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Here's what the Millennium Drought can teach us about water security in the future

Most in the Australian water sector would be familiar with the Millennium Drought, but have you ever considered how we’d manage another drought event of the same severity today? One leading expert says the world has become a different place since the water shortage, and it’s time to reassess how we’d respond again now. 

Presenting on the future of water secure cities at Ozwater’20 Online, Aither South Australian Lead and Associate Director Rachel Barratt said a lot can be learned from the Millennium Drought, including thinking about what we would do the same, and what would we change.

“The world has changed a lot since our response to the Millenium Drought. We refer to these as drivers of change, which are often global,” Barratt said. 

The way we access information has changed thanks to smartphones, globalisation has changed the world significantly, our understanding of the impacts of climate change has developed significantly, and we’ve experienced some of the impacts of climate change, too. 

“We now understand the impact of urban heat and the value of water in driving livability,” Barratt said.

“Economic shifts, access to money, how we make decisions; all of these things have dramatically changed in the past 10 years. What can we learn from our experiences of the Millenium Drought and the fact that the world is changing? What can we do to make sure our cities are more water secure?”

Looking back

While the Millennium Drought officially started in 2001, how it was felt across Australia played out in different timescales and severities, Barratt said.

It required a whole of Australia response and was unprecedented, meaning we needed new ways of managing water. 

“By 2006, it really started to hit hard,” she said.

“That was considered the driest year on record. It impacted urban water security and supply, as well as our agricultural supply. At times, many irrigators were on zero applications across the Murray-Darling Basin. Most of our cities were on high level water restrictions.

“In reality, this meant all the information and data coming in was something that we had never experienced before. This really challenged policy makers and responders. For the first time, the past was not predicting the future. We were walking blind; we didn’t know when it was going to end. 

“We were looking at serious interventions to make sure that places like Adelaide could continue to have safe and secure water. It really tested some basic assumptions we had about water security.”

Barratt said South Australia’s response to the drought, the Water for Good scheme, was put in place to achieve two key objectives: increase water supply and diversify. 

This included introducing desalination and significantly increasing recycled water use, and reducing demand through water-saving initiatives. 

“Water for Good increased supply, increased water harvesting and wastewater recycling. It drove some really innovative approaches to water supply,” Barratt said.

“It also introduced a range of demand policy, including rebates for water-efficient devices and education programs, which collectively made quite a significant difference. It also [led to] a range of water reform actions.”

The plan was considered a success because it capitalised on existing community support, among other strengths, Barratt said. 

“There was clear agreement by everyone that this was a problem that needed to be addressed. It was in the political domain,” she said. 

“Linked to that, there was clear accountability. There was clear responsibility, clear reporting, clear leadership. It didn't worry about new problems, it focused on all the things we knew could be done and put them into place. It was also very clear about delivering targeted actions.”

What’s next?

There is a need to look at these learnings from the perspective of the future, Barratt said. As the world has changed significantly since the Millennium Drought, so have our potential responses to a similar event. 

"There may be a window of opportunity coming again. What is one person's crisis can be another’s window of opportunity. That drought was a crisis, and there was a background economic crisis, but that created a window in which we could address things that had been put aside for some time,” she said. 

“We are hitting a time when we need to start thinking very seriously about the next wave of water reform. Plans like Water for Good were quite important, but we now have a bit of a gap, and we need to start to consider what type of plan should take its place.” 

Barratt proposed different areas of preparation that still need work to ensure a secure plan for the provision of water leading into the future, including nation-wide measures and cost considerations. 

“We don’t yet have national agreement on how we should measure water security at a national level. What are the objective measures? We have done a lot of work in the uptake of alternative forms of water, but we have a lot of work still to do to diversify our supplies,” she said. 

“We need to be able to manage our water through extreme events, whether they are social, economic or natural. [But] increasing water security involves an increased cost. Sometimes we assume society is willing to pay a certain amount, but this needs to be tested. 

“We also have a pricing reform journey. How do we manage the inevitable increase in water prices if we are to invest in diversification and climate independent sources moving forward?”

To learn more about Ozwater’20 Online, click here.