Garden & Outdoor Feature: The Truth Watered Down

Householders have felt the full brunt of water restrictions – watering the garden is now a furtive, antisocial, night-time activity – but are domestic users really to blame for our water woes?

There are many confusing messages about water use in Australia and the need to conserve our precious H2O resources.

We are led to believe that prevailing drought conditions are a wake-up call to action, a prompt for all homeowners to mend their profligate ways and “make a difference” by embracing water-saving dogma: turn off the tap while brushing your teeth; divert grey water to your backyard fruit trees; use a bucket to wash the car; only water the garden after dark…the humble three-pronged lawn sprinkler – like Dracula – shuns the daylight because it is evil.AHJCartoonSept05

But to what extent are domestic water consumption practices to blame for our water shortages? Are householders – and retail garden departments – being made to pay the price for ulterior problems?

It is worth examining some of the statistical data pertaining to Australian water use. First of all, “Domestic water consumption was around 8% of the total water use in 1996–97,” according to the Department of Environment & Heritage.1 In other words, the millions of families dotted in homes, units and flats around the country were relatively minor users of water. So where does most of our water go? “The agriculture industry consumed two-thirds of water consumption in Australia,” notes the Australian Bureau of Statistics.2 In the period from 2000–01, agriculture accounted for 16,660 GL (a GL is one thousand million litres) of water, compared to the national domestic consumption of 2,181 GL over the same timeframe. The report is quick to point out that this agriculture sector is worth $9.6 billion.

Of course, agricultural water use is also complemented by industrial and commercial consumption. In WA, for instance, the mining industry accounts for half of all water used.3 Nationally, “Australia’s alumina refineries used 51.5 GL of water in 2004.”4 In Tasmania, 19% of water (79 GL) consumed in 2000–01 was used for manufacturing, with 69 GL5 devoted to the wood and paper products industry. Leakage is another significant user of water: 14% (676 GL) of all mains water used in ACT/NSW in 2000–01 was lost to “system water losses”.6

If there is a trend here, it is that the “big players” of water consumption in Australia do not appear to be mums and dads standing on the nature strip watering the roses.

A counterargument is that little can be gleaned from looking at broader national and Statewide statistics – the water consumption of residents in capital cities like Melbourne and Sydney need to be assessed in terms of their local and immediate water resources. The argument might take the line that the consumption of the mining industry in WA, for example, is not relevant to eastern-seaboard city folk because the resources are regionally distinct. So let’s look specifically at urban water use.

The Urban Scene
Domestic urban users, while representing only about 12% of water consumed nationally, account for about 60% of their local water resources.7 And only about 35% of this consumption is devoted to gardening.8 Another way of expressing this figure is to say: About 21% of overall domestic urban consumption is used for gardening purposes. This usage should be seen in the context of industry, commerce and public parks and gardens, which account collectively for about 30% of local urban water consumption. Such figures beg the question: If households, and domestic gardens in particular, use less water than industrial/commercial consumers, are homeowners being asked to carry a disproportionate load of the burden of conserving water? Are we too concerned with the car washing and teeth brushing strategies of suburban residents and not paying enough attention to industry, commerce…even leaks? Why would this happen?

A sceptic might argue that householders are easy targets. Public announcements emphasising the critical value of urban domestic water conservation practices make householders feel responsible for significant water use, and therefore more inclined to suffer the increasing costs of addressing water problems.

No one would argue that water conservation strategies are worthwhile, even on a microcosmic scale. The fact remains, however, that a 10% saving in urban garden watering practices equates to a 2% saving of overall urban reserves, and about 0.2% of overall national reserves – a drop in the bucket. Such savings may be commendable, though one must question whether the public is aware of the importance of its water conservation activities relative to agricultural, commercial and industrial practices. Or are such questions heretical?

By John Power

1. “Urban Water Use Statistics in Australia”, Australian Government, Department of the Environment & Heritage, see www.deh.gov.au/water/urban/statistics.html

2. “4610.0 Water Use – Australian Economy Consumes 50 Sydney Harbours”, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 19 May 2005

3. “Sustainability Report 2004”, Australian Aluminium Council

4. Ibid.

5. “4610.0 Water Use – Australian Economy Consumes 50 Sydney Harbours”, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 19 May 2005

6. Ibid.

7. “Urban Water Use Statistics in Australia”, Australian Government, Department of the Environment & Heritage, see www.deh.gov.au/water/urban/statistics.html

8. Ibid.

To read the rest of the article see the Australian Hardware Journal September issue.