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Adapting to climate change: Australia's Big Dry

From Friday's Globe and Mail

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA — There's a new way to take a shower in South Australia and other dry, and drying, parts of Australia.

You stand under the shower head and let the water fall while standing in a plastic tub that captures the dirty, soapy water as it falls off your body. Then, you take the water and throw it on the garden or lawn. You try, in other words, not to lose a drop.

In the same vein is a big local issue in Adelaide, capital of South Australia: garden-watering by the drip method or with buckets? Which is more water-effective? Headlines are being made from this debate. Politicians are weighing in. Citizens express themselves on the open-line shows and letters to the editor.

Restrictions on water use abound throughout Australia, a country passing through a decade of drought with no relief in sight, according to meteorologists and climatologists.

Reservoir levels around the country are very low. The biggest one near Adelaide just came through the "wet season," winter, with such low levels that unless heavy rains arrive, it might dry out in eight months.

Perth, in Western Australia, is really alarmed. There, the average inflow of water into reservoirs was cut in half from 1975 to 2002 compared to the 1911-74 period. Since 2002, it's dropped by a third again.

A massive scientific report concluded that "there is a substantial risk that the observed decline in rainfall in southwestern and southeastern Australia will continue for the next several decades." These are the areas where the largest number of Australians live.

The Big Dry, as it's sometimes called, is linked to climate change, although no one can precisely delineate the link. The drought is forcing Australians to adapt to climate change, something Canadian governments have been reluctant even to consider.

Adaptation means learning to live with and prepare for the effects of climate change, which in Australia's case means less water.

Even if greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are stabilized in forthcoming decades - a very unlikely scenario - carbon and methane hang around in the atmosphere for a century or more. This means the GHGs already in the atmosphere are going to stay there, with resulting effects on temperatures and climate.

Australian governments are forcing adaptation. South Australia's new building code, for example, requires every new home to have a rain collector. Citizens are installing them in existing homes. Restrictions are being imposed on how much water can be used and for what purposes.

The biggest and most controversial move came when the national government of Prime Minister John Howard declared it would take over management of the Murray-Darling river basin.

The Murray is the longest and largest river in southern Australia, although it's not in the same league as the St. Lawrence, Ottawa, Saguenay, Fraser, Coppermine, Mackenzie or any of Canada's other mighty rivers, which carry vastly higher volumes of water. Alas for Australia, the Murray flows away from the eastern coast, rising behind Sydney and ambling its way to the sea in eastern South Australia.

Three states draw water from it: South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. You can guess what that means: disputes over which state should get how much, especially when the volume of water is declining. Compounding everything is that water from the Murray-Darling basin had been allocated to farmers whose economic livelihoods depend on access.

The Premier of Victoria is in high dudgeon at the federal move, threatening court action. The other state premiers applaud the federal takeover. South Australia, the downstream state, particularly approves of the idea of handing the basin's water management to an impartial national body.

In South Australia, Perth and elsewhere, desalination plants are being discussed as a possible long-term solution to a scarcity of drinking water. The trouble is that such plants are energy hogs in a country trying to think through how to use fewer fossil fuels without building nuclear plants.

In theory, nuclear energy is a brilliant option for one of the world's largest producers of uranium with plenty of extremely remote sites to bury the waste. The politics of uranium, however, are difficult. Australians are quite happy to ship uranium elsewhere for use in nuclear reactors; they just don't want to use the stuff at home.

The politics of water, by contrast, cannot be escaped.

jsimpson@globeandmail.com

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