Down under water

ALTHOUGH 75 per cent of Earth's surface is covered by water, a very small part of it is available for immediate use. Freshwater for human consumption is limited -- the total freshwater present in the rivers, lakes, glaciers and ice caps, and that present as groundwater in aquifers, is less than the 5 per cent.

Modern human activity ensures that there is no longer a simple overlap of the structure of water supply and use. It is being realised now that potable water as a "right", and its unlimited and ensured supply, no longer holds true; people do not need unlimited water and there is a limit to which nature can be pushed to supply water or clean the waste that results from its use. The concept today is of "user pays", deterring extragavant use and providing an incentive for lower consumption.

This book is an assessment of the crisis that faces the Australian water industry. Its 13 chapters are a critical appraisal of the need for reforms, the use of water, its pricing, the institutional arrangements for the supply of water and sewerage, and the impact of water use on the environment in Australia.

Of all the continents, Australia has the lowest rainfall and run-off in proportion to its total area. With the exception of the Murray-Darling river system, most Australian rivers are short and do not have large developed drainage areas. Almost all the rivers have been polluted by a surfeit of toxins from industrial, urban and agricultural development. Seven of the 13 groundwater systems currently tapped for freshwater also display symptoms of overuse, resulting in reduced yield and increased salinity.

Most of the Australian water industry, like elsewhere in the world, is owned socially and run by statutory authorities. The extension of market-based systems (private enterprise) into the water industry is problematic: just how far can you price a fundamental right?

The need, as the book strongly argues for, is a national approach to major environmental issues. The institutions engaged in the supply of water and its treatment must pay adequate attention to both the resource and functional efficiency; priority must be given to environmental monitoring and the management system of the water cycle.