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Water security lessons Australia can share with Cape Town

As Cape Town’s Day Zero approaches, the water security of capital cities around the world has been thrown into question and Australia’s experience with the Millenium Drought is under the spotlight once again.

Cape Town’s water supply is rapidly diminishing; the city initially announced Day Zero for 11 May as the date that taps in the city will be turned off. However, this date has been pushed out to 4 June on account of water restrictions.

Climate change, dramatic population growth and three years of severe drought have seen Cape Town’s dams drained to under 26% capacity.

While concern for Australia’s water security has blossomed in the wake of Cape Town’s water crisis, Western Sydney University Environmental Science Senior Lecturer Dr Ian Wright said lessons learned during the Millenium Drought have put Australia in good stead.

“It’s a one-in-300-year drought, similar to the Millenium Drought. There has been an incredible population increase in Cape Town too,” Wright said.

“When storages dropped, the warning lights went off and Australian Governments listened, and we have a prudent and conservative water industry that acted in all kinds of ways, with recycling, demand management, looking for new sources and desalination.”

Wright said while some of the decisions made in Australia were unpopular at the time, ensuring water security required immediate action, and Australia is now in a very strong position for dealing with water security concerns as a result of precautions taken.

“Some Australians disagree with [the build of] some of the desalination plants due to expenditure, but at the speed at which we were losing storages, we were in dire straights if we didn’t start building infrastructure. We needed to act quickly,” Wright said.

“That’s the lesson we need to share with South Africa. Governments and the water industry in Australia made some hard decisions; they knew action needed to be taken and they did it.”

While there are many similarities between Australian cities and Cape Town in urban population growth and drought, Wright said the difference lies in our government's ability to listen to the water sector concerns and take action.

“We are not that different, Australia and South Africa. Perth’s situation is absolutely incredible; it has managed a 90% drop of inflow into its storages alongside huge population increases,” he said.

“It embraced the latest advances in desalination, aquifer replenishment, stormwater reuse and demand management, which is now enshrined into the city.

“It’s clear to me that the warning signs have been coming [for Cape Town] for many years. They have been coming more rapidly, but they haven't been acted on. While they definitely have projects happening, none are of the scale required.

“With Cape Town, water authorities have had major concerns but they have not been answered by government. That, to me, is the big difference here. Unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where the major action required to fix the problem will probably not happen quick enough.”

Cross Dependency Initiative Climate Change Adaptation Specialist Rohan Hamden told that although Australia has done well to secure water supplies with desalination and other technology following the Millennium Drought, we must also stay vigilant in the face of increased global water concerns.

“Australia has had longer droughts than we have experienced as western civilisation in this country. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they will just happen again, and you can’t say we shouldn’t prepare for that,” he said.

“If infrastructure and design standards don’t get ahead of climate change, extreme weather ‘Day Zeroes’ are likely to increase, so ordinary Australians are likely to find themselves without essential services like power and water for days or even weeks at a time.”

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