By Morgan McSmith
Living in an area surrounded by water can make it hard to believe how scarce such an imperative source can be. As the world watches one of the largest cities in South Africa drip dry, people have begun to wonder how this happens and what steps to take to prevent it from happening.
Looking at Cape Town’s water crisis highlights some major issues regarding water sustainability and population growth. Without the proper planning many areas around the world could find themselves counting down to “day zero” as well.
Australia has seen this before during the Millennium Drought from 2001 to 2009 when large regions across the country experienced prolonged periods of dry conditions, making it the worst drought on record in Australia. From 2012 to 2015 there was another scare in Queensland when rainfall patterns fell drastically.
Associate professor Neil Tindale says when Australia experienced the major Millennium Drought most people didn’t realize how close Queensland got to running out of water.
“Can you imagine what it would be like when you went into your house and turned the tap on or flushed the toilet and nothing happened?” he asks. “Most people have never had that situation. Water is something most people in Australia take for granted and don’t appreciate how serious the issue is.”
Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world, the only drier one being Antarctica and that’s only the first major concern. Like many other locations across the globe water sustainability in Australia relies directly on precipitation, which is currently dwindling.
“The trend present in this region is that our precipitation is declining, in other words our rainfall is getting less which means that our population is getting greater, our demand for water is increasing but the water available is decreasing in terms of precipitation,” Dr Tindale says. “If the amount of precipitation and rainfall decreases then obviously the amount of water will also. But drought in Australia is not unusual. In fact in many places’ droughts are much more likely than wet conditions and large parts of Australia can go years without getting any appreciable rain which can be a bit scary.”
Rainfall between May and July has reduced by about 19 per cent in Western Australia since 1970. Since the mid-1990’s growing season (April-October) rainfall in the southeast of the continent has declined around 11 per cent. Considering agriculture uses around 62 per cent of Australia’s total water consumption, this is especially concerning. Looking at March 2018 alone, rainfall has decreased in inland and western Queensland and the east coast of New South Wales. Western to central and southern Queensland have continued to experience severe rainfall deficiencies throughout the last several months.
One of the simplest ways to keep an eye on the amount of rainfall a region has received is by checking the dam levels. The Sunshine Coast falls into Grid Twelve which is made up of 12 South East Queensland dams and as long as we continue to have enough rainfall to keep them full we’re headed in the right direction.
In preparation for a drought SEQwater (Southeast Queensland Water) has created certain regulations in regards to what is done once water in the dams start to decrease. When the dams reach 70 per cent Southeast Queensland enters a “drought readiness stage”. At 60 per cent the “drought response” starts where a campaign is launched encouraging residents to restrict water usage to 150 litres per person per day. If the dams reach 50 per cent compulsory water restrictions will be enforced limiting individuals to 140 litres of water per day. To put that into perspective, during the Millennium Drought the combined dam levels dropped to about 20 percent, which is nearly the same (20.9 per cent) as current water levels in the Cape Town dams.
Essentially the dams are empty once they get that low as all of the sediment and pollution sinks to the bottom making the water nearly impossible to treat. As we enter the dry season the average capacity for all 12 dams is just above 82 per cent. However, in 2017 the Sunshine Coast experienced their second consecutive failed wet season, with the largest dam on the Coast, Baroon Pocket, experiencing record lows. When it comes to water in our dams, the more is the merrier.
However, that’s not always the case with the growing numbers of society. The second issue concerning water sustainability that relates specifically to the Sunshine Coast is population growth. Growing populations demand more water for domestic, industrial, and municipal use as well as the evacuation of waste materials and agriculture. Ultimately, population growth limits the water availability per person.
Sunshine Coast deputy mayor Tim Dwyer says that the Southeast Queensland plan for the next 20-30 years sees the population of the Sunshine Coast going from about 330,000 to about 550,000.
“If we get good rainfall our water supplies on the Coast will be adequate, if we don’t have the capacity in the Baroon Pocket dam, the Ewen Maddock dam and the Wappa dam obviously our ability to service the growing community in the future will be compromised,” he says.
“We need to be able to stay in front of things at the time or before population growth hits us, we can’t be playing catch up like we’re doing with our roads and public transport systems at the moment. We can’t get into that situation with water.”
During the 20th century the global human population increased fourfold while water withdrawn from freshwater ecosystems increased eightfold. Queensland’s population increased about 1.6 per cent from 2016 to 2017. From 2016 to 2021 the Sunshine Coast is estimated to expect a 2.65 per cent population increase. Population growth is simply an undeniable aspect regarding water sustainability.
As population grows globally, projections estimate by 2035 3.6 billion people around the world will be living with water stress or scarcity. The two concerns, rainfall and population growth, run parallel when looking at the big picture of water sustainability. The catch being, we have little control over neither of them.
Unfortunately what tends to happen when supply (water) decreases and demand (population) increases is that the price increases as well. This can be seen in 2016 when the fixed household water tariff on the Coast was $245 compared to areas like Toowoomba where water is scarcer, the cost was significantly higher at $590. As demand increases with population the cost of water is bound to as well. In Cape Town water cost has skyrocketed in the hope of reducing water consumption.
However, Mr Dwyer says he thinks water has got to be at cost price. “Water has to be made affordable, there’s no doubt about that,” he says.
While we might not have control of annual precipitation, population growth and/or cost there are things that can be done to limit water usage helping ensure water sustainability on the Coast. On average the Australian household uses about 340 litres of water per day. In 2015-16 a total of 16,132 gigalitres was consumed in Australia increasing household water consumption by 3 per cent compared to the previous year.
The demand for water is impacted by climate, population growth, weather and changes in how the community consumes water. For instance, during the hot dry spells of February and September in 2017 water usage spiked from the average 176 litres to 211 litres per person per day.
Mr Dwyer says it’s the little things that will help the Coast’s water sustainability and we should be doing whatever we can to reduce the amount of town water we get into. “Everyone has to do what’s right for them but whatever you can do to make sure the amount of water you use is as small as possible will help,” he says. “Don’t wait for the government to mandate you, do something. Everybody has a shared responsibility to look after things that are important to us.”