Thursday, October 11, 2007

Australian Water Restrictions Contribute to Inaction on Global Warming

Most areas of south-eastern Australia are in drought. The "Big Dry", as the drought has come to be known, is entering its seventh year in many districts. To preserve precious water resources, many Councils around the country have introduced water restrictions. These restrictions usually encompass sensible measures such as no topping up of swimming pools, no washing of cars, no hosing down your driveway. Some Councils offer water audits which include incentives to install dual flush toilets and water efficient shower heads, and to fix leaking taps.

This is all good. I also agree that watering of lawns or water-guzzling ornamental plants in the garden needs to be discouraged. Similarly, people should not use automatic sprinkler systems which can waste thousands of litres of water.

However, many Councils also set specific times during the week when watering gardens is allowed irrespective of what is grown in the garden, how much water is used or what the weather is on a given day. For example, you may only be allowed to water between 8 am and 10 am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

These kinds of restrictions are unjust and unduely interfere with people's private lives. What if you have to work during those times? What if it rains on those days? What if your precious plants start wilting and need urgent watering on Saturday?

It is also bad policy in a broader sense, given that water and climate change are interlinked and should not be seen as separate from each other. Every one of us should aim to become "climate neutral" to fight the imminent threat of climate change. Apart from moderating our consumption, choosing energy from renewable sources and using our cars less often, we need to eat locally grown food and plant trees to offset remaining CO2 emissions.

Under current water restrictions in the Council area we live in, it is possible to have 10 minute showers (or longer!), use inefficient top-loading washing mashines and flush fresh drinking water down the toilet at lib but it is de facto forbidden to grow vegetables (which are mostly shallow rooted and therefore need a small amount of daily watering) or plant new trees (young trees need sufficient watering until they are established, including most drought hardy plants!).

In effect, Council's water restrictions contribute to inaction on fighting climate change, which in turn is a major contributor to our water problem.

It does not have to be that way. For example, we could have a water pricing system which would set a target of how much water could be used per person. Water usage beyond that limit could be subject to a steep rise in price. People would then be allowed to choose how they want to use their water within that limit.

Under such a scenario it is perfectly possible to grow a vegetable garden that will feed your whole family if you implement various water saving measures in your household, such as stop having daily showers (wash yourself using a jug and a cloth, and only have a military-style 2 minute shower once a week), follow the "when it's yellow let it mellow" regime for the toilet, use a water-efficient washing machine and wear clothes a bit longer so that the washing machine gets used less often.

Councils have a responsibility to monitor the amount of water we use. However, it should be up the individual to decide how they want to use their own water allocation. Some may prefer to keep their long showers. Others may want to grow their own food. At least we would not discriminate against gardeners as is currently the case.

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