in 2007 by a federal Water Act, upending exclusive state jurisdiction over water.




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Under the National Water Initiative, state and territory water plans were to be verified through water accounting to ensure “adequate measurement, monitoring and reporting systems” across the country.

This would have boosted public and investor confidence in the amount of water being traded, extracted and recovered – both for the environment and the public good.

This vision has not been realised. Instead, a narrow view now dominates in which water is valuable only when extracted, and water reform is about subsidising water infrastructure such as dams, to enable this extraction.

The National Water Initiative has failed.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Why we should all care

In the current drought, rural towns have literally run out of fresh drinking water. These towns are not just dots on a map. They are communities whose very existence is now threatened.

In some small towns, drinking water can taste unpleasant or contain high levels of nitrate, threatening the health of babies. Drinking water in some remote Indigenous communities is not always treated, and the quality rarely checked.

In the Murray-Darling Basin, poor management and low rainfall have caused dry rivers, mass fish kills, and distress in Aboriginal communities. Key aspects of the basin plan have not been implemented. This, coupled with bushfire damage, has caused long-term ecological harm.

How do we fix the water emergency?

Rivers, lakes and wetlands must have enough water at the right time. Only then will the needs of humans and the environment be met equitably – including access to and use of water by First Peoples.

Water for the environment and water for irrigation is not a zero-sum trade-off. Without healthy rivers, irrigation farming and rural communities cannot survive.

A national conversation on water reform is needed. It should recognise and include First Peoples’ values and knowledge of land, water and fire.

Our water brief, Water Reform For All,
proposes six principles to build a national water dialogue:

  1. establish shared visions and goals
  2. develop clarity of roles and responsibilities
  3. implement adaptation as a way to respond to an escalation of stresses, including climate change and governance failures
  4. invest in advanced technology to monitor, predict and understand changes in water availability
  5. integrate bottom-up and community-based adaptation, including from Indigenous communities, into improved water governance arrangements
  6. undertake policy experiments to test new ways of managing water for all
The Darling River is in poor health.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Ask the right questions

As researchers, we don’t have all the answers on how to create a sustainable, equitable water future. No-one does. But in any national conversation, we believe these fundamental questions must be asked:

  1. who is responsible for water governance? How do decisions and actions of one group affect access and availability of water for others?

  2. what volumes of water are extracted from surface and groundwater systems? Where, when, by whom and for what?

  3. what can we predict about a future climate and other long-term drivers of change?

  4. how can we better understand and measure the multiple values that water holds for communities and society?

  5. where do our visions for the future of water align? Where do they differ?

  6. what principles, protocols and processes will help deliver the water reform needed?

  7. how do existing rules and institutions constrain, or enable, efforts to achieve a shared vision of a sustainable water future?

  8. how do we integrate new knowledge, such as water availability under climate change, into our goals?

  9. what restitution is needed in relation to water and Country for First Peoples?

  10. what economic sectors and processes would be better suited to a water-scarce future, and how might we foster them?

Water reform for all

These questions, if part of a national conversation, would reinvigorate the water debate and help put Australia on track to a sustainable water future.

Now is the time to start the discussion. Long-accepted policy approaches in support of sustainable water futures are in question. In the Murray-Darling Basin, some states even question the value of catchment-wide management. The formula for water-sharing between states is under attack.




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Even science that previously underpinned water reform is being questioned

We must return to basics, reassess what’s sensible and feasible, and debate new ways forward.

We are not naive. All of us have been involved in water reform and some of us, like many others, suffer from reform fatigue.

But without a fresh debate, Australia’s water emergency will only get worse. Reform can – and must – happen, for the benefit of all Australians.


The following contributed to this piece and co-authored the report on which it was based: Daniel Connell, Katherine Daniell, Joseph Guillaume, Lorrae van Kerkoff, Aparna Lal, Ehsan Nabavi, Jamie Pittock, Katherine Taylor, Paul Tregoning, and John WilliamsThe Conversation

Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Matthew Colloff, Honorary Senior Lecturer, Australian National University; Paul Wyrwoll, Research fellow, Australian National University, and Virginia Marshall, Inaugural Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Aren’t we in a drought? The Australian black coal industry uses enough water for over 5 million people


Ian Overton, University of Adelaide

Water is a highly contested resource in this long, oppressive drought, and the coal industry is one of Australia’s biggest water users.

Research released today, funded by the Australian Conservation Foundation, has identified how much water coal mining and coal-fired power stations actually use in New South Wales and Queensland. The answer? About 383 billion litres of fresh water every year.

