Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Extracting the effluent

Tinder dry canefields in Northern Queensland

Sydney is very much the harbour city, surrounded on all sides by water. On any given weekend thousands of people are on the waterways, taking advantage of the city's greatest resource. At the risk of sounding dramatic, all this water hides a dark secret - which I didn't know about until I started living here. Sydney is almost dying of thirst. Everybody knows Australia is home to some of the largest desert regions in the world, but the sheer scale of the problem is frightening. The NSW State Government is understandably starting to worry about where the water for this growing city (100 new residents arrive each week) is going to come from.

The water supply for Sydney has never been lower - the reservoir levels are at 39.1% of what they should be (as of last week). 35% is considered the emergency level and would trigger the kind of contingency plans that experts keep suggesting, and keep being scoffed at. The current favourite appears to be desalination - the building of a $2bn plant near Bondi could serve the entire East of the city (including me) with drinkable seawater. By 2006 13bn litres of water could be found by drilling groundwater. These are the kinds of schemes that are suggested, but have not yet been implemented.

Despite all the panicking, life for us Sydneysiders isn't that difficult. There are bans on sprinklers and hoses - but nothing more than the equivalent bans during a hot UK summer. I'm not sure we even have a garden hose, to be honest. But it's always on the news, people are talking about the lack of water being the biggest problem Australia will face over the next hundred years - something I take for granted living in damp, predictable Scotland. But then Scotland isn't part of the driest vegetated continent on Earth. 75% of Australia is classified as permanently arid, which is amazing - 3/4 of this country is practically uninhabitable. Many rivers here flow away from the sea, ending in large, useless evaporating pans or stagnant billabongs visited only by jolly swagmen.

The solution for Sydney may be close though. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the National Competition Council has ruled the city's sewers be opened to private companies who want to recycle effluent into useable water. Currently only 3.2% of Sydney's water is recycled - so with a bit of technology and some dirty manual work, the recycling option may be the one that makes Sydney sustainable again - time will tell.