Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Agriculture consumes massive amounts of water: "While Australian householders are getting out their ration cards, farmers are sitting down to a banquet. In 2000, the country used 25m gigalitres of water - roughly enough to fill Loch Lomond 10,000 times over. Just 2m gigalitres of that total went to households, and nearly half of that, in turn, was used to water gardens. The vast bulk of it - 17m gigalitres, nearly 7,000 Loch Lomonds - was used in farming.

"And yet farming is rarely discussed when the question of Australia's water shortage comes up. A government-sponsored water conservation website, www.savewater.com.au, offers advice on 'greywater' treatment systems, rainwater tanks and the best economy dishwashers for use in restaurants, but makes no mention of the big irrigation industries that consume most of Australia's water.

"That blind spot is depressingly common. Water shortages are a matter of constant debate in Australia, but no one ever seems to question why so much water goes to agriculture. In fact, the only time the words 'agriculture' and 'water' are linked in Australian public discourse is when a drought year comes round in the four-year El Nino cycle, and Australians are hit with pleas to increase allocation for the beleaguered farmers."

"The Murray is dying so that Australia can export rice to China. That is no idle claim. An exhaustive scientific report last year concluded that the degradation of the river could only be arrested by returning 1,500 gigalitres to the river a year; local farmers have even squealed at a more modest agreement to return 500 gigalitres. But rice on its own uses 2,000 gigalitres of the Murray each year, and Australia's 800 cotton growers, who are also mainly based around the Murray, use 2,900 gigalitres of water each year. That last figure is equivalent to 18 times the amount of water used by the UK's entire irrigated agriculture industry."

"Some farming is also necessary to support the population, nutritionally and economically, but a dry continent, such as Australia, should be concentrating on cereal crops, fruit and vegetables and livestock rather than cotton, rice, and sugar, which together account for more than one-third of the country's agricultural water usage."

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