Australia exports 40% of our water – the globalization of water
Of all the water we use every year in Australia, we export 40% of it overseas in our agriculture exports. The concept of ‘virtual water‘ was born in 2008 to determine how best to use the scarce water available in arid and semi-arid countries. For example, “water-scarce countries like Israel discourage the export of oranges (relatively heavy water guzzlers) precisely to prevent large quantities of water being exported to different parts of the world”.
Virtual water isn’t widely endorsed as a measure for determining water policy, I’m not sure of the accuracy of the statement that “Australia’s National Water Commission considers that the measurement of virtual water has little practical value in decision making regarding the best allocation of scarce water resources”. But when agriculture exports account for $48.7 billion dollars to the Australian bottom line you can see why considering virtual water might cause some ripples – excuse the pun.
So why do I bring it up?
Well, systems thinking is key to understanding the overall enviromental impact of our decisions. For example the water we export every year is 30 times more than we use in our showers, or 60 times more than the water we would save from a 50% water saving shower head.
So, we could reduce our agricultural exports by 0.1% and achieve the same water savings that we would be installing 50% water saving shower heads in all our new and existing showers.
But here is the rub. If we reduce the agricultural exports by 0.1% we would save the same amount of water as we would in every household installing a low flow shower head but we reduce our GDP by $48million. However, if we are regulated to install low flow shower heads in all our households rather than cut agricultural exports then purchasing those shower heads adds $150 million to our GDP.
So pretend your a politician and your advisor said “you have two options to reduce water use in Australia – option 1 reduces our GDP by $48million every year, will cut jobs in the agricultural sector and reduce our tax income or option 2 which increases GDP by $150 million over the next 3 years, doesn’t cost the government anything and is paid for by the tax payers” which would you go for?
Sustainability is not a simple as “install low flow shower heads”, it requires a much broader approach than we are currently committing to it.