Social Action Office


Water – a resource with many uses

Water is an indispensable requirement for human life, but we value it for a variety of reasons. We need it to drink, to use in cooking, for washing, for maintaining gardens. It is also indispensable for industries and agricultural production. It has recreational and aesthetic values. Many waterways, springs and wetlands have cultural and spiritual significance for Indigenous Australians, and few would argue that the oceans, rivers and lakes have a restorative value for the human spirit. Water has a symbolic value for several of the world’s major religions.

A scarce resource

But freshwater is a scarce resource. All but about 2% of the world’s water is salty. Most of this 2% is in ice caps and glaciers or too remote to access. Only 0.01% is available for human use and consumption.

And there’s a lot of competition for it. In the past 70 years, the world’s population has doubled, and our use of fresh water has increased sixfold.

Australia, the driest and thirstiest

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, with only 1% of the world’s freshwater resources. Moreover, 90% of our rain and snowfalls are lost through evaporation. The global figure is 65%.

On top of that, we have close to the highest per capita consumption of water in the world. The average Australian uses about 350 litres per day – that’s about 35 standard bucketfuls. This consumption rate is increasing. Between 1985 and 1997, our total water use grew by 65%.

Scientists predict that global warming will result in a reduction in rainfall in southern Australia in years to come.

A water crisis

Our current rate of water use is unsustainable. We are taking more water from our continent than its natural systems can replenish. The signs are unmistakable:

  • many rivers have lost large proportions of their flow to urban, industrial and agricultural uses
  • the “high and low” flow pattern typical of most Australian rivers, stemming from floods and droughts – has been interrupted by dams and weirs, threatening native flora and fauna which depend on the natural pattern for survival
  • cultivated land as well as fresh water is increasingly affected by salinity
  • watercourses are polluted by urban, agricultural and industrial runoffs, as well as by excessively cold water released from dams
  • native plants and animals are threatened with extinction.

The Wentworth Group of concerned scientists recently used the word “crisis” to describe the situation.

SAO’s Involvement

In the light of all this, and bearing in mind the increasing emphasis in Catholic Teaching on the need for an “ecological conversion”, SAO has prepared the following briefing notes to assist SAO partners who wish to lobby on the issue of water in the run-up to the Federal Election. The notes focus on three points:

The notes identify the values SAO would wish to see preserved in policy decisions. A number of quotations from Catholic Social Teaching are included below.


Water by its very nature cannot be treated as a mere commodity among other commodities. Catholic social thought has always stressed that the defence and preservation of certain common goods, such as the natural and human environments, cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces, as they touch on fundamental human needs which escape market logic.

Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 40

Catholic Social Teaching reminds us that human beings are called to act as stewards safeguarding the integrity of creation. We need to change our ways of seeing the world, of thinking and behaving, as we accept our responsibility to protect the earth’s finite resources.

Australian Catholic Bishops, A New Earth – The Environmental Challenge,
Social Justice Sunday Statement 2002

Christians in particular, realise that their duty towards nature and creation is an essential part of their faith…I would like to address directly my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church in order to remind them of their serious obligation to care for all of creation.

Pope John Paul II, World Day of Peace, 1990

Use of the mineral, vegetable and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives…Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator, is not absolute. It is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbour, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2415


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