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Epic Drought Threatens Australian Drinking Water Supplies

Australia in grip of water crisis, Nov. 10, 2004

There is a warning that some of Australia's major cities could run out of drinking water.

Much of this arid continent is in the grip of one of the driest periods in living memory.

"We're in a sustained drought now and if that goes on for another year, we're going to have real problems," Professor Peter Cullen, leader of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"Some of our major (cities) are really in a race at the moment to see who's going to run out of water first."

A big worry is that in such a parched country, water supplies in many Australian cities cannot cope with rapid population growth.

Levels at the Warragamba dam that provides 80% of Sydney's water have reached record lows.

Recent heavy rain has helped, but the biggest and probably the most thirsty city in Australia needs a steady drenching of 40mm of rain to fall in the catchment areas every day for a week before dams return to "comfortable" levels.

It is proof that Australia's water crisis has moved from the dusty outback and into the suburbs and towns.

The people of Goulburn, a large town a couple of hours drive southwest of Sydney, have been living with tough water restrictions for much of the past two years.

Matthew O'Rourke, from the local council, said that each resident was allowed to use up 150 litres per day, the equivalent of three 5-minute showers.

He has warned that without significant rainfall Goulburn's supplies will reach a "critical level" by July 2005.

"The goal would be for the community to fundamentally change the way it uses water," Mr O'Rourke said.

The message appears to be getting through. If community spirit is not enough, there is always the threat of fines to encourage compliance.

"My youngest daughter is five and she's quite water-conscious," said Gillian Webber, a computer graphics worker in Goulburn.

"If she sees a puddle of water she gets quite excited because we've had so little (rain) in the past two years."

"This summer will be difficult for the kids because they've closed sporting fields," the mother-of-three added. "They're just too hard and dry."

New thinking

Long-term Goulburn resident Ken May said it has not been easy adapting to the restrictions.

"It's been very difficult," said the 73-year old retired teacher. "We're allowed 150 litres of water per person per day and that includes baths, cooking, everything."

But it is not all bad news. Ken's water bills have plummeted since the restrictions were brought in.

Asked if he could remember the days when Australians used water freely, he replied: "Ah, yes - that was only five or six years ago. Gee - it really makes us think that we really did waste so much water."

Australia's salvation appears to lie with education, awareness and tapping into new sources of water.

Blair Nancarrow, a water expert at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), believes a way out of the current emergency is within reach.

"Everybody needs to pull together," she said. "We could run around and say it's a big crisis but it's not. There are plenty of sources. It's a matter of what we're going to do and what we're prepared to do."

Green gardens and dishwashers could soon become luxuries beyond the reach of most households.

The recycling of water, desalinisation plants and the harnessing of storm water - which often, and rather frustratingly for many Australians, simply flows into the sea - are options.

Blair Nancarrow, who is based in Western Australia, has said cities like Perth must get used to living with less rain.

"There was a dramatic drop [in rainfall] here in the mid 1970s and again in the mid-90s. It looks like this will now be the norm," she predicted.