Will the gift of GAB be wasted?

Will the gift of  GAB be wasted? a very important factor behind the growth of Australia in the past 100 years has been the availability of freshwater from the artesian wells of the Great Artesian Basin ( gab ). The basin is the world's largest underground source of freshwater. An artesian well is a perpendicular boring into an underground aquifer in which water rises spontaneously to the surface.

However, the basin is now facing severe problems: 95 per cent of the water is wasted through evaporation, seepage through outdated systems, poor infrastructure and insufficient financial resources. An advisory body has been set up to devise strategies to manage gab . It has come up with a draft plan to improve the management of the basin.
Discovery of the basin Early European settlers in the 19th century would have found it very difficult to venture west of the Great Dividing Range (a mountainous range running parallel to the east coast of Australia). Central Australia is the driest part of this driest continent on the Earth. But artesian wells of gab supported the livestock that supported Australia's economy, making it rich and prosperous.

Artesian groundwater in the basin was accidentally discovered in 1878, when a shallow bore sunk near Bourke in the state of New South Wales produced flowing water. In 1885, a geologist with the government of the state of Queensland decided to drill a deep bore to provide water supply during drought. Even before he completed his task, other bores started flowing in 1886 in Back Creek, east of Barvaldine.

Over 1,500 flowing artesian bores had been drilled throughout the basin by 1915. Thousands of kilometres of bore drains were dug to carry stock water around properties and prime sheep and cattle were raised on Mitchell grass, mulga (a hardy, small, outback tree) and spinifex (grass-like plant that grows knee-high in huge areas). When the bores were first drilled into the basin, the flow from each bore was often very large: 6-10 million litres a day. To distribute the water around properties, small channels (or drains, as they are locally known) were dug and the bore water flowed into these. They followed the land contour and the water moved very slowly, but often for great distances. Large bores often had three or four drains running from them, some of them 100 km long.
Importance of GAB The 1.7 million-sq km-wide gab is the largest artesian basin in the world, with an estimated water storage of 8,700,000 billion litres. gab is spread over four states: Queensland, New South Wales, Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. The basin is the lifeline of a significant part of Australia. According to Mark Vaile, Australia's minister for agriculture, fisheries and forestry, the basin supports agricultural production valued at Aus $3.5 billion (about us $2.2 billion) annually.

Approximately 200,000 people live within the basin, and half of these live in towns that use water from gab , along with mineral and industrial enterprises. About 90,000 people earn their living in the areas of gab . "Without this source of good quality water, much of arid and semi-arid Australia would not be utilised,' says Tim Oldfield of the National Farmers' Federation in Bourke, New South Wales.
The problem and a solution The basin faces a serious problem today. In many areas, artesian water is traditionally being allowed to flow uncontrolled from bores into open drains and creeks for stock to drink. Nearly 33,000 km of bore drains are in use at present in Queensland and New South Wales. "Of course, this is very wasteful of water, with 95 per cent lost to seepage and evaporation,' says John Hillier, principal hydrologist with Queensland's department of natural resources.

The solution to the problem has been proposed in what is called the strategic management plan ( smp ), which has been prepared by the Great Artesian Basin Consultative Council ( gabcc ). gabcc was set up in 1997 as an advisory council to state and federal governments on the strategies to manage all uses of gab . The council was formed following a forum in November 1995, which was initiated by John Seccombe, a pastoralist, and attended by 60 stakeholders, people who use water from gab and have a stake in conserving it.

The consultative council includes 18 representatives from various government departments that are responsible for the basin, key industry representatives, community representatives from state advisory committees, conservationists and representatives of Aboriginal communities. smp is considered the most comprehensive resource study ever conducted on the basin. "The Plan will allow for a dramatic reduction in wastage from gab and will be the major factor in rehabilitation of pressure and volume in the basin,' says Andrew Ball, who was formerly an adviser to the gab state advisory committee of New South Wales.

smp proposes Aus $220 million (about us $138 million) to be spent over the next 15 years to cap uncontrolled flowing bores, and to pipe open bore drains. "Part of the plan does involve some more research/investigation so that we fully understand the hydrology of the basin and can work out what the long-term sustainable yield of the basin is. The hydrology of the gab is complex, as one would expect from the largest basin of its kind in the world,' says Hillier.

Piping instead of maintaining bore drains saves the land holder time and enhances property management. Pipes can deliver water to the entire property and control the points that are to be used by stock all the year round. Food supplements and veterinary treatments can be introduced via piped water,' points out Anne Goeths, regional coordinator of Queensland's department of natural resources.

The objectives of the plan include: maintaining the quantity and pressure of gab groundwater, implementing the best practice management, managing access to water supplies for existing users, recognising and incorporating values of the Aboriginal people of Australia, communicating the importance of gab , support research, and monitor and evaluate efficiency. It is estimated that bore capping and piping could save 300,000 million litres of water per year from being wasted. This would lead to a significant increase in the water pressure in the aquifers and a corresponding increase in the quality of the natural ecosystems.
Whither the resources? Who should pay for all this? The plan proposes stakeholders who will benefit from the plan should contribute a significant part of the cost, including farmers, mining and extractive industry outfits and tourism ventures in the basin.

The limited perceived financial returns to pastoralists are not encouraging necessary private investment from them. The plan says gab should be managed by zones because of large regional differences in the distribution of benefits and hydrological characteristics.

Says Seccombe, the chairperson of gabcc : "I am in a unique position, being a pastoralist the chairman of the council. I can speak for the pastoralists. They do not have any money to support this plan, though 50 per cent of pastoralists now realise there is a problem.' .

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