Despite being water-conscious, Perth is running out of water. Picture: Google Maps
Despite being water-conscious, Perth is running out of water. Picture: Google Maps

The Australian city running out of water

THE residents of Cape Town breathed a sigh of relief when the heavens finally opened earlier this month.

It may only have been a few millimetres but it delayed, maybe briefly, the very real chance that one of Africa's largest and most advanced metropolises could have quite literally run out of water.

Thousands of kilometres east, residents of several Australian cities are looking nervously at their African neighbours over the seas.

Many of the same issues that affect Cape Town also plague Perth as well as Adelaide and host of other built-up areas.

These isolated green oases on the fringe of the world's driest continent are struggling to keep themselves supplied with fresh water, Dr Ian Wright, an environmental scientist at Western Sydney University who used to work in the water industry, told news.com.au.

When it came to futureproofing weather supplies, "no one gives a s**t" when rainfall was plentiful, he said, which left our cities dangerously unprepared.

"The extraordinary thing about Perth is it has become so much drier in the last 50 years. The flows going to dams are now between 90 and 98 per cent lower than the years leading up to 1974.

"Perth is half the size of Cape Town but has endured increasing water stress yet its population has doubled, if not trebled - it's a perfect storm.

"A lot of decisions have been made about increasing the population without asking if the water supply can keep up."

Cape Town’s Theewaterskloof Dam, that serves four million people, has run dry. Picture: AP Photo
Cape Town’s Theewaterskloof Dam, that serves four million people, has run dry. Picture: AP Photo

Dr Wright has also singled out the NSW Central Coast, Goulburn and Broken Hill as parched populations with worryingly little water.

Perth's dams are currently only 36.6 per cent full, compared to 78 per cent in Sydney, 81 per cent in Hobart and 100 per cent in Darwin.

Clare Lugar, a spokeswoman for Water Corporation, that supplies two million West Australians, said climate change and the reduction in rainfall were huge challenges.

"In 2015, Perth's dams received the lowest level of streamflows since records began in 1911 at only 11.4 billion litres of water. Last year was an improve (we) supply about 283 billion litres of water to people each year."

The residents of Perth used on average 127,000 litres of water each, the highest consumption in any capital.

Perth, like Cape Town, is struggling with far less rainfall than it previously enjoyed. Picture: AP Photo
Perth, like Cape Town, is struggling with far less rainfall than it previously enjoyed. Picture: AP Photo

POOLS AND GARDENS

"We have a fairly profligate attitude to water. One flush can be 9L and in Cape Town, three flushes would have been your daily water allowance," said Dr Wright.

The city's lifestyle was partly to blame. Keeping pools topped up and garden laws lush, took its toll. Perth was also supplying large amounts of water via a 600km pipeline to the inland city of Kalgoorlie.

However, just living in a hot area leads to higher water usage and the residents of Perth are some of the most water conscious in Australia, increasingly using grey water in their gardens and opting for hardy native plants over thirsty imports.

In fact, nearly all of Australia's population centres have a precipitation problem. Adelaide is feeling water stress with the city extracting a substantial chunk of its water from the dwindling Murray River.

"In Australia, we store massive quantities of water and that's really unusual. In Europe or North America they have massive rivers which they can extract as much water from as they need. But, particularly in the south, we don't have the consistency of water, and that's where most of us live," said Dr Wright.

Perth’s well watered green back gardens use up a lot of water — but residents are getting better at using grey water for the job.
Perth’s well watered green back gardens use up a lot of water — but residents are getting better at using grey water for the job.

On the east coast that problem is solved by collecting rainfall in massive dams. Brisbane's Wivenhoe Dam, for instance, is many times larger than all of Perth's dams.

But, with less rainfall, it's unlikely bigger dams in Perth would fill anyway.

It means Perth has had to find more diverse sources of water than simply the skies above.

The vast majority of Perth's water comes from underground aquifers and from two huge - and costly - desalination plants, which provide the city with a third of its water.

Both sources have their drawbacks. Groundwater can be prone to elevated nitrate levels that can cause illness in young children and, just like dams, they also dry up if not replenished.

Meanwhile, Dr Wright said desalination plants "use a stupendous amount of energy". Others have pointed out they add to the very environmental issue they have been built to mitigate.

Perth has not one, but two, huge desalination plants.
Perth has not one, but two, huge desalination plants.

However, the taps in Perth still run hot and cold, due to investment in infrastructure like desalination plants, something missing in South Africa.

"The whole world is looking at Cape Town with their heads in their hands. We could watch a civilisation melt down and if I didn't have water I'd do desperate things," he said.

With its desalination plants pumping out 140 billion litres of water a year and by sucking moisture out of the ground, Perth is running at full pelt just to keep up with today's needs. Which is a concern, Dr Wright said: "We really don't know what the future holds in terms of climate change. It's really dry and we don't know if we're on the verge of another drought."

How Perth’s water is sourced and recycled. Picture: Water Corporation of Western Australia
How Perth’s water is sourced and recycled. Picture: Water Corporation of Western Australia

By 2060, Water Corporation wants Perth to use 25 per cent less water, recycle 60 per cent more waste water and find new sources.

"Water saving efforts in Perth helped save around 130 billion litres of water in 2015-16 - that's more water than WA's largest desalination plant produces in a year," Ms Lugar said.

But desalination plants sit unused and unneeded in east coast capitals. Just keeping them ticking over costs such vast amounts - $500 million a year or $100 per bill payer - leading some to label them as white elephants.

Yet Dr Wright predicts Sydney and Melbourne will crank up their desal engines and start tapping aquifers within 12 months if the dry conditions carry on. During a drought, we'd miss them if they weren't there.

For other conurbations, without the benefit of expensive water plan-Bs, it's worrying times.

"Places will run dry. Gosford and Wyong (on the NSW Central Coast) is getting a massive population increase but for 30 years they've struggled to provide water," said Dr Wright.

"Goulburn almost ran out of water in the early 2000s. In Broken Hill, a $500 million, 270km-long pipeline from the Murray is being built and while that's good for Broken Hill it's not so good for Adelaide (which uses the same source)."

Australia has always been a dry continent with a constant challenge to provide water to its citizens, hydrate its fields and lubricate the wheels of industry. That was only being exacerbated by political inaction, said Dr Wright.

"Once the dams are full, no one gives a s**t. Then when they're low, the blame game starts. But water is such as big issue, we have to care all the time."

News Corp Australia


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