Australians live on the driest inhabited continent on Earth. With around 70% of the country’s landmass defined as arid or semi-arid and a highly variable water cycle, it’s no wonder that since the 1860s Australia has experienced at least nine major droughts. More recently our country has faced an unprecedented challenge when it comes to water security, and it is a crisis we are sharing with the rest of the world.
The Statistics – Australia and Globally
Australia’s southeast and southwest regions have been experiencing a pronounced cool-season drying trend over the last few decades, which is having an intense impact on agricultural heartlands such as the Murray-Darling Basin.
According to the Climate Council, Southeast Australia – which includes the major population centres of Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide – has experienced a 15% decline in late autumn and early winter rainfall and a 25% decline in average rainfall in April and May over the past two to three decades. Across the Murray-Darling Basin alone, streamflow has declined by 41% since the mid-1990s. Not only are Australia’s droughts becoming more severe, but the Climate Council predicts they will become more frequent as well.
What is more, the Climate Council stresses that Australia is not prepared for the rising impact of such droughts. The report argues that Australia’s water sector bases its knowledge and understanding of the water cycle on recent historical patterns, using this information to inform water infrastructure design, planning and policy. However, the Climate Council argues that these historic patterns are becoming increasingly unrepresentative and unhelpful, causing a greater risk of failure for our water infrastructure, planning and policies.
Today, Australia is facing some harrowing statistics:
- The Burrendong Dam is currently sitting at 5.9% capacity, and even with stringent water restrictions it is expected to be empty within 12 months.
- Further along the Darling River, many dams are essentially empty: the Keepit Dam holds just 0.9% and the Menindee Lakes is at 1.1%.
- Properties throughout the Murray-Darling basin are expecting their water entitlements to be reduced to around 10% of their usual allocations, severely constraining the agricultural production in the region.
- Australia’s biggest and most lucrative gold mine, Cadia, has been forced to start buying water on the open market in an attempt to defy the prediction that it will run dry by July. The price of this water has reached approximately $1000 per megalitre in recent weeks, which is almost triple the 2016 price.
- Michael Wrathall, Drought Coordinator from the Department of Industry – Water, has stated that Australia is in unprecedented territory.
- Sydneysiders face strict water restrictions for the first time in around 10 years as water levels at Warragamba Dam fall to nearly 50%.
Taking a step back and looking more broadly, the numbers are even more confronting. Currently around 500 million people experience seasonal water shortages across the globe, however according to the World Bank this number is expected to rise to 1.9 billion by 2050.
Also by 2050, UNESCO predicts that agriculture will need to produce 60% more food globally, which is particularly concerning, because 70% of the world’s water supply goes into agriculture.
Why is This Important?
Water security is important for many reasons, not least of which is the demonstrable capacity for water scarcity to disrupt the security and stability of entire regions.
Water security is defined by UN Water as “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability”.
The scarcity of water can easily be linked to “economic, social, political, legal, and security consequences arising from disruptions, failures, or attacks on water access and distribution systems”, according to Harvard researchers Stuckenberg and Contento.
This argument is supported by groups such as the U.S. Intelligence Community, who in their 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment found that the impacts of the long-term trend towards water scarcity is “likely to fuel economic and social discontent – and possibly upheaval – through 2018”. A recent report by the United States Geological Survey also emphasized that by 2025 global freshwater stress will increase significantly, especially in northern Africa, Eurasia, the Middle East and even the United States, and by 2050 nearly 5 billion people will be affected by freshwater scarcity.
Droughts and water contamination can have severe impacts on things such as:
- Health: diseases can be spread through contaminated water supplies, and water restrictions often place significant psychological stress on communities.
- Agriculture: loss of livestock, destruction of crops, increased soil erosion, loss of livelihoods.
- Energy: coal, gas and hydro power stations require significant amounts of water.
- Bushfires: there is a significantly higher risk of bushfires during drought. For example, dry conditions in Tasmania in 2016 triggered bushfires that severely damaged over 70,000 hectares of the country’s World Heritage-listed forests and alpine areas.
- Ecosystems: drought and contamination can affect many species and make it harder to rehabilitate degraded ecosystems.
- Water infrastructure: it is important to upgrade reservoirs, dams, levees and other infrastructure in order to cope with new patterns and demands, however this is costly. Recently in Australia over $10 billion was spent on desalination plants to improve water security in the major cities.
As UNESCO pointed out at the recent International Water Conference, “water management and governance affect the health of humans and ecosystems…water resources are critical to sustainable development and poverty reduction”. Indeed, water is relied on for almost all human activities such as food production, energy generation, industry and recreation.
Unfortunately, messages and statistics such as this are taking some time to sink in across the world, and to this day water security remains a severely understated and misunderstood global security risk.
In order to address this security risk, governments must be driven towards affecting innovative engineering and policy making, by individuals and industries. There should be a strong focus from investors, researchers, entrepreneurs and more towards enhancing the efficiency of water use, decreasing wastage, developing large and small-scale water transfer and storage, and enhancing the use of recycled water. Businesses should lead by example, by recognising the importance of water security in their operations and driving change. Agilient has a strong background in the utilities industry and specialises in reviewing, developing and testing all security areas of companies including those that are involved in water management. To ensure that your company’s security is of the highest quality, and as resilient as it needs to be in this crucial industry, contact Agilient today.
Author: Elsa Chapple