That’s the same amount 5.2 million people, or more than the entire population of Greater Sydney, uses in the same period. And it’s about 120 times the water used by wind and solar to generate the same amount of electricity.




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Cutting ‘green tape’ may be good politicking, but it’s bad policy. Here are 5 examples of regulation failure


Monitoring how much water is used by industry is vital for sustainable water management. But a lack of transparency about how much water Australia’s coal industry uses makes this very difficult.

Adani’s controversial Carmichael mine in central Queensland was granted a water licence that allows the company to take as much groundwater as it wants, despite fears it will damage aquifers and groundwater-dependent rivers.

Now more than ever, we must make sure water use by coal mines and power stations are better monitored and managed.

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available.
Shutterstock

Why does coal need so much water?

Mines in NSW and Queensland account for 96% of Australia’s black coal production.

Almost all water used in coal mines is consumed and cannot be reused. Water is used for coal processing, handling and preparation, dust suppression, on-site facilities, irrigation, vehicle washing and more.

Coal mining’s water use rate equates to a total consumption of almost 225 billion litres a year in NSW and Queensland, which can be extrapolated to 234 billion litres for Australia, for black coal without considering brown coal.

About 80% of this water is freshwater from rainfall and runoff, extracted from rivers and water bodies, groundwater inflows or transferred from other mines. Mines are located in regions such as the Darling Downs, the Hunter River and the Namoi River in the Murray-Darling Basin.




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The other 20% comes from water already contained in tailings (mine residue), recycled water or seepage from the mines.

The burning of coal to generate energy is also a large water user. Water use in coal-fired power stations is even harder to quantify, with a report from 2009 providing the only available data.

Water is used for cooling with power stations using either a once-through flow or recirculating water system.

The water consumed becomes toxic wastewater stored in ash ponds or is evaporated during cooling processes. Water withdrawn is returned to rivers which can damage aquatic life due to the increased temperature.

No transparency

Data on total water use by coal mines is not publicly available. Despite the development of Australian and international water accounting frameworks, there is no reporting to these standards in coal mine reports.

This lack of consistent and available data means water use by the coal industry, and its negative effects, is not widely reported or understood. The problem is compounded by complex regulatory frameworks that allow gaps in water-use reporting.

A patchwork of government agencies in each state regulate water licences, quality and discharge, coal mine planning, annual reviews of mine operations and water and environmental impacts. This means that problems can fall through the gaps.

Digging for data

An analysis of annual reviews from 39 coal mines in NSW, provided data on water licences and details of water used in different parts of the mine.

Although they are part of mandatory reporting, the method of reporting water use is not standardised. The reviews are required to report against surface water and groundwater licences, but aren’t required to show a comprehensive water balanced account. Annual reviews for Queensland coal mines were not available.

Collated water use — both water consumption and water withdrawal – showed coal mining consumes approximately 653 litres for each tonne of coal produced.

This rate is 2.5 times more than a previous water-use rate of 250 litres per tonne, from research in 2010.

Using this rate the total water consumed by coal mining is 40% more than the total amount of water reported for all types of mining in NSW and Queensland by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the same year.

By the numbers

NSW and Queensland coal-fired power stations annually consume 158,300 megalitres of water. One megalitre is equivalent to one million litres.

A typical 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power station uses enough water in one year to meet the basic water needs of nearly 700,000 people. NSW and Queensland have 18,000 megawatts of capacity.

Coal-fired generation uses significantly more water than other types of energy.

In total, coal mining and coal-fired power stations in NSW and Queensland consume 383 billion litres of freshwater a year – about 4.3% of all freshwater available in those states.

The value of this water is between A$770 million and A$2.49 billion (using a range of low to high security water licence costs).

They withdraw 2,353 billion litres of freshwater per year.


Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The problem with large water use

Coal mining is concentrated in a few regions, such as the Hunter Valley and the Bowen Basin, which are also important for farming and agriculture.

In NSW and Queensland, the coal industry withdraws about 30% as much water as is withdrawn for agriculture, and this is concentrated in the few regions.

Coal mining and power stations use water through licenses to access surface water and groundwater, and from unlicensed capturing of rainfall and runoff.

This can reduce stream flow and groundwater levels, which can threaten ecosystem habitats if not managed in context of other water users. Cumulative effects of multiple mines in one region can increase the risk to other water users.

The need for an holistic approach

A lack of available data remains a significant challenge to understanding the true impact of coal mining and coal-fired power on Australia’s water resources.

To improve transparency and increase trust in the coal industry, accounting for water consumed, withdrawn and impacted by coal mining should be standardised to report on full water account balances.




