1370.0 - Measuring Australia's Progress, 2002  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 19/06/2002   
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Contents >> The headline indicators >> Inland waters

Water management areas and units(a), proportion where use exceeded 70% of sustainable limits(b) - 2000
Graph - Water management areas and units(a), proportion where use exceeded 70% of sustainable limits(b) - 2000

Increasing extraction of both surface water and groundwater, particularly for agriculture, are leading to a continuing deterioration of the health of water bodies, while increasing salinity is causing deterioration in many areas. About a quarter of Australia's surface water management areas are close to, or have exceeded, sustainable extraction limits.

Water is fundamental to the survival of people and other organisms. Apart from drinking water, much of our economy (agriculture in particular) relies on water. The condition of freshwater ecosystems has a critical impact on the wider environment.

Some 80% of Australia is classed as semi-arid, making this the driest inhabited continent. But our low population density means we have more water than many countries in per-capita terms. (SEE FOOTNOTE 2) However, we also have one of the world's highest levels of water consumption per head, (SEE FOOTNOTE 3) and water supply and demand vary strongly across the country. In the tropics, for example, only a fraction of available fresh water is used. In other areas, such as the Murray-Darling basin, pressure on water resources is acute.

Ideally the headline indicator would consider the health of Australia's freshwater ecosystems. Changes in the quantity and quality of all surface and groundwater would be measured, together with impacts from factors such as invasive species and changes to river flow. But such data are unavailable for much of the country, so we focus on water use, and consider the proportion of Australia's water management areas within which water extraction is thought to be sustainable. (SEE FOOTNOTE 1)

In 2000, about 11% of Australia's surface water management areas were overdeveloped. Another 15% were approaching sustainable extraction limits (i.e. highly developed). Some 11% of groundwater management units were overdeveloped, and a further 19% were highly developed.


A variety of information from around the country points to a decline in some water resources. Increased water use in areas such as the Murray-Darling Basin during the 1990s will have contributed to a decline in river health. Data from the NLWRA show that turbidity was a worsening problem in Australia, while more than half of the basins it assessed had increasing nutrient loads, and just under half of the basins assessed for salinity showed increasing trends. 4 Factors including sedimentation, pollution, and the spread of exotic fish and aquatic weeds have all contributed to a decline in biodiversity.

However, although overall water extractions increased during the 1990s, residential water use per household appears to be declining. (SEE FOOTNOTE 5)


Some 70% of water used nationally in 1996-97 was used by agriculture. (SEE FOOTNOTE 6) In order to compare the amount of water used by industries of different sizes, one needs to standardise by size. The value of industry value added (IVA, which looks at the value of goods and services sold less the cost of intermediate inputs) per megalitre (ML) of water used is one standardisation. In 1996-97, agriculture had the lowest IVA per ML water used ($588/ML) (i.e. it used more water than any other industry relative to its size). Manufacturing's ratio, by contrast, was about $87,500 per ML of water. (SEE FOOTNOTE 6)

Among different irrigated crops, vegetable and fruit growing returned the highest gross value added per ML of water used, returning respectively about $1,800 and $1,500 in 1996-97. The rice industry had the lowest ratio of gross value added per ML water used (i.e. it used more water than any other crop industry relative to its size) at around $190 in 1996-97. (SEE FOOTNOTE 6)

Water diversions(a), Murray-Darling Basin - 1930 to 2000
Graph - Water diversions(a), Murray-Darling Basin - 1930 to 2000


The Murray-Darling Basin covers 14% of Australia's area and is an important agricultural centre. The basin contains around 75% of Australia's irrigated land and supports 40% of all Australian farms. (SEE FOOTNOTE 7) The river system, which for many years was primarily devoted to irrigation, is showing signs of environmental stress: salinity, loss of fish species and algal blooms. (SEE FOOTNOTE 8) The graph shows the quantity, in gigalitres (GL), of water diverted from the basin's river systems, which is the key pressure on the health of its freshwater ecosystems (the condition of these ecosystems also depends on factors such as the timing of extraction and land management practices).

Water diversions have increased steadily since 1930. The amount of water diverted increased substantially in the early 1950s. More recently, average annual diversions between the periods 1975-1980 and 1995-2000 increased by 19%. Some 95% of diverted water is used for irrigation, and New South Wales used more than half. In 1998-99 Queensland accounted for only 6% of total diversions, but growth in diversions has been particularly strong in that State, more than doubling between 1989-90 and 1998-99, and increasing six-fold since 1984-85.

