Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Are We Ready for the Next Drought?

By Craig Simmons

After two La Niña summers, our level of concern about water security is inversely proportional to the water levels in our dams.

We’ve seen in the past 10 years or so that we are known as “a land of drought and flooding rains” for good reason. Over the first decade of this century, south-eastern Australia experienced its worst drought for 100 years. The reservoirs were emptying, there was daily press coverage and desalination plants began springing up across the country. And when you couldn’t water your garden every day, it felt real.

Australia has made great strides recently in water research and management, and in implementing world-leading policy. During the drought we gave ourselves a massive boost forward in this respect, but I’m concerned that we’re beginning to lose momentum. We have entered the apathetic part of the “hydro-illogical” cycle.

Now that it’s raining again, we’ve quickly gone back to business as usual. The average Australian uses over 300 litres of water per day just by turning on the tap. Around the home, we are one of the biggest water users in the world. On top of that we use enormous amounts of “hidden” water in the foods and products we consume. Our daily per capita water footprint may be more than ten times what we use around the house.

As for groundwater, here in Australia we can think of it as buried treasure, and a key part of our lifeblood. It makes up 17% of our available fresh water and 30% of our total water use. In some cities and regions, such as Perth, it is the primary source of drinking water. In the past decade we saw groundwater use rise, which was not unexpected: as one tap turns off, we turn another one on.

Groundwater represents Australia’s national water security for the future. In a dry continent with no glaciers, permanent snowfields or large permanent lakes and where evaporation rates generally exceed rainfall, the best place to store and conserve water is underground. At the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training we’re learning how to manage this better.

But groundwater, like surface water, faces increasing usage pressure, not only as a result of recurring droughts but from population growth, mining and coal seam gas, from agriculture and from the need to safeguard our environmental water flows.

We mustn’t be complacent just because it’s raining now. You don’t have to be a prophet to predict that there’ll probably be another big drought in the next 20 or 30 years – maybe sooner – and some people say it will be even more extreme. The past is the best indicator of the future and we’ve always had big peaks and troughs in the climate here. Drought in Australia is not an “if” but a “when”.

We need to keep up our focus on waterproofing Australia, on making sure that we’re ready when the next drought arrives. We need to continue to build our knowledge about key regions and topics, such as the Murray–Darling Basin and coal seam gas, and we need to make sure that we have the support needed to learn more about how our major water sources work, and to maintain our rivers and aquifers and the infrastructure that we use to manage them.

We need to continue to plan for the future, to implement sensible and coordinated policies. There’s unanimous support for a national groundwater strategy – we need to keep the ball rolling.

On an individual level, we need to continue to be conscious of how much water we use. There is room for improvement in our households and industries, and there is room for improvement in the choices we make about the foods and products we use daily.

Waterproofing Australia is something that we can’t let slide. We’ve got a bit of breathing space to prepare, but we had 70% of the country under water restrictions in the last drought, and we’ll have another sooner or later.

The question is, will we be ready?

Professor Craig Simmons is Director of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training at Flinders University.