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Troubled waters: experts comment on the drought and water policy

27 September 2019
"Drought creeps up on us"
Australia is bracing for another hot, dry summer. With no respite in sight for drought-affected communities, what's the long-term solution for our chronic water shortage? University of Sydney experts weigh up the options and examine current policy proposals.

Dr Petr Matous believed recycled water systems should be implemented in Australia. Photo credit: Tanertoson/Pixabay

Sydney uses more water than Melbourne

Dr Petr Matous is an academic from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering who specialises in environmental and humanitarian engineering. While he believes governments should invest in recycled water infrastructure, water usage is high in Sydney compared to other parts of the country.

"The latest rains in Sydney didn’t change much except increase the levels of water-borne bacteria along our beaches from surface run off. We had a few days of rain but we are still in a drought," said Dr Matous.

"The water level of Warragamba Dam, the dam that supplies most of Sydney's water, is still only at 50 percent just like it was a week or so ago. During those few days of rain, four centimetres fell in its catchment area and all of it was consumed.

"To ensure sufficient water supply for a growing population, the creation of recycled water infrastructure would be a step in the right direction. However, to buttress us through further droughts in an increasingly variable climate, significant awareness raising and especially work on pricing is needed.

"Sydney has great storage capacity but even with desalination plants running, water levels are decreasing because there hasn't been enough rain and because we use too much water in Sydney; 30 percent more, per person, than in Melbourne.

"Most of us in Sydney don’t even know how much water we use, unlike people in other cities whose water bills depend on their actual consumption, or people in remote areas who live off their rainwater tanks, a technology that should be rolled out in urban areas."

Home to many animal and plant species that rely on brackish water for survival, estuaries are transition zones between rivers and the sea. Photo credit: InnateAdvertising/Pixabay

Turning rivers inland won't solve our water problem

Willem Vervoort is an Associate Professor in Hydrology and Catchment Management from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences. He says the solution to Australia's ongoing water shortage is to work with the environment, not manipulate it further.

“The idea to turn coastal rivers inland keeps coming up and is based on the misunderstanding that water is “lost” to the sea. No water is lost in the water balance. All water has a use, either by humans or by the environment," explained Associate Professor Vervoort.

“If we were to turn coastal rivers inland, oyster farmers and fisheries on the coast would surely be impacted, as would the river ecosystems whose survival relies on water flowing out to sea.

“Humans tend to make decisions based on trade-offs and on where we believe water will best be used. In this case we need to weigh up ruining a coastal river environment — such as in the case of the Snowy Hydro scheme which damaged the Snowy River — against growing more irrigated crops in the Murray Darling, where there’d likely be further impacts on the river environment.

“The Murray Darling crisis will not be solved by “adding more water”. The crisis can only be solved by having a clear national plan which includes the environment, economics and social well-being. We cannot continue to take water from an empty river system, but we also cannot continue to starve rural towns of opportunities to thrive and develop. But this will require a lot more than just water.”

Fish will be relocated this summer to safeguard against another potential fish kill event. Photo credit: MrsBrown/Pixabay

Murray Darling Basin a "disaster of epic proportions"

Professor Rosemary Lyster is a Professor of Climate and Environmental Law at the University of Sydney Law School. She believes the Menindee fish kill was a result of poor policy and decision making that is impacting communities and threatening the survival of entire ecosystems.

“In 1994, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to a major reform of Water Law in Australia in recognition of the fact that water resources and attendant ecosystems in the Murray Darling Basin needed to move towards more sustainable outcomes. A water market and large subsidies for water irrigation have been trialled to achieve these goals," said Professor Lyster.

“The massive fish kill at Menindee in the summer of 2018/9 is testament to the complete failure of politicians, governance and the law to manage sustainable diversions, drought and climate change impacts on the river system.

“Since the documentary 'Pumped' aired on ABC Four Corners, various investigations and inquiries have uncovered the extent of water theft and the lack of adequate oversight, transparency and accountability on the part of those with regulatory responsibility.

“We're now left with a situation where Indigenous people, farmers and towns endure ongoing crippling drought and the only way to save species in the coming summer months is to create a 'Noah's Ark' to relocate fish to other parts of the river system. It's a disaster of epic proportions with very serious implications for all humans, species and ecosystems in the Murray Darling Basin.”

Drought has a long term impact on ecosystems. Photo credit: TitusStauntan/Pixabay.

"Drought creeps up on us"

Dr Floris Van Ogtrop is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Life and Environmental Science. His research focuses on identifying links between water quality and human, animal and plant health. Thanks to scientific advancements, he says it has become easier to predict and understand the impacts of drought. 

“Can we prepare for drought? Unlike cyclones or bush fires, drought creeps up on us," said Dr Van Ogtrop.

“Drought effects are complex, causing; financial hardship, emotional issues, famine, and long-term impacts on ecosystems.”

“With improved availability of climate data, climate models, and landscape and socioeconomic data, we are getting better at understanding the behaviour of drought.

"This will lead to better forecasts and also developing thresholds that can trigger drought support in a more timely manner, as well as encouraging the development of multi-risk insurance policies for farmers that include drought.”

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