In the 1990s, in response to the environmental problems caused by water diversions and to ensure continued supply for those who use water, a cap was placed on the volume of water that could be taken from the river systems in the basin. While increases in diversions have slowed, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission notes that it is too early to decide whether and to what level the cap needs to be changed to avoid further degradation.


In Australia, patterns of low rainfall vary over the years, and so climatic variation is a major influence on water use. Over the longer term, population growth has led to increased water use, but its contribution has been small in recent times.

The main changes in the 1990s (and recent decades) have come from increased agricultural and industrial use (to a large degree, these are independent of population growth).

Most of the 19% rise in total water consumption between 1993-94 and 1996-97 was due to the agricultural sector; which increased water use by 28%; (SEE FOOTNOTE 6) despite an increase in the sector's real gross value added of less than 10% over the period. (SEE FOOTNOTE 9)

Changes in economic activity affect water use, each industrial sector using water according to its size and needs, so the economy's industry composition is important. New industries, such as those in the growing service sector, use water much less intensively than agriculture, manufacturing and mining, and so the economy as a whole is now less reliant on intensive water use. In theory at least, future economic growth could be accompanied by reduced water use. Meanwhile, a greater focus on efficient use of water has led to an increase in the volume of waste water reused. In 1996-97 approximately 134 GL of water were reused, up from 94 GL in 1993-94. (SEE FOOTNOTE 6) At less than 5% of all waste water, this figure has the potential to grow significantly.

Experts debate the impacts of water use in different areas. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission, for instance, has predicted a steep increase in salinity problems. It predicts that, if nothing is done to remedy problems, more than 50% of the basin's rivers will exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) standards for drinking water by 2100 because of their salinity (fewer than 10% of rivers fall into this category at the moment). (SEE FOOTNOTE 10)


Although Australia's water use increased by about 20% between 1993-94 and 1996-97, urban water use per person in several State capitals declined, in part at least because of an increased awareness of the need to reduce water wastage along with changes in water pricing. Industrial use of urban (as opposed to all) water is falling as industries become more water efficient. (SEE FOOTNOTE 4) In a typical Australian household people use more than 270 litres of water a day. Gardening is responsible for up to half of the water used each day; flushing toilets uses about another quarter. (SEE FOOTNOTE 4) People in Asia, Africa and Latin America typically use 50-100 litres of water a day, although in the USA people use 400-500 litres a day.


Economic production, in particular agriculture, is the major user of water. Water degradation is strongly linked to inappropriate land management (often in the past) such as land clearance and forms of soil degradation, while much of our biodiversity depends on healthy freshwater ecosystems. Contaminated water can affect the health of ecosystems, people and livestock, while managing contamination involves a significant economic cost (e.g. the total costs of managing algal blooms were estimated to be in the order of $200m a year during the late 1990s) (SEE FOOTNOTE 11).

See also the commentaries National income, Biodiversity, Health, Land degradation, and Land clearance.


1 The National Land and Water Resources Audit (NLWRA) has made estimates of the sustainable yield of Australian groundwater and surface water resources. It defines sustainable yield as the volume of water that can be extracted without affecting other users and the environment. These preliminary estimates were used in compiling the headline indicator data; additional scientific data and knowledge are required before the sustainable yields can be determined conclusively.

2 World Bank 2002, 2001 World Development Indicators.URL: http://www.worldbank.org/data/wdi2001/pdfs/tab3_5.pdf last viewed 20 February 2002.

3 Gleick, P. 2000, The World's Water 2000-2001, The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources, Island Press, Washington DC.

4 The National Land and Water Resources Audit 2001, Australian Water Resources Assessment 2000, National Land and Water Resources Audit, Canberra.

5 State of the Environment Committee 2002, Australia - State of the Environment Report 2001, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.

6 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2000, Water Account for Australia 1993-94 to 1996-97, Cat. no. 4610.0, ABS, Canberra.

7 Murray-Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) 2000, Review of the Operation of the Cap: Economic and Social Impacts, MDBC, Canberra.

8 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Australia's Environment: Issues and Trends, Cat. no. 4613.0, ABS, Canberra.

9 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Australian System of National Accounts, Cat. no. 5204.0, ABS, Canberra.

10 Murray-Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) 1999, The Salinity Audit of the Murray-Darling Basin. A 100 year perspective, MDBC, Canberra. (These forecasts are complex and should be treated cautiously.)

11 Land and Water Research Development Corporation (LWRDC) 1999, Cost of Algal Blooms. Submitted by the Atech Group to the LWRDC and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, LWRDC Occasional Paper 26/99.

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