Bushfires And Water On A Drying Continent

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Recent tragic events may cast a light on another, related, Australian problem : our water crisis.

First Up
An utterly tragic chapter, the bushfires speed, scale and ferocity left a trail of unfathomable horrors. Many people have endured incomprensible suffering and the burden of these fires will be felt for a long time to come. Everyone effected deserves the utmost support, and thankfully the offers of help have been pouring generously. Donate money, blood or time.

Where To From Here?
Even as fires still burn, and the threat of further scorching weather looms, many are asking what can be done to prevent this in the future? Others are asking whether we could’ve prevented these fires in the first place? Over at New Matilda, Ben Eltham, cites bushfire experts warning in advance of dangerous fuel load build-up in areas effected, and discusses the complexities of being prepared on the world’s most fire prone continent. The Royal Commission will shed further light on what could’ve been done better, but the trajectories of temperature records, and the projected conditions for the next 20 years suggest preparations for the future need to be considered now.

This is not lost on those at the frontline – the United Firefighters Union of Australia has written an open letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Victorian Premier John Brumby, on behalf of Australia’s 13,000 firefighters, arguing that ‘Australia is at risk of more tragedies such as the Victorian bushfires if the Federal Government does not reassess its approach to global warming’. Secretary Peter Marshall points out the Government’s own CSIRO report, which shows that under a high global warming scenario “catastrophic events are predicted to occur every year in Mildura and firefighters have been warned to expect up to a 230 per cent increase in extreme danger fire days in Bendigo” alone, and argues it is the current climate conditions which is allowing the fires to spread so far.
“What used to be a fire that could have been contained to a small area, we’re going to see evolve into a wildfire like we’ve seen in Victoria and that’s going to be a regular occurrence.”

( MilkWood Farm, bless their socks, have posted a range of links about using fire retardant trees to grow food around a bush property … )

The Water Context
Australia is the driest continent in the world, yet uses the highest amount of water per capita ( acf.org.au ). Most of the continent is desert or semi-arid land, and water restrictions are currently in place in many regions and cities of Australia in response to chronic shortages resulting from drought. Adelaide is building a huge ( very energy intensive ) desalination plant to meet it’s water supply demands by 2010. Perth, according to Tim Flannery ( Australian of the year in 2007 ), could become the world’s first ghost metropolis, an abandoned city with no more water to sustain its population, unless it made drastic changes. And Melbourne? With water supplies for the city currently 32% full, the recent bushfires add even more pressure, as forested water catchment areas that are regrowing from the fires will soak up much more water than previously.

Peak Water?
Peak water is reached when the rate at which water is demanded is higher than the rate at which the supply is replenished. Already cities such as Dubai have passed this point, and must import their water. Australia’s cities are at serious risk of following the same path, and intensity of the recent bushfires serve as a reminder of the dry continent’s conditions. There is a vast amount of water on the planet but sustainably managed water is becoming scarce. Although it seems counterintuitive, the world’s supply of fresh water is running out. Already one person in five has no access to safe drinking water. If present trends continue, 1.8 billion people will be living with absolute water scarcity by 2025, and two thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress.

Your Water Footprint?
People need 2.5 litres of water a day to drink, but considering other needs such as cooking, bathing and laundry, accepted water consumption per person is 150 litres a day ( Australians use 285 litres per day, Turkish 111, Africans 67 ). Over at waterfootprint.org you can calculate the water required to produce the goods and services consumed by you, entering details about diet, transport, household habits, to come up with a rough guide for your water consumption. I got a total water footprint of 935 cubic metres per year – the bulk of which was contributed to by food it seemed, which surprised me. Vegetarians have a significantly lower water footprint than meat eaters ( growing 1kg of potatoes need 100 litres of water, 1 kg of beef requires 13 000 litres), but each of our food choices carry with them a range of water demands.

Whether the Government is listening to the Firefighters union at the moment remains to be seen, but minimising climate change and worsening drought conditions are hopefully something they are thinking more seriously about ( as well as more efficient water use strategies ).

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