Where's the water, mate?

Sydney and other Australian cities could run dry by 2006.

In the town of Goulburn, three hours south of Sydney, nightly baths are a thing of the past. Dishes are allowed to pile up. Hoses no longer douse dirty cars and thirsty plants.

The 22,000 people in town haven't suddenly grown slovenly. A change in habits is being forced by a dry spell stretching back to the 1970s that is squeezing Australia.

To conserve, dishwashing is done in batches, plants are watered with runoff from showers, and cars are cleaned with gray water from washing machines.

Barring monsoon-like rains, such adjustments will need to happen on a massive scale if Australia's biggest cities - including Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and Adelaide - hope to continue having drinking water in just two years' time, experts say.

"Too long we have been living like we might live in Europe and not in accordance with dry climate conditions," says Leigh Martin of the Total Environment Center in Sydney. "Most people who balk at reusing sewage water should be educated about recycling."

Australia is not only the driest inhabited continent on earth, but also the greatest consumer of water per capita, according to savewater.com.au. Australians use more than 260,000 gallons of fresh water per person per year, or 24,000 gigaliters - that's enough to fill Sydney harbor, 48 times over. About 70 percent goes to agricultural irrigation, 9 percent to other rural uses, 9 percent to industry, and 12 percent to domestic use.

The outlook is ominous: The Warragamba dam that supplies 80 percent of the water to Sydney and was last full in 1998, wavers around 39 percent, despite some good spring rain this year.

Not so long ago, the effects of drought were felt mostly by farmers and bush-dwellers, but now it has come to the backyards of city folk, emptying their swimming pools and drying up their roses.

The water manager in Goulburn says that his town may be out of water by August 2005. "Many gardens are dying, and this year only one public swimming pool will be opened using last year's water," says Matthew O'Rourke. He says that if push comes to shove, they may consider trucking water in from other towns.

Many cities in the country are now considering recycling on a large scale.

Perth is already moving to desalinate sea water, even though it would bring enormous environmental consequences. While desalination plants are not rain dependent and can be built quickly, they use large amounts of power and contribute significantly to greenhouse gases.

This is not good news for Australia, says Penny Whetto, an atmospheric scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, who says that with temperatures around the country expected to rise by 6 degrees Centigrade by 2070, something radical is required to control warming.

The water shortage may force changes in agriculture.

Experts believe that in 17 years the Murray River will be too salty to drink. The Murray is one of the country's foremost river systems, responsible, along with the Darling River, for irrigating 40 percent of the country's crops. The growing of European-style crops is one of the main reasons for the degradation of the fresh water, experts say. The large amounts of irrigation that run into the ground dissolve the salt below into runoff.

There are urgent plans to top up Sydney's dams from the Shoalhaven River via a new $195 million pipeline as part of the state government's plan to meet the city's water needs for the next 25 years. However this will depend on rainfall, and the pipeline is not going to be built until 2009. And environmentalists say taking water from the river could destroy sensitive ecosystems.

Other plans include pumping the deep water of the Avon and Warragamba dams. This will be finished by 2006 and is expected to boost drinking water by 5 percent.

One of the biggest issues, according to some researchers, is population growth.

In a 2002 essay, environmentalist Tim Flannery says that Australians could live sustainably today if the population totaled 8 million people (rather than the present 20 million). He is calling for tighter immigration controls.

But Paul Perkins, the chairman of the National Environment Education Council, says that if Australia does not take the thousands of immigrants who apply every year then someone else will, "and that will be Australia's loss."

"We have incredible land masses to be shared and that's what it all comes down to - sharing resources - just as Northern China has learned to live with much less water, so can we, and without reducing quality of life. And for this, a concerted national water initiative is required," says Mr. Perkins.

The federal government has announced that it will release $1.5 billion to help alleviate the growing crisis. It has also established a national water commission to oversee future water projects.

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