Page last updated at 18:59 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009

Parched Perth embarks on water rescue

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Perth, Western Australia

Explorer statue on Perth shoreline
Perth is blessed with abundant water - but most of it is the salty stuff you sail on

Authorities in Western Australia say they can show the world how to conquer a water crisis that had threatened to decimate the state capital, Perth, amid a long-standing drought and declining rainfall.

Turning the sea into drinking water is at the heart of Western Australia's multi-faceted approach to satisfying the thirst of a booming population that lives on the edge of a desert.

Paul Llewellyn
It's not beyond the realms of possibility that Perth could be our first ghost city
Paul Llewellyn, Green MP

"We had a history of taking gutsy decisions," said Jim Gill, former chief executive of the Water Corporation of Western Australia, a government-owned monopoly.

"And that's what put us in a position of world leadership in terms of dealing with a drying climate."

The corporation opened the southern hemisphere's first desalination plant, south of Perth, in November 2006.

Powered by a wind farm, the move was prompted by the driest winter ever recorded in Western Australia (WA) - a region that was among the first to see the effects of a shifting climate.

"2001 was the winter from hell, and we only get our rainfall in winter," Dr Gill told BBC News.

"It was unbelievably dry, and we postulated the scenario of another two or three years like that and frankly we were going to have to shut Perth down.

"We were going to run out of drinking water and the city would become unviable. Luckily, we'd done the homework on desalination and we had the confidence to go ahead and do it."

Salt tolerance

Other Australian cities are following the lead set in WA, where a second facility is due to open in 2011.

When it opens, a third of the state's drinking water should come from the Indian Ocean as the authorities pursue a raft of measures, including recycling sewage, new reservoirs and efforts to cut household demand.

Desalination unwrapped

Huge aquifers are also vital sources of fresh supplies to a parched region of two million people, where home-owners live under the continent's most relaxed water restrictions.

Desalination is unshakably controversial, and it's a subject that residents living near the plant at Kwinana are keen to discuss.

"I hate it as all it does is put up the cost of water," said Martin Herbert.

But fellow-shopper, Myrna Heslington, a migrant from Mauritius, had a very different opinion: "I think it's excellent - it's lifesaving and a godsend," she said.

Although desalination has a reputation as a pricey technology, the Water Corporation of Western Australia, which operates the plant, says Kwinana water is only about 15% more expensive than the average for other sources.

What crisis?

Water Corporation officials now insist that Western Australia, unlike other parts of the country, no longer has a water crisis.

This bold claim has been disputed by Paul Llewellyn, a Green MP in the state's upper house, who believes that desalinated water "exacerbates the climate problem", is too expensive and is an option that is masking a potentially catastrophic problem.

"It's a fool's paradise; Perth's obviously got an acute water problem," he said.

"I think we've become very complacent. What we should be moving to is a much more intelligent, water efficient economy - that is the way to live with climate change.

We have probably been far more water conscious than any developed nation on Earth
Tom Mollenkopf
Australian Water Association

"It's not beyond the realms of possibility that Perth could be our first ghost city.

"That's extreme but people will have to have a complete rethink of the way in which they are living."

Far from embarking on a lifestyle revolution where all homes and businesses would be retro-fitted with ultra-efficient appliances and designs, others have suggested that WA simply needs a giant pipeline linking Perth to brimming tropical rivers up north.

For 20 years, Ernie Bridge, a former state minister for water resources, has championed the idea of channelling supplies through a 2,200km pipe from the Kimberley region.

"It would shore up Perth for the next 100 years and would be a pretty easy project to construct," he asserted.

"I can never understand a country like Australia seriously turning to desalination when you've got that abundance of surface water available to us in the north.

"I think there's a bit of stupidity in committing to desalination."

Possibly in the pipeline is an ambitious state-wide water project

While some have been looking towards the wet tropics for unquenchable sources, Jorg Imberger from the University of Western Australia believes the solution lies underground.

"There is no shortage of water in Western Australia," he told BBC News.

"Underneath the (state's) south-west is an aquifer, and there is a 1,000 years' worth of potable water sitting down there.

"It has very little connection with the surface, and if you pumped it there would be very minor environmental impact."

These deep reserves are up to 100,000 years old; but although there appears to be little political or public appetite to develop such a resource, Professor Imberger said it should be exploited in the same way as deposits of oil and gas.

"Just compare it with minerals, diamonds and coal - you have no problems mining that stuff, and here you have a 1,000 years worth of supply of a vital human resource - water," he insisted.

If the world can learn one lesson from Australia, perhaps it should be how the community's attitudes have moved with the times.

"We have probably been far more water conscious than any developed nation on Earth," said Tom Mollenkopf from the Australian Water Association, an independent body that represents industry professionals.

"There is incredible social pressure to conserve water here," he said.

"Wasting water in Australia is almost considered criminal."

The volume of water coming into Perth's system has fallen by about two-thirds

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