can’t see the forest

A Drought Down Under

The BBC reports that the state premier of Queensland has warned citizens they will soon be drinking water containing recycled sewage as the widespread drought in Australia continues:

Premier Peter Beattie said he had scrapped a planned referendum on the issue, because there was no longer a choice.

He also warned that other states in Australia might eventually have to do the same as Queensland.

The country is currently suffering from a severe drought – the worst on record.

Last week Prime Minister John Howard declared water security to be the biggest challenge currently facing Australia, and he announced a A$10bn ($7bn) package to tackle the problem.

Mr Beattie said that falling water levels had left his state administration with no option but to introduce recycled water in south-eastern Queensland, starting from next year.

“We’re not getting rain; we’ve got no choice,” he told ABC radio.

“These are ugly decisions, but you either drink water or you die. There’s no choice. It’s liquid gold, it’s a matter of life and death,” he said.

The practice of drinking recycled water – which is already used in other countries such as the US, UK and Singapore, does not have widespread support in Australia.

Mr Howard supported Mr Beattie’s comments, telling a Sydney radio station: “I’ve advocated recycling for a long time… I am very strongly in favour of recycling, and Mr Beattie is right.”

But Mike Rann, the premier of South Australia, and Morris Iemma, the premier of New South Wales, rejected the Queensland plan – with Mr Rann ruling out using recycled sewage for anything but irrigation.

Malcolm Turnbull, the new environment and water resources minister, asked other states to be more open-minded on the issue.

“Don’t rule out desalination because it is expensive, or recycling because it sounds yucky, or building a dam,” Mr Turnbull told Australian media.

“Put everything on the table, assess all the economic, environmental and financial costs and then make a decision.”

Australia - drought threatens habitats

Albeit possessed of a great deal of stunning ecological diversity, Australia is essentially a desert continent, with a large portion of available freshwater derived from the overtaxed Murray-Darling Basin. El Niño currents, caused by excessive warmth in the Pacific, are responsible for periodic droughts which have been a major source of angst for Aussie farmers for decades. Elevated temperatures tied to global warming have increased the severity of the El Niño phenomenon at the source as well as its effects on Australia’s climate.

According to CNN, Australia’s weather bureau said earlier this month that the country was suffering the effects of accelerated climate change. Expansive brushfires fueled by dessicated forests and shrubland appear to have persevered through a period of unseasonably heavy rains moving across the Outback. In all, about 4,600 square miles of forest have been destroyed by brushfires over the last few months.

The citizens of southeastern Australia, the country’s most heavily populated region, have been enduring the worst drought in at least a generation. Suicide rates among Australian farmers have soared in recent years, and PM John Howard recently decreed the water problem to be Australia’s most threatening national crisis. While conservation programs and infrastructural development in situ are key to addressing the threat, the drought in Australia should serve as a clarion call to both consumers and policymakers in the United States and in other nations whose contributions to the problem of global warming currently far outstrip those of the rest of the world’s economies.

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8 Responses

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  1. Iain Hall said, on 1/29/07 at 2:11 am

    I live in Australia and the thing that you probably don’t understand is that droughts are common here they are part of the natural weather cycle. Sure the present drought is a bad one but it is a bit of a leap to blame that on “global” warming” Australia’ population has gone from twelve to twenty millions in the last 40 years and the reason that we are short of water at present has more to do with the way that no new dams have been built for a long time and that irrigation infrastructure is old and not very efficient which is fin in the good times but a disaster in the current dry.
    Brisbane ,which is near where I live, has been one of the population grown hot spots and the demand for water has just outstripped the supply.
    Cheers from downunder
    Ps don’t rely on Cnn
    try the only national paper http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/

    Ps this is an awful template very hard to read and hard to find diologue boxes ect :(

  2. Curtis said, on 1/29/07 at 2:21 am

    Thanks very much for your clarification, and I’m very pleased to have an Australian’s point-of-view. Also my apologies if the template is difficult to read—rest assured you’re not the only one to have noticed.

    I’m aware that Australia is a dry continent and that droughts have been a part of life there for a very long time. You’re right, it’s insensible to blame droughts exclusively on global warming. Increases in population are going to increase the effects of these droughts—the same has been happening in southern California, where rapid growth had outstripped available water resources and as a result there are finished neighborhoods that are uninhabitable because there are no water connections for them.

    There is a difference, however, in blaming global warming for droughts and in noting that increasing average temperatures are making them worse. Droughts have been a problem in Australia since long before human-aggravated climate change became a concern, and I thank you for highlighting that. The El Niño cycle itself is caused by increased temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, and as average temperatures slowly and steadily climb, global warming is likely to continue to exacerbate an existing quandary.

    Also, thanks very much for your link to The Australian. I’m not a big fan of CNN, so I’ll promise to check it out, but it’s caveat emptor for me as far as Murdoch is concerned.

    Thanks again!

  3. Iain Hall said, on 1/29/07 at 2:31 am

    I understand your reservations about a murdoch paper but the Oz is quite a good paper none the less and certinly not as superficial as any Australia coverage on CNN

  4. peoplesgeography said, on 1/29/07 at 2:55 am

    Thanks for this, well thought through. The issue of recycled water has been front-of-bulletin national news here and the immediacy of reading it in your blog today is remarkable!

    The fact that recycled water is used in parts of the USA, UK and Singapore makes the prospect of drinking it seem a little less daunting!

    I think my compatriot Iain (above) is right to cite inefficient water infrastructure as some of the reason behind this present water crisis, but I do not think that this, along with population growth and natural drought cycles account for all the causality by any means.

    I would agree with the appraisal of the present water and drought crisis as unprecedented in scope and severity and that it is to some significant degree tied with global warming as you suggest – JMO.

    On a smaller point, while I agree with Iain about not relying upon CNN (though you mostly have cited the BBC), I wouldn’t unqualifiedly recommend the Murdoch-owned The Australian newspaper either! heh, just a niggle …;)

    Lastly, the other observation is that the drought affects farmers, as you point out, disproportionately. Most of the Australian population is coastal (near the water) and urban, one of the most highly urbanised populations in the world, in fact. We do have water restrictions in place in the cities though, such as limiting garden watering to certain days and banning the hosing down of cars for example, so it does affect us all. The campaign to be more water-wise and water-aware continues in this, the driest of continents and conservation has an important part to play, for sure.

    Thanks for this piece.

  5. peoplesgeography said, on 1/29/07 at 3:06 am

    :) You quick scooters got in your comments whilst I was in the middle of mine, I see Murdoch has already come up!

  6. zilla said, on 1/29/07 at 7:55 pm

    D’oh! I thought every developed country recycled water, at least in cities and large towns. My town is surrounded by freshwater bays & lakes & rivers, and while I have a private well, those within the city limits drink recycled water. Frankly, it tastes better and I worried less about its purity. Tap water in New York City was more palatable than any other tap water I’ve consumed. The very thought of it scares me, but it’s true.

    Oddly enough, last time I was in Melbourne it rained cats and dogs. That was a couple of years ago — I had no idea drought had become a serious problem. SO, thanks again for an informative and interesting post.

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