Permanent drought in Australia? Rationing, technological solutions and political conflicts

, by  Olivier Petitjean

Australia has been suffering from drought for the last 12 years. It has had a devastating effect on entire areas of the economic and social system. The difficulty in supplying water has affected various sectors, from agriculture to towns, and has brought about serious change to behaviour and to water governance - even though these changes have been too slow and sometimes far from positive.

Ever since the arrival of the first European colonialists 200 years ago, Australia has known regular droughts and bush fires. The phenomenon has however suddenly changed scale in recent years. In 2001, a state of drought was declared in a great part of the East of the country, in the states of Victoria, New-South Wales and Queensland. In mid-2009, it still has not been lifted, and nobody is able to foresee when it might be. Early 2009, which corresponds to the beginning of summer in the southern hemisphere, was marked by extreme heat waves and massive fires that lead to several hundreds of deaths.

Australia has always been a dry continent. The deserts represent over two thirds of its surface area. 90% of the population is therefore concentrated in the Southeastern part of the country, where rainfall is – or maybe that should read was? – the highest and the most predictable. Yet the annual rainfall has decreased regularly since the early 1990s. In spite of the mobilisation of both the local and the federal authorities, who introduced a series of programmes and all sorts of different measures to improve water management, and to try to find new sources for their water supplies, the situation of water scarcity has become chronic in many towns and rural areas. Australia thus illustrates the different ways of adapting (or of failing to adapt) the governance of water to the new reality of climate change.

The causes of the drought

The cause that has been most frequently cited as responsible for the drought in Australia is climate change. Australia is one of the regions of the world where the rise in temperature will probably be the highest: the IPCC has quoted an estimated figure of +6.7° by 2080. It has been forecast that the winter storms on which Australia is reliant for most of its water will move away towards the South Pole. Even if there is no certitude that the drought of the 2000s is directly linked to climate change, there is little doubt that it will become more or less permanent. This is all the more true, because as is often the case, the effects of climate change are linked to more direct impacts of human activities.

The situation in Australia has often made international press headline news, because it seems to illustrate to the point of caricature the unsustainable and selfish aspects of a certain Western life-style. On one hand, the Australian government refused to sign the Kyoto protocol (until the election of the Labour government at the end of 2007), and the greenhouse gas emissions per capita in Australia were almost as high as in the United States, whereas they are among the first to suffer from climate change. On the other hand, Australians use 30% more water than in the average OECD countries, and their consumption continued to grow, in spite of the declaration of the state of drought. At a time of severe drought, some people continued to fill their swimming pools, wash their cars, and water their lawns, and refused to accept that any authority deny their rights to “individual freedom”. This situation partially explains the water conservation measures that were introduced, and their particularly strict and even violent enforcement.

An agricultural model in crisis

The most decisive factor in this drought is, however, the type of agriculture that predominates in Australia, and particularly the types of crops that are (or were...) grown there in spite of the fact they were unsuited to the local conditions and required a massive use of irrigation. Agricultural output only represents 3% of Australia’s GDP, but the sector uses two thirds of the country’s water. The country is one of the main producers of wheat and meat in the world. Its global importance can be measured by the fact that the drought in Australia has often been quoted as one of the causes of the price increases in raw material (particularly of wheat) between 2005-2008. Extending agriculture has also led to massive and continuous deforestation: several tens of thousands of hectares continue to be felled every year.

The agricultural sector has started to feel the full-on effects of its own development: the saline content of the soil is increasing; bush fires are increasingly numerous and occur earlier in the season. They are also more intense. Finally, and most importantly, there is a water shortage. The Murray-Darling river basin, that supplies 70% of the irrigated land and 40% of the agricultural produce of the country, (and most of the food crops) is seriously affected. The fact that the irrigation system is in a bad state is also a factor that contributes to the considerable waste of resources. The water level remains very low (the river no longer flows into the sea in four out of every ten days), which leads to damage not only to agriculture, but also to the ecological health of the river and the ecosystems that depend on it. The water is regularly declared polluted and unfit for human consumption as a result of the high acidity due to the lack of sufficient flow. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in agriculture. The loss of income can be calculated in thousands of US dollars in the worst years. The rice, cotton, wheat and meat production has dropped considerably. Many small-scale farmers have become bankrupt, changed jobs, moved house or, in certain cases, committed suicide – and all this in spite of the thousands of dollars spent by the states and the federal government to support farmers.

Parallel to this, the authorities are trying to implement a more efficient governance and distribution of the water for agricultural use. The introduction of a water management plan for the Murray-Darling river basin has, however, created political conflict between states and at federal level, as the former often have a Labour leadership and the country had a conservative federal government until 2007. With the Labour government that is now in power at national level, the states have accepted the total devolution of the governance of water to central government.

