Year by year, we have seen the world’s accessibility, supply, and availability of water decrease, raising serious questions about whether we are doing enough to secure our water. Water security is particularly relevant in Australia, as continued drought has placed increasing pressure on primary industries, many involving agriculture and irrigation. Demand for water will likely increase due to population growth and climate change. Hence, questions must be raised about how Australia currently conceptualizes the idea of “water security,” whether it is broad enough to encompass all community needs and what methods are needed to best encourage sustainability.
What is water security?
Current Australian frameworks on water security centre on a narrow focus of water availability, considering whether the amounts stored are capable of sustaining and supplying an entire continent. This differs from international standards such as UN-Water which consider water security to encompass who is benefited or excluded from the availability of water and whether it can be sustainably used in the future as well. The primary difference between the two frameworks is that the Australian model does not take into account access; frequently, urban cities may have an oversupply and abundance of water whilst Indigenous groups and certain rural regions suffer from drought. Additionally, there is a smaller focus on future risk management which lessens discussion on how to protect and guarantee water supplies for the decades to come.
What are current threats to clean water?
As the driest continent in the world, Australia has faced difficulties with changing rainfall patterns and drought that have resulted from climate change. There have also been several challenges to conserving irrigation water to supply to regional towns. Coupled with the 2019-2020 bushfires in states such as NSW, many regional areas have experienced significant reductions in primary production exports. 70% of the nation’s water supply is used on agriculture and primary industry production. As primary industries continue to remain heavily reliant on access and usage of water, an emerging threat is whether there is enough water to sustain industries in the summer and how that water is going to be transported to those regions.
In the long term, there are also risks of water contamination and viruses being spread through seas and dams, posing threats to the nation’s health, development and security. Growing pollution in Australian seas, rising water levels, and acidic oceans increase the risk of natural disasters. Untreated wastewater or chemicals spread through increased activity on the sea can mean that previously uncontaminated water sources become in need of protection.
Internationally, other countries’ limited access to water can also have reverberating effects in the Indo-Pacific. Ineffective storage facilities or inadequate infrastructure can pose health risks to communities, affecting states’ stability and their relations with other nations. As the recent pandemic has shown all too clearly, non-traditional threats to individual security have increasingly emerged in the health sector, meaning risk-prevention tactics must be considered. It has now become critical that Australia rethinks its conceptualization of what “secure water sources” mean and how that can be implemented.
How can Australia re-conceptualize its ideas around “water security”?
The largest challenge to achieving availability and accessibility of water is that Australia does not have a national framework of how water security can be improved and managed in the future. Federal and state documents on water sustainability present an awareness of water security as a risk. However, attention is largely directed towards ensuring access in urban areas where infrastructure is already more developed. Less attention is driven towards remote regions where the effects of climate change are exacerbated. This means that while policies may include building projects in regional areas, mainstream discourse is limiting discussion on critical perspectives and issues. Additionally, it is important to note that Australia’s water is governed by states, not the federal government, meaning each state adopts different regulatory frameworks, systems, and infrastructure. Hence, overall mechanisms of guaranteeing water security are inconsistent and several different approaches to risk management are taken across the country.
Moving away from a strict focus on water conservation towards water sustainability techniques will cement Australia’s aquaculture and agriculture at the forefront of technological innovation. Rather than considering how Australia can respond to changing climates, it should instead be future-focused, considering how we can ensure sustainability for the years to come. Australia has the opportunity to “think bigger” about how it is able to guarantee safe water. Current conservation techniques such as desalination and the emerging use of hydroponics prove promising in ensuring water is able to be conserved and reused. Government must work with key actors in the private sector to enhance security. The techniques can be shown via a three prong approach:
- Continued investment into scientific research, including methods of purification and storing water;
- Expansion of infrastructure projects such as dams;
- Strengthening ties with local communities, understanding the best means of connecting communities to clean water.
A shift towards a human-health oriented approach is also important. What this means is that rather than focusing on water security as an environmental risk, intangible, and abstract, water insecurity is imagined as a potential risk that can be studied, understood and managed by communities and governments. This moves the conversation away from a broad focus on water in general to a closer understanding of how this affects human health and individual lives.
Ultimately, water security affects the safety of all individuals, being essential for human life. Australia’s traditional standards of measuring secure water has left many out of secure water sources. A re-conceptualization of how water security impacts communities will prompt important discourse on how to promote innovative water conservation and sustainability techniques, ensuring a more secure future for all.