No 'dining boom' without water

Thursday, 07 November, 2013



Forget the mining boom - Australia’s agricultural sector is looking to the emerging ‘dining boom’. However, the difference between boom and bust all depends on whether Australia has enough water, a new study shows.

Both mining and farming require huge volumes of water, and with surface supplies drying up, our future economic prospects will rely heavily on our underground ‘water bank’, according to Professor Craig Simmons, director of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT).

“Currently, $34 billion worth of Australian industry per annum is dependent on groundwater, and the direct value of groundwater to the national economy is around $7 billion a year, according to a new report which the centre has commissioned from Deloitte Access Economics,” Professor Simmons said.

“However, with Australia now starting to outgrow its surface resources and the prospect of erratic rainfall under climate change projections, it is clear we will rely increasingly on groundwater to support large-scale food, mineral and energy production into the future.”

Australia currently uses around 3500 gigalitres (GL) of groundwater each year from an estimated sustainable reserve of 29,173 GL, the study found. Around 6500 GL is held in entitlements to extract groundwater.

Agriculture uses approximately 2 GL of groundwater each year, mainly for irrigation and livestock, and groundwater underpins $4.7 billion of production. Mining uses 410,000 megalitres (ML) each year, and groundwater underpins production of $4.4 billion to the economy each year.

Mining and energy production require a lot of water, Professor Simmons says, so managing our groundwater effectively will be crucial to taking advantage of future mineral booms.

“Likewise, the much-talked of ‘dining boom’ - the expansion in worldwide agriculture driven by global food insecurity - will also depend critically on water, especially for irrigation. Given the scarcity of Australia’s surface supplies, more of this water will come from underground in future,” Professor Simmons said.

Currently, Australia uses only around 8% of its estimated sustainable reserves of groundwater in any year. However, licences for up to 16% have been issued.

“Groundwater is a priceless asset in a world that is rapidly running out of cheap, accessible water - and Australians need to take great care of it because, if we do, it will remain sustainable,” said Professor Simmons.

We still lack a detailed knowledge of the exact size of Australia’s groundwater resources and how rapidly they are renewed, Professor Simmons warned. Without this essential information, there is always a danger we will overexploit it, causing supplies to run out, as is the case elsewhere in the world.

“If we look after our groundwater, Australia can not only enjoy future mining and dining booms, but also provide for healthy landscapes and environments and thriving cities and towns,” Professor Simmons said.

“Because it is underground it is so easy to forget groundwater, to miscalculate its reserves. But we should never forget it constitutes more than 90% of Australia’s total available fresh water reserve - and is therefore the key to our national future.”

The full report is available from www.groundwater.com.au/economicvalue.

The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training is an Australian Government initiative, supported by the Australian Research Council and the National Water Commission.

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