Page last updated at 16:57 GMT, Wednesday, 23 April 2008 17:57 UK

Saving Australia's water

Children at Wattle Park Primary School in Melbourne, Australia
The children at Wattle Park primary school have only ever known drought

"Water is precious and we've got to realise that water's not always there. You need to save it," says Sonia, a pupil at Wattle Park Primary School in Melbourne.

That is the lesson children in Melbourne are learning every day.

After 10 years of drought, water restrictions have always been part of their lives.

When they wake up they use timers to take two minute showers, and collect the water in buckets so it can be re-used in the garden.

At school they have "scarecrow monitors" whose job it is to oversee the filling of more buckets from under the drinking taps to water the school vegetable patch.

Their teacher, Randall Simons, says every drop is now watched carefully, at school and at home.

"You can't wash your car, you can only clean your windshield and wing mirrors and side windows. It's a daily impact really."

Climate change

Australians are among the highest per capita consumers of water in the world.

For decades, city dwellers have been used to freely topping up the family swimming pool and hosing their gardens to keep them green.

Tom Hatton
[Drought has] been the barbecue conversation for the past five years
Tom Hatton, CSIRO

But nearly 90% of Australia's population now live in cities, and the dams and rivers simply cannot keep up with demand.

The consensus in the scientific community is that the drought is just one indicator of longer term climate change in Australia, making what is already the most arid continent on the planet even hotter and drier.

According to environmental campaigner and Australian Man of the Year Tim Flannery, the country's rivers have been suffering a double whammy.

"What's happened as Australia has warmed over the past three or four decades is that not only are we getting less rainfall, but the soils have warmed up, which means any rain that does fall is more likely to evaporate."

The drought has sharply focused minds on water use and supply.

"It's been the barbecue conversation for the past five years," says Tom Hatton who oversees the Water for Healthy Future Flagship at CSIRO, Australia's national scientific research organisation.

He believes managing urban water is about both reducing demand and finding new water supplies.

Desalination and sewage recycling plants are already on the increase, and Dr Hatton is excited about innovative developments to make better use of the water that Australia has.

"We're looking at opportunities to use groundwater systems as underground dams that can be artificially refilled when water is in surplus," he says.

Such technological solutions require significant investment, so water prices are predicted to double in the next few years.

'Smarter irrigation'

Interviewed shortly before his recent death, Australia's "Water Tsar", Peter Cullen, said pricing would be key to managing demand.

A sign showing tank water in use
Watering the garden has become a sensitive issue

"Water has been too cheap, people have to learn to appreciate its real value," he said.

But that means better monitoring of water use; for example, controlling the spread of private boreholes and encouraging smarter irrigation systems.

In many Australian cities, 40% of mains water is used in gardens, and the water restrictions are having a big impact in reducing this.

Installation of domestic rainwater tanks is fast becoming the norm.

Rob Adams of Melbourne City Council believes the restrictions are here to stay.

"The interesting thing is that the population actually adapts quite quickly. If everyone thinks everyone else is suffering under the same restrictions, they'll happily do it and become quite proud and innovative, so I think we shouldn't be squeamish putting regulations in place."

Canberra resident Sharon Boggan agrees. "It has become socially unacceptable to be seen using too much water so the challenge becomes, OK, what can I glean from my washing machine?"

And in Brisbane, where residents are currently on the highest "Level 6" restrictions - which limit their personal consumption to just 140 litres a day (less than two bathfuls) - the campaign towards change has been remarkably successful.

Leading the way

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made water a key priority of his administration, and other countries are watching closely to see what they might learn.

The government has also just announced a $250m (140m) investment in domestic water recycling.

"When climate change begins to impact on water supplies, it does so in a far more rapid and dramatic manner than any of the experts ever predicted. That's why everyone must be proactive," says Ross Young, executive director of the Water Services Association.

Back in the classroom of Wattle Park primary school, one of the children, Melissa, is clear about what all the water-saving steps mean.

"It'll be very good to make sure that we have the same resources we had when we were younger so that we can keep saving them for future generations."

A Sunparched Country will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesdays between 0930 and 0945 BST from 22 April to 27 May 2008. You can here the latest episode of the programme programme on Radio 4's Listen Again site.

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