The system in place for sharing the resource, which is based on water quotas and a growing “water market” where these quotas can be traded, has led to perverse effects: for some small-scale farmers it can become more profitable to sell their quota to the mining companies than to grow crops. The price of these quotas varies with commodities quoted on the global markets: if the price of those crops that require a lot of water goes up, the price of water goes up accordingly. Those farmers who grow wheat may then prefer to “skip” a year, and sell their water quota to cotton farmers. Banks and consortia have also become involved, buying up large quantities of water to reinvest in other things just like with any other form of “capital”. This kind of system tends to favour agribusiness. In particular it has not resolved the problem of the drought, because the water quotas are regularly under threat of being cut off due to lack of rainfall. As a result, the Australian government has introduced a programme for buying back water quotas, to try to reduce the water being pumped to a more sustainable level. In 2009, they will have bought back 250 million dollars worth of water quotas from a major agribusiness on the Murray-Darling basin. (This is equivalent to 240 billion litres of water). The water that will have been saved will be exclusively reallocated to restoring the ecosystems.

The government in the state of New South Wales plans to extend the system by auctioning off allocated quotas (a system that has hitherto been reserved for surface waters) on the groundwater reserves of the Grand Artesian Basin. This will certainly spark off political conflicts, because this aquifer is shared between several states and is the only source of water supplies for most of the regions in the interior of the country.

Water rationing in cities

Most of the large Australian cities, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, have seen their reserves drop progressively, and are obliged to totally reconsider their supply systems and also to introduce rationing. According to the level of alert, there may now be hosepipe bans that cover watering lawns, washing cars and filling swimming pools. This may even extend to taking baths at certain times of the day. When the maximum level of alert is reached, it is simply forbidden to use any water outdoors.

People have frequently been disinclined to forego their habits of squandering water. As persuasion alone has not sufficed, the authorities have been obliged to use more forceful means, and have introduced repressive measures: there are police and water inspectors in towns who check on how water is being used, rangers that patrol the rivers, that track potential water thieves, satellite controls... People who are caught, may have the pressure of their water reduced or have to pay hefty fines. Social tension has resulted from these restrictions, and has led to one death – a man died in late 2007 as the result of a fight with a neighbour. The fight was about watering a lawn...

There are, however some signs of a positive change occurring in the mind-set and people are starting to behave in a more responsible manner. It is true that they no longer really have a choice.... Canberra has cut its water consumption by one third in a year. The amount consumed in Melbourne in 2008 was reduced to that of 1934, and Sydney cut back to the level of 1974, in spite of there being 1.2 million more inhabitants. An increasing number of Australians are installing water tanks to harvest rainwater. Most of the cities on the East coast have made these tanks legally compulsory in all new houses. In New South Wales, the legal constraints go even further, as they require bath water to be recycled into the lavatories, and the water from washing dishes into the garden. A system of water-efficiency labelling for domestic appliances was introduced in 2006. Australia has also pioneered lavatories that use very little water. Finally, Australian consumers, who used to be strongly against using recycled water, as shown by several local referenda, appear, according to recent opinion polls, to have accepted the inevitable, even as far as drinking water is concerned.

Technological investments

Confronted by drought, the Australian government adopted a “national water initiative” in June 2004. It is aimed at totally redefining water management at all levels. This will cover the measurement and supervision of the resources, of the reserves, the rights of access and water markets, the reform of both urban and rural water management systems. This programme will include the introduction of an investment fund for the water sector that will take the initiative for building a lot of new infrastructure. Some of these new projects are aimed at reducing unnecessary waste, such as converting open canals into pipelines to avoid losing water through evaporation. But most of them remain essentially aimed at a policy that will increase the offer of water irrespective of the price, rather than rationalising and moderating use.

The biggest projects involve building several desalination plants (Perth, Sydney, Melbourne...), water treatment plants, new dams, (Urannah) or new pipelines to carry water over large distances, as well as launching water prospecting operations in the North of the country. In certain cases, there is some effort being made to limit the negative knock-on effects of projects: the planned desalination plant in Perth, for example, a lot of the required energy will come from renewables, both solar and wind. The projects for recycling used water for industry, agricultural and domestic use are already increasing.

The scale of these investments is making Australia a real laboratory for new technology for water, and the multinationals in this sector are particularly present and active. The worry is that some these technologies, such as desalination, might only limit some of the impacts of the drought at the cost of aggravating the fundamental causes.

- IPCC Technical Paper « Climate Change and Water ».
- Florence Decamp, « Chasseurs d’eau à Sydney », Libération, 26th October 2007.
- Friends of the Earth international, « Les voix des populations affectées par le changement climatique », novembre 2007.
- Marc Laimé, « Crise de l’eau : le laboratoire australien »,
- « Like oil, speculators and water an uneasy mix », Reuters, 31 August 2008.
- « Climate Change Ground Zero: Drought and Fires Devastate Australia », Keith Schneider, Yale Environment 360, 4th April 2009.

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