Australia manages its water crisis well

Aussies toil with drought

By Bharat Lal Seth
Published: Friday 15 December 2006

Australia manages its water crisis well

-- Energy Australia (ea), electricity and gas supplier to over 1.4 million families in Australia, brought out in late October that people spend more time in showers, which adds to their annual power bill by almost Australian $100. Their research found that 4.21 minutes is the average time for each shower. But it increased significantly when the shower included activities such as singing or even listening to music (see graph: Slippery when wet).

As a strong energy-efficient marketing strategy, ea decided to send shower timers for free to half a million families in Sydney, the Hunter Valley and the Central coast. However, the fact is shower timers are not just for energy efficiency. Limiting water usage fits in the larger scheme of things.

Besides, low rainfall has affected southern and eastern Australia and the situation has been abysmal since August. On November 3, the Bureau of Meteorology announced that southern parts of Australia experienced the driest August-to-October period since 1900, also being the third driest for New South Wales (nsw) whose state-average was boosted by above-normal rainfall along the north coast.

The larger perspective The domestic usage accounts for 16 per cent of the total water consumption in Australia. But in Sydney, capital of nsw, households demand 70 per cent of the metered water supplied. To address this, the government and the construction industries released a technical manual as Australia's guide to environmentally sustainable homes in 2003.

Showerheads were listed as one of the several water-saving initiatives. It is argued that an inefficient shower can use more than 20 litres/minute of water while a unit with an aaa fitting--the most efficient rating for a shower--will provide a high quality shower at 9 litres/minute (see 'Wise statute' Down To Earth, March 15, 2006).

Managing difficult times well The source of water for Sydney is a large network of rain-fed rivers, lakes and streams. Due to the high variability of rainfall, 10 major dams with a total storage capacity of 2,400 billion litres have been built to store water for more than four million people. Yet, when Sydney indicated drought-like conditions, voluntary water restrictions were announced in November 2002.

An integrated water management strategy was put into practice, where the Sydney Catchment Authority played the role of managing bulk water supply and Sydney Water, the official water service provider, put into practice means to manage water demand.

By October 2, 2003, drastic reductions in dam capacity to 59.5 per cent resulted in enforcement of mandatory level one and later level two restrictions (at 49.8 per cent capacity) until June 2005. But that did not help. With the capacities plunging further, level three restrictions were imposed when the levels touched 40 per cent.

It is only after enforcing these mandatory restrictions (no sprinkler use and hosing of hard surfaces, select hours of hand-held hosing allowed two days a week, fines of $220-550 for breaching restrictions and $2,200 for water theft) that dam capacity over the past year-and-a-half not only stabilised but also increased from 39.1 per cent to 40.6 per cent, when last monitored on October 19, 2006.

Rainfall in the Warragamba catchment--largest of the five catchment areas that feed the dams--accounting for about 80 per cent of the water supply, had a significant impact on the total water storage. Dam capacities rose by 2.8 per cent and 4 per cent in November 2005 and January 2006 due to combined rainfall of approximately 250 mm.

Yet statistics provided by Sydney Water prove that dam stabilisation would not have been possible if not for demand-side policies. On the basis of 10-year-average, officials calculated that the total usage from October 1, 2003 to October 19, 2006 was 12.4 per cent below average. The community saved 224 billion litres of water or curtailed daily usage by 200 million litres.

Notably, leak reduction activities also played a significant role as part of the water saving initiatives. Sydney Water's status report on September 28, 2006, claimed to have inspected the entire network comprising 46,254 km of water mains since 1999. Leakage levels reduced from 10.7 per cent in 2002-2003 to 10 per cent by 2004-2005. By late September 2006, this had reduced remarkably to 8.5 per cent. Essentially, 50.9 million litres daily (mld) of previously wasted water is currently saved by detecting and repair of leaks.

Sydney Water also propose to inspect and maintain its 17,000 km of pipeline network connecting mains to metered customers annually. For this, they have planned to invest $300 million over the next four years to further reduce leakage by 25 per cent.

But the job is not yet done. According to the Sydney Catchment Authority, a week of rainfall, at least 40 mm per day over the entire 16,000 sq km of catchment area, is required to boost the capacity of dams to around 70 per cent. Only then can the nsw government consider lifting the restrictions.

Lessons to be learnt
There are several measures, however, being taken to educate people to check their use of water, irrespective of the water-availability status. In its winter newsletter (2006), Sydney Water has introduced schemes to ensure that demand is kept to a minimum even if water is available in abundance.

They are promoting free 'do-it-yourself' kits with aerators for bathroom and kitchen taps along with water flow regulators, measured to save 16,500 litres a year. They are also giving a rebate of $150 for customers who purchase washing machines with a water efficiency rating of 4-star, measured to save 21,000 litres of water a year. Although not under the rebate scheme, other measures such as direct diversion of grey water (laundry, kitchen and washbasin) and treatment systems for reuse are also being promoted.

While there are at present 14 large-scale projects that reuse 41 mld, according to Malcolm Turnbull, parliament secretary with a special responsibility to water policy, the figures are insufficient. "We recycle virtually none of our wastewater. In Sydney, we pump a quantity nearly equal to the volume of Sydney harbour out to sea as treated sewage, and virtually none of that is recycled," he says. To address this, authorities plan to recycle 190 mld by 2015.

It's not just in Sydney, other parts of Australia are also making similar efforts (see 'On drinking sewage', Down To Earth, September 30, 2006). Herein lie several lessons for developing countries. In India for example, several municipal authorities are hell-bent in their attempts to make towns and cities 'water rich'.

While the gross amount of water supplied seems to be a matter of great pride and prestige, there is little mention of managing demand.

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