Canadian Press: Oz turns to oceans for drinking water

Canadian Press, July 12, 2010

Still recovering from a 10-year drought on the world’s driest inhabited continent, Australia is increasingly turning to the oceans that surround it for drinking water.

Australia’s five largest cities have embarked on a massive $13-billion plan to build desalination plants that can remove the salt from seawater and make it potable.

By 2012, when the last plant is scheduled to be up and running, Australia’s big cities will get 30% of their water from the oceans, The New York Times reported Sunday.

The government says Australia’s latest decade-long drought was largely caused by climate change and one official called the $13-billion desalination programme “the cost of adapting to climate change.”

But critics of the massive infrastructure scheme say desalination will increase climate change because of the large quantities of energy it requires and other, cheaper measures — such as stricter conservation, a better grid supply system and even more efficient washing machines — can easily make Australia’s existing water supplies stretch farther.

Perth, Brisbane and Sydney already have operating desalination plants, while plants near Melbourne and Adelaide are under construction. Perth, which opened Australia’s first large desalination plant in 2006, is now building a second one.

As the water debate continues in Australia, other countries — from the U.S. to China — are looking increasingly at desalination as a way of dealing with future water shortages. And they’re watching the Australian experience with interest.

“We consider ourselves the canary in the coal mine in for climate change-induced changes to water supply systems,” Ross Young, executive director of the Water Services Association of Australia, told The New York Times.

One impact of the water shortage is a growing realization that Australia will almost certainly have to rethink its policy of encouraging large-scale immigration to promote population — and economic — growth.

The government’s previous “Big Australia” policy forecast the country’s population could — and would — grow to 36 million in 2050 from the current 22 million.

Now a greater focus is on making sure there will be enough water in the future to support an Australian population much lower than 36 million.

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