Saturday, October 16, 2010

Water: It Isn't Just Another Third World Problem

I am taking the 20 minute trudge to work from Flinders Street station, in the pouring rain. Walking along Southbank, there is little shelter and the brisk southerlies make a mockery of any that an umbrella might provide. Naturally, I am getting soaked.

Welcome to Melbourne's October! Normally, we're getting increasingly warm, sunny spells. Instead, it's hovering around the low teens with hail and snow in the surrounding hills. It is, one might say philosophically, good growing weather.

It's just as well we are getting this wintry, wet blast because the last 12 years has given South Eastern Australia anything but good growing weather.

I understand that Melbourne has, for a city of its size, remarkably good water catchments. When full, they provide a reserve of about 5 years supply.

We've needed it! This time last year we were at about 25% capacity, and there have been periods recently when the levels have dropped by 20% in a year. Consider the prospect of a modern city of ~3-4 million people with no water supply. You don't just truck those sorts of quantities in from the neighbouring districts; especially when the neighbours are, if anything, even worse off. Consider the prospect of an catchment area comparable to the Mississippi running dry. That was the Murray-Darling basin a couple of years ago. Low water levels in these areas may be more sinister than just a few crazy-paved billabongs either. There is a sulphur-bearing soil type ('Coode Island silt') which has the unpleasant habit of generating sulphuric acid when exposed to air. It can administer the coup de grace to an already reeling river ecosystem.

Things turn, and recent rain patterns have been somewhat more generous. Melbourne's water catchments have recovered to 48% (for the first time in four years), a bumper crop is hoped for (by locusts, as well as people). The Murray has reached the sea for the first time in ten years and the Coorong may yet be resuscitated. Nevertheless, climate modelling suggests that SE Australia will become increasingly more dry and arid as global warming proceeds. Even with the rains, we have only just returned to the point where, four years ago, I predicted that Melbourne was going to be running dry in ten years. What we have is a reprieve.

Despite good rainfalls this winter, water levels have only just recovered from the calamituous dry spell of 2006

Lessons are things that don't kill you. So, what have we learnt?

I think it depends on where you look. At a government level, the reaction has been ill-considered and clumsy. The Federal government seeks to take control of the Murray-Darling water allocation system for irrigators and is currently trying to market a 30-40% reduction in allocations. This is so that the environment has something to be getting on with. It is a necessary restraint but one which is going to cause unnecessary angst if applied immediately. Naturally, there is resistance to such a dramatic cut. The State response has been no less eye-rolling. Here the emphasis has been on trying to ensure Melbourne's supply via a pipeline from the Goulburn and a nice, big, expensive, ugly desalination plant. A suggestion that recycling from storm water and sewage was firmly vetoed becuse it was thought that the public would rebel. Ironically, nobody I know has ever been too concerned about recycled water, but most have been scathing about the other two projects. Maybe I don't move in sufficiently 'political' circles. They have, at least, moved from issuing vague decrees about restriction levels to monitoring water usage per person and putting a preferred limit on it (155 litres/day). Mostly, it's being stuck to.

At a personal level, people are showering quicker, buying water storage tanks, and using grey water on the garden. Of these little steps, buying water efficient washing machines is probably the biggest improvement one can make. Whatever, these little adjustments *are* making a difference, as can be seen from the rate at which water has been used in 1996 and 2010.

Getting water-wise: consumption at the start of 1997 vs 2010.
The main lesson learnt, though, is not one that comes easily to people sheltered from the worst environmental extremes by a first-world lifestyle.

It is this: water can no longer be taken for granted.

(Part of Blog Action Day)