China-Australia Free Trade Agreement - what does this mean for our own water resources?

China-Australia Free Trade Agreement - what does this mean for our own water resources?

5.01.2015 - Posted by Rob Catchlove
The explosion of growth in China back in 2002 was something to behold. At the time I was hanging out in a central Chinese city called Wuhan, in little laneways and fields, sandwiched between the city and the many lakes. I was doing a little research project on a possible WaterWatch program in the city, with the help of the local university and China’s EPA*. It was a city of 8 million people (now it’s 10.5 million), and the first major city downstream of the Three Gorges Dam and on the fertile plains of the Yangzte River. It had real water quality issues in the lakes too.

With the high profile announcement of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in November, and Andrew Robb explicitly suggesting that Australia can export its water related professional services to China, I wonder if I’ll be back there again soon?

Before me or anyone else packs their bags, I do remember being blown away when I visited the Chinese Ministry for Water Resources and heard about the 16,000 people working just on monitoring rivers!

The other element of the free trade agreement and one that is closer to home is how it might influence our own water resources, through increased agricultural production – i.e. will we need to use more water to export goods to China?

Not necessarily. I say that on the basis that there is no good estimate of how much the FTA is worth - well covered here by The Guardian - though the most commonly cited figure is $18 billion over 10 years.

Dairy seems to be the big winner in terms of export potential, and that industry is currently the second highest user of water in the agricultural sectors (consuming 2000 gigalitres a year according the ABS).

If diary production doubled to supply Chinese markets, then yes Australia has to have a serious look at what that means for our water resources and environment. That would be like adding five cities the size of Melbourne (in terms of water used). But equally it could be turned into an opportunity to innovate and become more efficient. Or it might not register in the context of many other economic and environmental changes that happen in Australia! 

* Environment Protection Authority
Photo source: Australian Government
DFAT webpage