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Last Updated: Friday, 25 June, 2004, 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK
Australia signs up to water deal
By Phil Mercer
BBC, Sydney

Saltpan   Costing the Earth
Water supplies are in crisis in parts of Australia
The majority of Australia's state and central governments have signed a landmark deal to safeguard the country's water resources.

A multi-million dollar scheme to revive one of its most important river basins has also been approved.

At a meeting in the capital, Canberra, political leaders also agreed to establish a national water commission.

Prime Minister John Howard called it an historic agreement, although Western Australia has refused to sign up.

Australia is the world's driest inhabited continent and there is general agreement that the country has to use water more efficiently.

In many parts, water supplies are in crisis.

A national water plan approved by the Council of Australian Governments at a meeting in Canberra attempts to balance environmental concerns and the needs of the community.

The amount of water taken from rivers for commercial use is to be cut and farmers will be compensated.

At the heart of the initiative is a A$500m ($350m) scheme to revitalise the Murray Darling river basin.

It is one of the most important water courses in the country and stretches across four states in south-eastern Australia.

In recent times, it has been badly affected by excessive irrigation and a lack of rain.

There was a concern, however, that projects to help revive other struggling rivers will not be funded.

A special commission is to be set up and will help develop the trade in water between the states and territories.

Domestic consumers could soon face permanent restrictions, such is the perilous state of supplies in many parts of the country.

Whilst there was broad agreement in Canberra, the Premier of Western Australia, Geoff Gallop, refused to sign the deal, insisting it did nothing to address the problems his region faces.

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