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A few facts about water in Australia and abroad

You, me and every other human on the planet is about 60 per cent water by weight.

Of all the water on earth, only 3 per cent is fresh water. The rest is salt. Of that 3 per cent, two-thirds is frozen at the poles or in glaciers, so only 1 per cent of all water on earth is accessible for human consumption.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent, with hugely variable rainfall.

A fish skeleton lays in a dry river bed, with gum trees visible on the right bank.
A dry river bed at Coonamble in New South Wales. Photo: National Library of Australia.

The Murray River is Australia's major river, yet more water flows down the Amazon River in a day than down the Murray in a year.

The Murray River's flow today is just 27 per cent of its pre-European level. Only through constant dredging does the river's mouth stay open.

Aerial view of coastline showing a small opening, where a river meets the open sea.
The Murray River mouth, where Australia's major river meets the Southern Ocean, in 1973. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

Mountain areas globally have great significance as sources of fresh water. In Australia, the Murray River's catchment above Hume Dam near Albury covers less than 1.5 per cent of the Murray-Darling Basin, yet contributes 33 per cent of river flow.

Hume Dam was the largest in the southern hemisphere when it was completed in the 1930s. In 2009 it was less than 5 per cent full due to the drought.

Side view of a concrete dam wall. A bank of earth extends from the centre of the wall into a low-lying waterway.
The Hume Dam is capable of holding 3,000,000 megalitres but as this 2009 photo shows, the dam level is extremely low. Photo: Matthew Higgins.

Australia's Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme required the relocation of two towns — Jindabyne and Adaminaby. China's Three Gorges Dam required the relocation of 1.2 million people.

Climate-change modelling predicts significant drying-out of south-eastern Australia, including the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia's major irrigated food production area. Continuing drought certainly appears to support this.

The native fish population in the Murray-Darling Basin has declined by 90 per cent since the arrival of Europeans.

The wall behind a bar, with a mounted Murray cod head hanging above a doorway. Various spirit bottles appear, along with a framed poster and 'CARLTON' mirror and framed playing cards.
Murray cod fishing culture can be seen in local pubs along the Murray River, including this hotel at Koondrook, Victoria. Photo: Matthew Higgins.

About 65 per cent of all water used in Australia is employed by agriculture. This is roughly equivalent to usage levels around the globe.

Irrigated agricultural production in Australia was valued at $9.076 billion in 2004-05.

Most of Australia's irrigation takes place in the Murray-Darling Basin. Yet the Murray-Darling Basin receives only 6.1 per cent of Australia's run-off, while 65 per cent of run-off occurs in northern Australia.

Just four industries used 70 per cent of all water consumed by agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin in 2005-06, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. They were, in order: cotton, dairy, non-dairy pasture, and rice.

Owing to the drought, irrigation water use dropped 20 per cent in Australia in 2008-09.

An overhead irrigation system consisting of pipes arranged above triangular wheeled frame in a field of green pasture. Cows are visible in the background.
An overhead spray irrigation system used in Australian agriculture.
Photo: Matthew Higgins.

The majority of Australians — 71 per cent in December 2006 — experience water restrictions in some form.

Water now pre-occupies Australian federal and state politics to a degree not seen before. A federal water minister did not exist a decade ago.

Some rivers in Australia are predicted to experience threefold rises in their salinity levels by 2100, including the Macquarie River in New South Wales.

Bottled water consumption around the world almost doubled between 1997 and 2005. It takes about three litres of water to produce one litre of bottled water. Worldwide, 2.7 million tonnes of plastic are required annually to make bottles. Bottled water costs vastly more to the consumer than tap water.

Water: H2O=Life is organised by the American Museum of Natural History, New York (, and the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul (, in collaboration with the National Museum of Australia, Canberra; Great Lakes Science Center, Cleveland; The Field Museum, Chicago; Instituto Sangari, São Paulo, Brazil; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada; San Diego Natural History Museum; and Science Centre Singapore with PUB Singapore.

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