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The coal industry should also be subject to mandatory monthly reporting and a single, open-access point of water data must be created. Comprehensive water modelling must be updated yearly and audited.

Coal water use must be managed in a holistic manner with the elevation of water accounting to a single government agency or common database.

Australia has a scarce water supply, and our environment and economy depend on the sustainable and equitable sharing of this resource.The Conversation

Ian Overton, Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for Global Food and Resources, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Heavy rains are great news for Sydney’s dams, but they come with a big caveat


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Western Sydney University

Throughout summer, Sydney’s water storage level fell alarmingly. Level 2 water restrictions were imposed and the New South Wales government prepared to double the capacity of its desalination plant.

But then it began to rain, and rain. Sydney water storages jumped from 41% in early February to 75% now – the highest of any capital city in Australia.

This is great news for the city, but it comes with a big caveat. Floodwaters will undoubtedly wash bushfire debris into reservoirs – possibly overwhelming water treatment systems. We must prepare now for that worst-case pollution scenario.

Reservoirs filled with rain

The water level of Sydney’s massive Lake Burragorang – the reservoir behind Warragamba Dam – rose by more than 11 meters this week. Warragamba supplies more than 80% of Sydney’s water.

Other Sydney water storages, including Nepean and Tallowa dams, are now at 100%.
WaterNSW report that 865,078 megalitres of extra water has been captured this week across all Greater Sydney’s dams.

This dwarfs the volume of water produced by Sydney’s desalination plant, which produces 250 megalitres a day when operating at full capacity. Even at this rate, it would take more than 3,400 days (or nine years) to match the volume of water to added to Sydney’s supply this week.

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The Warragamba Dam before the drought and after the recent heavy rains.

But then comes the pollution

Thankfully, the rain appears to have extinguished bushfires burning in the Warragamba catchment for months.

But the water will also pick up bushfire debris and wash it into dams.

Over the summer, bushfires burnt about 30% of Warragamba Dam’s massive 905,000 hectare water catchment, reducing protective ground cover vegetation. This increases the risk of soil erosion. Rain will wash ash and sediment loads into waterways – adding more nitrogen, phosphorous and organic carbon into water storages.




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Waterways and ecosystems require nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, but excess nutrients aren’t a good thing. They bring contamination risks, such as the rapid growth of toxic blue-green algae.

Drinking water catchments will always have some degree of contamination and water treatment consistently provides high quality drinking water. But poor water quality after catchment floods is not without precedent.

We’ve seen this before

In August 1998, extreme wet weather and flooding rivers filled the drought-affected Warragamba Dam in just a few days.

This triggered the Cryptosporidium crisis, when the protozoan parasite and the pathogen Giardia were detected in Sydney’s water supplies. It triggered health warnings, and Sydneysiders were instructed to boil water before drinking it. This event did not involve a bushfire.




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The Canberra bushfires in January 2003 triggered multiple water quality problems. Most of the region’s Cotter River catchments, which hold three dams, were burned. Intense thunderstorms in the months after the bushfire washed enormous loads of ash, soil and debris into catchment rivers and water reservoirs.

This led to turbidity (murkiness), as well as iron, manganese, nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon in reservoir waters. The inflow of organic material also depleted dissolved oxygen which triggered the release of metals from reservoir sediment. At times, water quality was so poor it couldn’t be treated and supplied to consumers.

The ACT Government was forced to impose water restrictions, and built a A$38 million water treatment plant.

Have we come far enough?

Technology in water treatment plants has developed over the past 20 years, and water supply systems operates according to Australian drinking water guidelines.

Unlike the 1998 Sydney water crisis, WaterNSW, Sydney Water and NSW Health now have advanced tests and procedures to detect and manage water quality problems.

In December last year, WaterNSW said it was aware of the risk bushfires posed to water supplies, and it had a number of measures at its disposal, including using booms and curtains to isolate affected flows.

However at the time, bushfire ash had already reportedly entered the Warragamba system.

The authors crossing the Coxs River during very low flow last September.
Author provided

Look to recycled water

Sydney’s water storages may have filled, but residents should not stop saving water. We recommend Level 2 water restrictions, which ban the use of garden hoses, be relaxed to Level 1 restrictions which ban most sprinklers and watering systems, and the hosing of hard surfaces.

While this measure is in place, longer term solutions can be explored. Expanding desalination is a popular but expensive option, however greater use of recycled wastewater is also needed.




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Highly treated recycled water including urban stormwater and even treated sewage should be purified and incorporated into the water supply. Singapore is a world leader and has proven the measure can gain community acceptance.

