Fall  >>  2004

Fresh Water

The Stuff of Life and the Focus of Future Political and Social Tensions

Water—essential to life and to national economies; clean, fresh water is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, especially in arid and semi-arid climates. In the near future, ensuring adequate supplies of fresh water to support all the competitive water needs is likely to be one of the most crucial and contentious issues facing global society. Governments will face tensions in the future that are now very evident in southeastern Australia, where they appear in microcosm in the disputes among the states of the Murray-Darling River Basin.

The crucial need to secure fresh water sufficient to the needs of southeastern Australia is what prompted the Australian hosts of this year’s International Space University ’s Summer Session Program (ISU’s SSP) in Adelaide to request a study of what space systems can bring to the management of this enormous river system. The study, one of three team projects, illustrated how satellite remote sensing can contribute to the resolution of thorny political issues.

Stretching from north of Sydney westward across southeast Australia to the mouth of the Murray River near Adelaide, the Murray and Darling Rivers drain most of southeastern Australia. This river basin area makes up 40 percent of Australia ’s agricultural production, and grazing income sustains some 30 percent of its population, including four of its five largest cities: Adelaide, Canberra , Melbourne, and Sydney .

Originally settled by different groups of Aboriginal Peoples from South Asia some 50,000 years ago, Australia was explored and settled by Northern Europeans beginning in the 17 th century. These new arrivals conquered the native groups and appropriated the best of their traditional lands, while generally ignoring the lessons that thousands of years of settlement had taught Aboriginal communities about land and water stewardship.

Among the many new technologies and societal constructs that these settlers brought with them were European notions of water management to the ecologically different Murray-Darling Basin . In an effort to spur economic development and support agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism, successive federal and state governments built dams and weirs along the rivers, streams, and tributaries of the basin in an attempt to control the river.

Unfortunately, these methods are often unsustainable in the Australian environment. In the process of building agriculture and other water-intensive industries, such efforts have led to increased soil salinity, loss of wild habitat, and decreased biodiversity. They have also made the basin more vulnerable to climatic changes and increased anxiety over assuring sufficient fresh water supplies to serve the nation’s major urban centers.

This July and August, 37 SSP program participants took part in Space Technologies for the Research of Effective Water Management (STREAM), a detailed study of fresh water supply and demand in the region. They especially examined the contributions that space technologies could make to the assessment and management of fresh water sources and distribution. Residents of the Murray-Darling Basin face problems of securing adequate water to support their growing needs, and an uncertain future climate.

Although the project focused primarily on the Murray-Darling Basin , the lessons drawn from this case study can be extrapolated to nearly every other area in the world where the supply and management of fresh water is at issue.

Centered in Strasbourg , France , ISU holds a professional, graduate-level international educational program each year for professionals and students wishing to expand their knowledge of the world’s space efforts. This year, 114 participants from 27 countries met in Adelaide for nine weeks to take part in an intensive, interdisciplinary, intercultural program of space studies. About one-third of that program is devoted each year to two or three team projects.

As readers of this journal appreciate, space-based remote sensing clearly provides certain advantages for monitoring Earth’s environmental systems over time. The synoptic view, repeatability and consistency of view, and digital format make space systems especially constructive. Thanks to private sector as well as government investment, the world now has sufficient operational satellites of different spatial and spectral resolutions to monitor the entire basin at different scales in order to examine vegetation health, water quality, and water distribution. A vibrant value-added industry has emerged that can turn these data into useful information.

In time, the research community will develop sensors to monitor rainfall, soil moisture, and soil salinity, all crucial information needs for long term water management. However, to be used for operational purposes in support of crucial environmental needs, successful sensors need to be incorporated into operational satellite systems. Increasingly, as the water shortages in the Murray-Darling Basin illustrate, large regional environments will have to be managed. Remotely-sensed data from satellites provide one of the means for doing so.

Developing additional operational sensors for environmental management will require governments to admit that investments in operational satellites for public needs is part of their responsibility. The SSP04 participants hope that their study will help convince policymakers that investments in satellite-derived information will provide enormous long-term benefits.

Yet potential users of the information that satellite systems provide generally do not care about the systems from which the information comes, as long as it is reliable and capable of fulfilling their information needs. The issue becomes how to convince them to invest greater resources in the use of data from space systems.

Not only did the ISU report highlight the strong importance of satellite remote sensing in monitoring, assessing, and managing fresh water resources, it also underlined the enormous contributions that a dedicated set of professionals can bring to a complex subject in a short time.

The study also highlighted the need for the Australian government at both the federal and state levels to establish clear, integrated policies for the acquisition and distribution of satellite data in the development and delivery of water resources information. Australia did not reach its present difficult stage overnight. It will take considerable foresight and close attention to the basin’s information needs to make progress on this difficult, contentious problem.

Unfortunately, the water problems experienced in the Murray Darling Basin have become all too familiar to many other parts of the world. The study’s results are applicable to numerous regions where burgeoning populations and industrial development strain water resources—for example, the Middle East , the Southwest United States, and parts of Africa.

As policymakers at all levels grow more comfortable with the use of information gathered by remote sensing satellites, they will increasingly be used to adjudicate environmental disputes such as access to clean water, clean air, and other life-sustaining components of daily life. The task before satellite data and information providers is to make this information more accessible and available to a broader range of the population—to all equities within society.


Ray A. Williamson is a research professor of space policy and international affairs in the Space Policy Institute of The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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