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Australia's urban water supply: 'Crisis…. what crisis?'

By Charles Essery - posted Monday, 30 December 2019

Recycling is a big issue for Australia. We aren't doing that well. After decades of struggling with "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" for glass, cans, plastics and paper, we have hardly woken up to the need for serious water recycling. Let's face it, we are lazy and complacent. Water is now back in the "crisis" cycle that that allows politicians the freedom to do what they want and sell off the rights for private companies to build "bottled electricity" (former Premier Carr's words) water factories. Desalination is yet again the solution to poor water planning.

In the 2000-2008 drought desalination plants were the "magic solution" and the international water industry was delighted to service our needs. But then the rains returned (as they do) and the big desalination plants in Sydney and Melbourne were left as expense, but redundant assets, costing citizens billions of dollars. In this 10-year period of rainfall-based water abundance, virtually nothing had been invested in the planning and development of the ultimately sustainable solution, namely urban water harvesting and recycling, which offers the opportunity for our cities to be "drought proofed".

Analysis of water infrastructure across Australia shows the dominance of 'crisis' driven decisions. After a century of piecemeal engineering, Australia's first crisis investment was made to secure Sydney's water supply which was driven by the 1880s droughts and led to the building of the Upper Nepean Scheme. Since then, numerous severe droughts resulted in crisis-driven infrastructure investments culminating in the delivery of the "big one" in 1960, namely Warragamba Dam, with seven years supply. Even then, it was realised that the then Water Board would be unable to meet the needs of Sydney's growing population by the year 2000.


In 1972, there was an attempt to break the crisis cycle, with three solutions proposed: a sister dam to be known as Welcome Reef; a desalination plant, or a potable water recycling plant. The dam was recommended, with the others being rejected due to operating costs and the technology being unproven. Subsequently, the dam was rejected due to growing environmental activism. As expected, by 1999 the next big water crisis had arrived, because no planned action had been taken and Sydney's demand had once again outstripped its water supply capacity.

Between 1999 and 2002, Sydney Water Corporation denied it was in trouble. Options were available, included rainwater harvesting, potable water recycling, groundwater and stormwater harvesting, but nothing was done. By 2006, water levels were diving towards 30%, and the next decisive but inappropriate, costly solution was handed down – a "bottled electricity" water factory known as the Kurnell desalination plant. Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne tell similar stories. The global water industry smelled money, and NSW Treasury foresaw a revenue opportunity. The Sydney desalination plant (idle for 10+ years) is now running and the lessee is keen to "help" Sydney by doubling its desalination production volumes (and profits).

Future increases in water demand can be met through: rainwater harvesting; stormwater harvesting, treatment and storage; groundwater bore fields; and water recycling including "full blown" potable water recycling for drinking. As the Sydney population happily drinks the treated water from Warragamba dam, it should know that this drinking water is sourced from a 16,200 km2 catchment containing pollution from millions of animals and treated sewage effluent from the residents of Goulbourn, Lithgow etc all of which runs into Sydney's water supply dams. Sydney Water (like 300+ water utilities across Australia) manages, treats and distributes this water to provide world class safe drinking water for their customers.

Adelaide residents drink water extracted and treated from the Murray River which includes the treated effluent from Canberra, Yass, Wagga Wagga, Albury, Shepparton etc. and all the pollution from the vast upstream Murray Darling Basin (MDB). Across Australia, traditional drinking water supplies take raw polluted water, treat it and distribute this safe drinking water to our taps. If only the developing world's population were so lucky!

This "unplanned" potable water recycling is deemed perfectly acceptable and any water utility that wants to sell this as drinking water, essentially uses 19th Century treatment processes, and is largely self-regulated. However, if you plan potable water recycling, the regulatory costs skyrocket, despite the technologies employed being equivalent to that used on the International Space Station! Other water supplies around the world have demonstrated the high quality and security of such supplies. Indeed, Singapore (renowned for its high standards) currently supplies 40% of its water supply this way and it's called "NEWater". Most governments and water authorities shelter behind the "planned/unplanned" terminology because unplanned means it's not their responsibility, whereas planned means they must be liable! Singapore has planned ahead, consulted, informed and delivered! Our water industry and politicians prefer spin doctoring which makes no economic, scientific or common sense.

Ironically, NSW had developed a practical demonstration of sustainable recycled water supply as part of our "green" Olympic bid for 2000) and built the infrastructure at Homebush to demonstrate it. In 2006, instead of being the sustainable answer, the infrastructure was handed over to Sydney Water to convert to a traditional supply and hence this working demonstration serving thousands of residents was ostensibly terminated.


Desalination is king in the global water industry and it wants more customers. Desalination plants are being used to supply agriculture in the Middle East and Spain, mainly due to their low-negligible access to water. In the case of the Middle East, energy is very cheap, so desalination is an obvious choice. Spain's desalination program is assisted generously by the EU Water Plan, making cost a secondary issue and allowing them to use 11% of its capacity for agriculture.

Some people are now suggesting desalination could resolve rural overuse in the MDB! Indeed, the recent Federal government drought package has indirectly donated $89million to South Australia to deliver drinking water from its desalination plant, to reduce its extraction for drinking water from the Murray. Equally so, Victoria's water grid is now being fed desalinated water, some of which may end up being released to the environment for environmental or irrigation use. It is amazing how commentators can pontificate about using expensive desalinated water to ease the rural drought when it suits them yet scream blue murder about other energy usage and emissions from activities they don't support. Should Australia engage in an agricultural desalination supply program it would be the equivalent of feeding crops and animals with sparkling "Perrier" water.

In 2015, Australia joined the global top 10 for desalinated water production capacity in less than 10 years! Rural water supplies for irrigation have mirrored the urban 'crisis driven management' approach. It now appears that desalination might be on its way to compound our past mismanagement of the MDB. The global water industry would love desalinated water to become the "settled science" answer to water management and the MDB looks attractive.

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About the Author

Charles Essery is an independent water consultant, who has been an Australia resident since 1990.

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