It’s too early to tell what impact the combination of bushfires and floods will have on water storages. But as extreme weather events increase in frequency and severity, all options should be on the table to shore up drinking water supplies.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Geochemistry, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfires threaten drinking water safety. The consequences could last for decades



Warnings about poor drinking water quality are in place in some areas affected by the bushfires.
From shutterstock.com

Stuart Khan, UNSW

Bushfires pose serious short- and long-term impacts to public drinking water quality. They can damage water supply infrastructure and water catchments, impeding the treatment processes that normally make our water safe to drink.

Several areas in New South Wales and Victoria have already been issued with warnings about the quality of their drinking water.

Here’s what we know about the short- and long-term risks.




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Short-term risks

Bushfires can damage or disrupt water supply infrastructure as they burn. And the risks can persist after the fires are out.

A loss of power, for example, disables important water treatment processes such as chlorine disinfection, needed to kill microorganisms and make our water safe to drink.

Drinking water for the towns of Eden and Boydtown on the NSW south coast has been affected in this way over recent days. Residents have been advised to boil their water before drinking it and using it for cooking, teeth brushing, and so on.

Other towns including Cobargo and Bermagui received similar warnings on New Year’s Eve.




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In some cases, untreated water, straight from a river supply, may be fed directly into drinking water systems. Water treatment plants are bypassed completely, due to damage, power loss, or an inability to keep pace with high volumes of water required for firefighting.

We’ve seen this in a number of southern NSW towns this week including Batlow, Adelong, Tumbarumba, and the southern region of Eurobodalla Council, stretching from Moruya to Tilba. Residents of these areas have also been urged to boil their drinking water.

Untreated river water, or river water which has not been properly disinfected with chlorine, is usually not safe for drinking in Australia. Various types of bacteria, as well as the parasites giardia and cryptosporidium, could be in such water.

Animals including cattle, birds and kangaroos can excrete these microorganisms into river water. Septic tanks and sewage treatment plants may also discharge effluents into waterways, adding harmful microorganisms.

Human infection with these microorganisms can cause a range of illnesses, including gastrointestinal diseases with symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting.




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Long-term risks

Bushfires can damage drinking water catchments, which can lead to longer term threats to drinking water. Drinking water catchments are typically forested areas, and so are vulnerable to bushfire damage.

Severe impacts to waterways may not occur until after intense rainfall. Heavy rain can wash ash and eroded soil from the fires into waterways, affecting drinking water supplies downstream.

For example, bushfire ash contains nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Increased nutrient concentrations can stimulate the growth of cyanobacteria, commonly known as “blue-green algae”.

Cyanobacteria produce chemicals which may cause a range of water quality problems, including poor taste and odour. Some cyanobacteria can produce toxic chemicals, requiring very careful management to protect treated drinking water.

Boiling water will kill microorganisms, but not chemical substances.
From shutterstock.com

Many water treatment plants include filtration processes to filter small suspended particles from the water. But an increase in suspended particles, like that which we see after bushfires, would challenge most filtration plants. The suspended particles would be removed, but they would clog the filters, requiring them to be more frequently pulled from normal operation and cleaned.

This cleaning, or backwashing, is a normal part of the treatment process. But if more time must be spent backwashing, that’s less time the filters are working to produce drinking water. And if the rate of drinking water filtration is slowed and fails to keep pace with demand, authorities may place limitations on water use.




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Boiling water isn’t always enough

In order to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal and other illnesses, water suppliers and health departments may issue a boil water alert, as we’ve seen in the past week. Bringing water to a “rolling boil” can reliably kill most of the microorganisms of concern.

In cases where water may be contaminated with chemical substances rather than microorganisms, boiling is usually not effective. So where there’s a risk of chemical contamination, public health messages are usually “do not drink tap water”. This means bottled water only.

Such “do not drink” alerts were issued this week following bushfire impacts to water treatment plants supplying the Victorian towns of Buchan and Omeo.




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Impacts to catchments from bushfires and subsequent erosion can have long-lasting effects, potentially worsening untreated drinking water quality for many years, even decades.

Following these bushfires, many water treatment plant operators and catchment managers will need to adapt to changed conditions and brace for more extreme weather events in the future.The Conversation

Stuart Khan, Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘New Bradfield’: rerouting rivers to recapture a pioneering spirit


Waters from the Herbert River, which runs toward one of northern Australia’s richest agricultural districts, could be redirected under a Bradfield scheme.
Patrick White, Author provided

Patrick White, James Cook University and Russell McGregor, James Cook University

The “New Bradfield” scheme is more than an attempt to transcend environmental reality. It seeks to revive a pioneering spirit and a nation-building ethos supposedly stifled by the bureaucratic inertia of modern Australia.

