Water and climate change
Drought, dry riverbeds, falling dam levels and water restrictions… now more than ever, water is a hot topic in Australia. And water restrictions can leave you concerned about a future that promises still more extreme changes.
Australians are rising to the challenge, but at the end of the day there’s a limit to how far you can adapt. That’s why tackling climate change is vital to drought-proofing Australia’s future.
How will Australia’s climate change?
Being the world’s driest inhabited continent makes Australia especially fragile in the face of climate change. While northern Australia will generally receive more rainfall, the southern mainland will generally get less. (Tasmania, an exception to the rule, is expected to receive more rainfall.) This means Australia’s most populated areas would have to adapt to less rain under climate change. Yet floods will also be a problem because rainfall, when it does come, is expected to be more intense. Find out more about the 2011 floods across our country here
"Australia has been known for more than 100 years as a land of droughts and flooding rains, but what climate change means is Australia becomes a land of more droughts and worse flooding rains"
Professor David Karoly, University of Melbourne
Is the recent drought just part of a natural cycle?
Unfortunately not. Our scientists have told us that the 13 year drought we've experienced since 1996 is not just a natural dry stretch but a shift related to climate change. They also suggest that in the future, there's an increase risk of below average rainfall meaning these dry conditions are likely to persist and even intensify. To throw a spanner in the works, it's possible there will be a return to wetter conditions in the short term. But overall a hotter, drier future is in store for many regions of Australia unless we cut our greenhouse pollution right now.
Coal and water
Australia depends on coal for about 80 percent of its electricity. Yet coal power fuels our water shortage in two ways. First, it produces the greenhouse pollution that causes climate change. Second, coal power plants themselves require large amounts of water to operate. What's more, the coal mining operations that feed our coal plants also require water.
Can better water management solve the problem?
Water management won’t be enough if Australia’s climate changes radically. The CSIRO estimates that water flowing into the Murray Darling Basin could fall by almost half if we don’t cut greenhouse pollution. Better water management is a strong step forward, but tackling climate change is crucial to dealing with the root problem.
In 2008 we developed a vision for Melbourne's water future that won't cost the earth. Read it
Read the 2009 Parliamentary inquiry into Melbourne's Future Water Supply
Water for cities
If you live in a city, chances are you’ve already faced the challenge of water shortages. Unless we cut our greenhouse pollution, however, we can expect this problem to really intensify with climate change. Many cities will have less water over the next 70 years, with Perth and Adelaide being most at risk. Melbourne could lose as much as 35 percent of water flowing into dams by 2050, and Sydney’s already-stressed water supplies will also be reduced.
Water for farmers
Australia’s farmers rely heavily on irrigation. In fact, Australia is the fourth largest exporter of 'virtual water'. That's all the water it takes to produce a final farm product. For example, the virtual water content of a 150-gram hamburger is a whopping 2,400 litres!
This is a trend that cannot continue here on the world’s driest inhabited continent. Most farmers can expect negative consequences from climate change. Farmers will need to change their cropping patterns and some crops will no longer be suitable for some regions. For example, the southern Murray-Darling Basin’s water levels will fall dramatically, with a direct impact on how much farmers can irrigate there.
Water for rivers
Healthy rivers are crucial to our Australian way of life. Yet many of our rivers are in dire health. Today the mighty Murray’s flow is less than 10 percent of its optimum. With climate change, our river systems’ water levels are predicted to deteriorate even further. Getting our greenhouse emissions under control is an indispensable part of restoring our rivers’ health.
We're working hard to safeguard Victoria's rivers. Get involved
South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative, Climate variability and change in south-eastern Australia. Take a squizz
Climate Change - Potential impacts and costs, Victoria
It's not drought, it's climate change, The Age (29 August 2009). Read it