From abundance to scarcity

Every country has a water story that could be told. This blog is about Australia’s water journey, and it’ll be all the more interesting if you come along for the ride.

As the blog develops, I’ll be writing more about the stages of this journey and the important decisions and steps taken along the way.

I would like to share with you all aspects of water in Australia – surface and groundwater; rural and urban; economic, environmental and social; drought and flood. I will talk about the policy, management and research we have undertaken in our attempts to better use and sustain this precious natural resource.

Australia has demanded too much of its water supplies, and we have been forced to learn and adapt. We have moved from managing abundance to managing scarcity.

The prelude to this journey of discovery began early in the last century. We constructed huge dams, canals and pipelines to irrigate vast tracts of the parched inland of our nation – no more so than in the Murray-Darling Basin.

At the same time, Australia’s urban population was growing and growing, built on the premise that there were would always be plenty of large dams, and plenty of water in them to supply a thirsty populace.

By the late 1980s it became clear that we had been over zealous in our use of water, promising more to a growing farming community than we could reliably supply, and damaging fragile lands and river ecosystems along the way. We did not foresee that the day would come when our dams would lie almost empty after eight years of continuous drought – a drought of proportions unknown in our recorded history.

We have learned in the ‘hot-house of necessity’ to not just talk about integrated water resources management policy but to put it into action. People all over the country, whether in government, business or in their homes, are becoming ‘water-smart’ and adopting new technologies and know-how.

I like to think that Australia is a laboratory for the world as we trial new management approaches for water. Ours is a water story worth telling and sharing – especially today, as the world faces the pressures of population growth, food shortage and climate change.

We are, in many ways, the ‘canary in the global climate change coalmine’.

What are your thoughts? If you’re an Aussie, tell me if you see our story the same or differently. And if you’re from anywhere else around the world please tell me about how this story parallels, or doesn’t, that of your country or region.


If you’d like to read more, see Gary’s opinion piece ‘Are we planning for Australia’s water future?‘ in H2O Thinking magazine.

4 thoughts on “From abundance to scarcity

  1. On the ABC’s Dick Smith’s Population Puzzle programme last week, one of the panelists raised the not original suggestion of joining the Ord River in northern Australia to the Murray Darling river system.
    It was thought that the abundance of water from the Ord would help to alleviate water shortages in the south of the continent and so provide expanded farming and horticultural opportunities.
    There was no discussion by the panel of the matter and it would be interesting to see the proposal explored on this blog .

    • No question there is a lot of water in northern Australia, Roy. About 70% of Australia’s total run-off is up north (where very few Aussies live!).

      Proposals like this have been around for a long time. My feeling is that rather than building expensive pipe-lines, with huge energy costs, we might be better off to move some people and some irrigation to the north.

      An innovative NSW irrigator named Laurie Arthur just harvested a pretty healthy rice crop from the Ord River Stage 2 irrigation region (SW of Darwin). And he carted all his equipment by road from Leeton in NSW all the way up there ….must be about 3000 km by road. See more at:

      Of course, we have to make sure we dont make the same mistakes in developing the north that we did in the Murray-Darling Basin, where we used far too much water to the detriment of the environment (and to irrigators in the end). And rice is a thirsty crop so we need to be especially diligent.

      There are many pristine rivers and wetlands in the north and we must protect them, and we should only irrigate in places and in ways that allow this to happen. But we know how to do that now, as long as we have the will to enforce the right irrigation methods and conservation standards.

  2. Much of the commentary and viewpoints expressed in the rural and rural and regional press at the moment are challenging the integrity of the Water Act 2007 and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on the grounds that they are biased in favour of the environment and do not adequately consider the social and economic impacts of reduced extraction limits. The Basin Plan will bring big changes to parts of the Murray-Darling Basin to correct the legacy of water over-extraction from our rivers, but protecting and restoring the environment isn’t just about fish, birds and trees – it’s about securing the integrity of the natural resource base that underpins all agricultural activities, including irrigation. It’s about planning for a hotter, drier future and increasing irrigators’ certainty about the property right in their water entitlements. It’s about making the environment, irrigators and irrigation-dependent communities more resilient to future shocks like drought and climate change. Rural and regional communities need support to adjust to the reduced availability of water with targeted investment in sustainable industries, including complementary land management and new jobs such as those offered by a transition to a clean, efficient energy sector. This would augment the benefits of water reform across the Basin and provide additional income streams for affected communities, with benefits for the nation. It is not in the long-term interests of rural and regional communities, or the important irrigation industries they rely on, to delay the process of change. The alternative to ‘sustainable diversion limits’ is the continuation of ‘unsustainable diversion limits’ and that will not support any recognised values of the Murray-Darling Basin into the future.

    • Arlene, the concept of ‘resilience’ that you have raised is very important. I see ‘resilience’ as the new ‘sustainability’. As you point out, we need resilient human systems, as well as resilient ecosystems.

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