Water

After Cape Town, is Sydney heading for a date with Day Zero?

From June 1, 2019, the Australian megapolis will face water cuts again after nearly a decade as levels in its dams are just over 50 per cent

 
By Sushmita Sengupta
Last Updated: Thursday 30 May 2019
A panoramic view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Photo: Getty Images
A panoramic view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Photo: Getty Images A panoramic view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Photo: Getty Images

Sydney, Australia’s oldest and largest city and one of the biggest urban agglomerations in the Southern Hemisphere could be heading the way of Cape Town, with water levels at their lowest currently.  

According to media reports, the government of New South Wales, where Sydney is located, has said the Greater Sydney region’s water catchments were experiencing some of the lowest flows since the 1940s. 

For two years, Sydney has been receiving below average rainfall. According to reports, reservoir levels had been falling during this time period — from 96 per cent in April 2017 to just 55 per cent in April 2019. The levels continue to fall at 0.4 per cent per week. 

This is not the first time that Australia is facing drought. It faced the longest drought ever between 1997 and 2010, when its largest cities — Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide — faced the most devastating effects.

The island continent introduced the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Act of 2005. The law changed the water standard for washing machines, toilets, cooling towers, shower heads, taps as well as for industrial processes so that they do more with less. These standards also formed the basis of water-efficiency star ratings, much like energy-efficiency labelling that allows consumers to make an informed choice about the product.

In the late 1990s, the Sydney Water Company (SWC) received a state mandate to reduce per-capita water consumption by 35 per cent by 2011 — to the equivalent of 86 gallons per person per day. This aggressive target led the utility to experiment with and refine water conservation programmes that would be scalable if and when drought arrived again in full force.

From June 1, 2019, Sydney will face water restrictions again after nearly a decade as water levels in its dams are just at over 50 per cent. The desalination plants were also switched on when the reservoir levels fell below 60 per cent — this will add another 15 per cent of water supply.

Sydney’s situation is reminiscent of Cape Town. Around March 2018, authorities in South Africa’s ‘Mother City’, which is highly dependent on reservoir water, declared that it was going to face 'Day Zero'. The reservoirs for the city reached the lowest levels ever due to low rainfall in the region. Cape Town somehow dragged itself out of the situation as the rains came in at the last moment.

Why are the globe’s populous urban centres moving towards Day Zero? More than 2 billion additional people, or one-quarter of the current global population, are expected to be in cities just three decades from now. They will all need water to drink, to bathe, to use the toilet, to wash their clothes and dishes, and for electricity, even as weather patterns become increasingly uncertain.

Forecasts say urban water consumption might increase by 80 per cent by 2050. Growing abuse will further leave this seemingly infinite resource polluted and contaminated. Parallel to this growth, is the increase in land degradation, which affects water flows in catchment areas.

A 2018 analysis by Down to Earth (DTE) had noted that at least 200 cities across the world were fast running out of water due to a rise in urban population globally. The map of the different “Cape Towns” in the world published by DTE showed that a major part of Australia would annually experience 10-11 months when water scarcity would be more than 100 per cent.

Sydney failed to manage its water judiciously. It seems that it did not learn its lesson from the Millennium drought. Cities need to explore options for sustainable sources of water. It is time we treated wastewater as a valuable resource says Blanca Jimnez-Cisneros, director of the division of water sciences and secretary of the International Hydrological Programme, UNESCO.

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