Are we ready for the big dry?

Living Well | Peter Barrett | Posted on 15 October 2018

With drought on our doorstep, there’s no shortage of reasons to be in water-saving mode.

It was not so long ago that Victorians collected shower water in buckets. We washed our cars sparingly and watered our browning gardens no more than twice a week. Such was life under stage 3a water restrictions during the mid-1990s to 2009 Millennium Drought, when Melbourne water storages slipped as low as 25.6 per cent.

In response, the then Labor state government built a $4 billion desalination plant able to supply one third of Melbourne’s water near Wonthaggi and a $750 million, 70-kilometre north-south pipeline directing water from the Goulburn River to Sugarloaf Reservoir to cover the emergency shortfall.

Then, in 2010, it rained. The drought broke, and water restrictions were replaced by a campaign to voluntarily curb water use to 155 litres per person per day. Last year, Melburnians averaged 161 litres each. Are we in danger of taking our water for granted?


The forecast

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) defines drought as “a prolonged, abnormally dry period when the amount of available water is insufficient to meet our normal use”. Today, Queensland, New South Wales and parts of south-eastern Victoria are in the grip of drought, with farmers hit the hardest. Meanwhile, following a very dry summer and drier than average winter, the BOM is forecasting drier and warmer conditions ahead. 

“If that occurs it would appear as though the drought is going to spread into Victoria,” says Melbourne University climate scientist Dr Ben Henley.  

“We’ve already had quite severe conditions in Gippsland and, if you look at rainfall maps for Gippsland for the last 18 to 24 months, they’ve had terrible lack of rain, similar to the drought in New South Wales and Queensland.” 

Victoria’s large irrigation storages, soil moisture storage and streamflow in critical rivers – as well as drinking water storages – are key, says Ben. “You can never get complacent about this kind of thing. That Millennium Drought hit us so hard for so long and we just don’t know when the next big drought is coming. We can never be too ready.” 

That Millennium Drought hit us so hard for so long and we just don’t know when the next big drought is coming. We can never be too ready.
Water nozzle hose

Precious drops

While the Millennium Drought was serious, people in western Victoria also experienced drought conditions in 2015-16. Today, while Melbourne’s water storage levels are at around 60 per cent, parts of east and central Gippsland are experiencing drought conditions. Though no Victorian towns are under water restrictions, permanent water-saving rules now stipulate: hand-held hoses must be leak-free and fitted with a trigger nozzle; watering systems may only be used between 6pm and 10am; and water can only be used to clean hard surfaces such as driveways in special circumstances.

The Cape Town story 

In January, people panicked on the streets of South Africa’s second-largest city, Cape Town (population 4 million), when the mayor declared “Day Zero” was fast approaching: the day the city would run out of water. Recent rains have them out of the danger zone but could a Cape Town scenario happen here? Dr Ben Henley says it’s simply not viable to “truck in” water to a large, growing population. 

“There are no easy ways to get large quantities of water except with desalination and, of course, putting pipelines through to larger storages,” he says. He advocates having a number of “buffers” including water efficiency measures, to “spread the liability around”.  

Lasting impact 

Low rainfall, wind and high temperatures have caused NSW’s bushfire season to occur two months early. Bushfires can devastate water catchments; Victoria’s Maroondah and O’Shannassy Reservoirs took years to recover from the 2009 Black Saturday fires. Those fires cost $4.4 billion according to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, a figure that includes the tragic loss of 173 lives. Meanwhile, a recent Commonwealth Bank report warned the potential cost of ongoing drought in Queensland, New South Wales and parts of Victoria could cost the economy $12 billion. 

What next for Victoria?

Governments must continue to invest in water-saving measures and infrastructure projects to secure our water future. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, agricultural irrigators remain the biggest users, and efficiencies have already produced savings in 2015-16 of 412 gigalitres (or 15 per cent) in Victoria. The Warrnambool Roof Water Harvesting Project in south-west Victoria, where multiple rooftops feed rainwater into a collective reservoir, is one clever water-saving solution. Home users can contribute, too, by installing water tanks and returning to pre-2010 days when we washed cars sparingly and gave our lawns a little less love.

The numbers:

  • Victorians’ average water use was 155 litres per person in 2010, and 161 litres per person in 2017.
  • Melbourne’s water storage slipped as low as 25.6 per cent during the Millennium Drought.
  • A $4 billion desalination plant was built in Wonthaggi in response.