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Several issues emerging in the public arena present a complex, emotive and interconnected conundrum for policy makers and service providers alike – particularly in the current political context. Important questions are being posed around the resilience of systems fundamental to meeting our most basic needs. Water, food and energy.

Winter in the NSW food bowl – drought, dust and fires.

NSW has recorded some of the lowest winter rainfalls on record with 100% of the state drought declared. Large parts of QLD, and to a lesser extent VIC, SA and WA are experiencing similar conditions.

Even in a dry winter, the NSW Riverina, Hunter and Central Tablelands regions would normally be lush green. Images of bare dusty, paddocks and bushfires burning as far south as Bega – has drawn understandable media attention.

In the cities at least, drought hasn’t been front of mind since the last big dry ended in 2010. The millennium drought gripped southern Australia for more than a decade and left a string of broken records in its wake. For Melbourne, this culminated in 2009 when water storages hit record lows of 25% – four months after the Black Saturday bushfires. As the drought ground on, it was no longer unthinkable that cities like Melbourne could feasibly run out of water. The resilience of our water supplies, the role of climate change and the need to adapt to what some viewed at the time as a new climate norm – were front and centre in the public discourse.

As in 2009, the dry conditions have again ignited debate on the resilience of our water supplies and the role of climate change in the increasing frequency, duration and severity of drought.

Enter – the 25th million Australian

On Tuesday the 7th of August, just after 11pm the Australian Bureau of Statistics forecast the arrival of our 25th million resident. In the same week, Melbourne Water advised the Victorian Government to order 100 gigalitres of water from the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant which has been effectively idle since its completion.

Population growth, particularly through immigration has been a key ingredient in Australia’s economic success story. The Government’s ability to keep adding the immigration secret-sauce to our economy rests, in part, on their capacity to provide the infrastructure and services needed to host more people – without compromising liveability.

As the population debate builds momentum, meeting the demands of a growing population on finite resources requires some serious thought.

Coal vs. mangos – competition for water in QLD

In Queensland, farmers downstream of the Boondooma dam are facing the prospect of having their supply cut off if storage levels, currently at 36% – fall below 30. The remaining water will be set aside for high priority users, like the Tarong power station. Many of the farmers who rely on the lake, farm non-interruptible, perennial crops such as mangos, avocados and grapes. Losing supply for a season, can have long term implications. As the energy debate continues and the virtues of various power sources are weighed and measured. Mango farmers are losing out to coal for dwindling supplies of water – in regional Queensland. A poignant representation of how politics adds new dimensions of complexity to already difficult problems.

Cape Town’s brush with “Day Zero” – a wakeup call

Earlier this year Cape Town faced “Day Zero”. After three years of drought, the city of some four million people came within weeks of completely running out of water. While not a direct comparison by any means, Cape Town’s experience does serve as a sobering reminder of what’s at stake for planners and policy makers and the potential costs of miscalculation.

Australia’s population has grown by about three and a half million people since 2008 – when the millennium drought was at its worst. Most of this growth has been concentrated in the east coast capitals of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Feeding a growing population requires vast amounts of water. A fact that is often overlooked is that most of the water consumed by humans – occurs in the supply of food, not residential water. Under worst case scenarios, cities in affluent countries like Australia can in theory rely on technologies like desalination. The scale of water consumption in agriculture means there is no such silver bullet. The supply of fresh, cheap and plentiful food relies on rain, not just enough of it – but falling at the right time.

While much has been done to sure up water supplies in Australia, as our population grows and the effects of climate change bite, we need to ask – how resilient are our water supplies and how do we make sure we never face our own ‘Day Zero’?

The millennium drought fundamentally changed the way we think about water, particularly for those of us who live in cities. It also changed the way both state and federal governments manage water as a resource. In Victoria, the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant was the centrepiece and arguably the most controversial in a suite of interventions designed to secure Melbourne’s water supply. Other measures such as the Murray Darling Basin plan sought to protect river systems and increase agricultural efficiency.

In coming issues of QSI, we will be looking at water resilience in urban and agricultural water supply systems. We will also be looking at the water-energy nexus. Technologies like desalination have the potential to mitigate the impacts of climate change enable population growth. But in doing so consume enormous amounts of energy, in some cases from fuel sources perpetuating the problem.

Should be interesting, stay tuned.