This is not a new lament. Frustrated by bureaucracy, politicians in North Queensland have long criticised the slow pace of northern development.




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In 1950, northern local governments blamed urban lethargy. One prominent mayor complained:

… these young people lack the pioneering spirit of their forebears, preferring leisure and pleasure to hardships and hard work.

These sentiments were inspired by an agrarian nostalgia that extolled toil and toughness. Stoic responses to the challenges of life on the land are part of the Australian legend.

With drought devastating rural and urban communities and a state election looming in Queensland in 2020, both sides of politics have proposed a “New Bradfield” scheme.

An idea with 19th-century origins

Civil engineer John Bradfield devised the original scheme in 1938. His plan would swamp inland Australia by reversing the flow of North Queensland’s rivers. Similar proposals go back to at least 1887, when geographer E.A. Leonard recommended the Herbert, Tully, Johnstone and Barron rivers be turned around to irrigate Australia’s “dead heart”.

Blencoe Falls, on a tributary of the Herbert River, North Queensland, during the dry season.
Patrick White, Author provided

As the “dead heart” became the “Red Centre” in the 1930s, populist writers revived the dreams of big irrigation schemes.

These schemes have always been contested on both environmental and economic grounds. A compelling history of Bradfield’s proposal reveals many errors and miscalculations. But what the scheme lacked in substance it made up for in grandiose vision.

Water dreaming has been a powerful theme in Australian history. The desire to transform desert into farmland retains appeal and discredited schemes like Bradfield keep reappearing.




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Contempt for nature and country

While less ambitious than the original plan, the “New Bradfield” scheme still engineers against the gradient of both history and nature. It would have irreversible consequences for Queensland’s environment, society and culture.

What’s more, the new scheme manifests much the same mindset as the old.

It’s an attitude that privileges the conquest of nature: in this case literally up-ending geography by turning east-flowing rivers westward. Its celebration of the human struggle against defiant nature reprises the pioneering ethos.

Like many pioneers, “New Bradfield” proposals disregard the interests and land-management practices of Indigenous people. The bushfires ravaging the eastern states show the folly of ignoring traditional ways of caring for country .

Overlooking native title realities can also cost governments and communities.




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Polarising debate neglects more viable projects

“New Bradfield” is promoted as “an asset owned by all Queenslanders for all Queenslanders”. But environmental destruction and disputes over water sales in the Murray-Darling Basin sound a warning.

The Queensland Farmers Federation has cautiously welcomed the new scheme. Others have dismissed it as a “pipe dream”.

Thus, northern Australia again sits amid a polarised debate about its utility to the nation. Such polarising contests diminish the likelihood of more viable projects being implemented.

Extravagant expectations of “untapped” northern resources have been proffered for nearly two centuries. Distant governments have fantasised the Australian tropics as a land of near-limitless potential. Northern communities have many times been disappointed by the results.

Today’s promises to “drought-proof” large areas of Queensland rely on similar images. “Drought-proofing” aims to keep people on the land but often defies economic and social reality.




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Dam developments have an underwhelming record

The “New Bradfield” rhetoric echoes the inflated expectations of myriad disappointing northern development plans in the past. The Ord River project was touted as an agricultural wonder that would put hundreds of thousands of farmers into the Kimberley. Its success lies forever just over the horizon.

Much closer to the present proposal is the Burdekin Falls Dam. It sits in the lower reaches of the same river earmarked for the Hells Gates Dam that would feed the “New Bradfield” scheme. Damming Hells Gates has been advocated since at least the 1930s and has new supporters.

The proposed site for Hells Gates Dam is on Gugu Badhun country on the Burdekin River.
Dr Theresa Petray, Author provided

Back in the 1950s, damming the Burdekin was expected to generate hydro-electric power and irrigate vast swathes of farmland. After decades of political squabbling, the dam was completed in 1988. It does not generate hydro power. Although it irrigates some land downstream, the anticipated huge agricultural expansion never happened.

The Burdekin Falls Dam has helped the regional economy and could help to overcome the water shortages of the nearby city of Townsville. But it has not met the inflated expectations widely proffered decades earlier. The benefits that would flow from another dam further upstream are likely to be even more meagre.




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Grandiose visions of northern development have a habit of failing. A “New Bradfield” scheme, animated by an old pioneering ethos, is unlikely to be different.

Drought-affected communities would derive more benefit from sober proposals that acknowledge the past, integrate Indigenous knowledge and incorporate agricultural innovation.The Conversation

Patrick White, PhD Candidate in History and Politics, James Cook University and Russell McGregor, Adjunct Professor of History, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.