Last call at the oasis

The inconvenient truth about water is out.

According to award-winning US documentary Last Call at the Oasis, we are fast exhausting our surface water supplies - water consumption and use now exceed the capability of the system to renew itself.  And the majority of groundwater sources are either already contaminated or soon will be.

This powerful documentary – showing briefly last week at the Sydney film festival - shatters many myths about water, the way we use and consume it, the defects in our urban water systems, and the growing ill effects of contaminated water on communities.

It establishes the global water crisis as the central issue facing the world this century and is a wake up call.

So what can we do to address and, if possible, even reverse this water crisis?

Here’s a start, ask Jack Black.

One of the issues highlighted by the film is the contamination of groundwater not just globally but in particular the US. The film reveals evidence that the overuse of the chemical Atrazine used in the production of corn, rice, sugarcane and sorghum, is largely responsible for contaminating groundwater. The chemical has been banned in Europe since 2004 but is still used in the US in large quantities and Australia.

How we are using and polluting our groundwater supplies is a key issue, especially in Australia where our water balance is precarious. We know that rains will eventually follow drought but what we are seeing is an intensification of the water cycle. The droughts are longer and the floods are larger.

Each time we experience drought we turn to groundwater as a last resort - the last Oasis - but growing evidence indicates we are not looking after this valuable resource.

For example, the growing mining industry is failing to protect groundwater resources and urban cities are quickly contaminating groundwater resources. Once we have depleted surface water supplies and the “unlimited” ground water supplies are contaminated – what will we have left?

Sea water? The film points out the financial and carbon cost of desalination processes that will limit large scale desalination processes. It also highlights local contamination issues in areas subjected to prolonged waste discharge from desalination plants.

So what about water efficiency? The rapid population of the planet means we cannot hope to meet growing future water demand through efficiencies alone. It will not be possible according to leading experts interviewed in the film.

Rethinking our urban water use and agriculture will be essential as we look to solutions to this future challenge.

The majority of the world’s water is used for agriculture or food production. The Virtual Water App is a quick way to learn how much water is used in the production of beef – 4650 litres of water for I x 300g beef steak. 2400 litres per 100 grams of chocolate, 4250 litres for one 250 gram piece of leather.

Not only is food production creating an increasing drain on our fresh water resource but it is creating large quantities of waste contaminating water supplies. For example, in cattle farming, 6,000 cows produce the equivalent waste of 180,000 people daily.

The film shows the devastating effects of excess effluent on the environment and the desperate measures companies are going to when they cant handle the quantum of waste.

Not surprisingly, recycling water is the only saviour in this scenario. Recycling and the sustainable water management practices that go with reusing waste close to source require a change in the way we have been doing business.

Simply harvesting the multiple local water and wastewater supplies and recycling them into a secure and safe source of water – will deliver positive and immediate results.

And an innovative initiative in the film was to take on the brand and marketing power of ‘bottled water’. Here’s a short clip from the film that shows actor Jack Black doing his bit for the recycled water industry.

Terry Leckie is one of Australia’s leading water industry experts and a passionate advocate of water reform, championing key changes to legislation and regulation.

Terry is also Founder and CEO of Water Factory Company, Australia’s first private water utility which is creating affordable and sustainable smart water networks. More of his blogs can be found at Water Spectator.

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