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Managing the Water Crisis

If you were to suggest that World War III will be fought over water, not oil, many Australians might agree. Rainfall was below average for years in many places before record rains—and consequent devastating floods—across the eastern states in late 2010 to early 2011. The country's major river system remains in trouble, and some rural water storages, especially in the west, are extremely low or empty. The subject of water—its supply, collection, and use—is on almost everyone's lips.

The Impact

Australians are learning to live with the water restrictions that are in force across much of the country; limits on watering gardens and lawns, washing vehicles, and hosing paved areas are mandatory, and fines are levied for breaking them. Everyone in Australia is affected by the water crisis, but rural communities dependent on irrigation are feeling the brunt of it. The Murray and its main tributary, the Darling, are Australia's longest river system and the lifeblood of its crop farms. In the two years before the 2011 floods the volume of water flowing into the Murray from the rivers that feed it in NSW and Queensland was the lowest since records began in 1892. The farms and towns taking water from the Murray-Darling river system have become a huge threat to its survival. In 2009 a heat wave and wildfires in southeast Australia wreaked devastation on wine harvests. Faced with another drought, or a potentially new, dryer climate, some farmers walked away. Australia's native flora and fauna also face dwindling water supplies. Wetlands (and the wildlife they support) are most at risk.

Taking Action

Australia's federal and state governments are implementing measures to reduce the impact of climate change and improve and supplement existing water sources, but critics complain that it's too little, too late. South Australia and Victoria are, controversially, following Western Australia's example and building desalination plants. Authorities are also treading warily around the idea of recycling wastewater for consumption. The grand schemes for piping Top End floodwaters to the thirsty south pop up every few years, despite expert opinion that this is financially unviable—it would, apparently, be cheaper to ship the water south in bulk carriers. More practically, a revamped water trading and buy-out system based on water access entitlements promises to reallocate precious Murray-Darling water. Businesses, schools, and private homes are installing tanks to harvest rainwater, installing water-saving shower heads, and landscaping with heartier indigenous plants.

What You Can Do

Limit showers to 3 minutes and turn off taps while soaping up in the shower or brushing teeth.

Use a sink plug when rinsing food or dishes, and when washing hands.

Ask hotel staff to not change your towels and bed linen until you leave.

Bring or buy a reusable drinking bottle and fill it from the tap—tap water around Australia is safe, and the production of bottled water uses huge amounts of water and energy.

Updated: 07-2013

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