Close to four years ago, several towns in New South Wales reached Day Zero and almost 100 other towns were at the brink of being evacuated due to water shortages. Within a few months the CSIRO released a report that concluded “when this current drought breaks, we can’t lose sight of the fact that another drought will inevitably come. This is the moment we must start preparing for it.”

Now, as Australia is on the brink of another extended dry period, are we any better prepared? A look into the various states’ water strategies suggest that since that drought the focus has shifted more towards funding major infrastructure to prevent a similar situation from re-occurring, instead of more environmentally sustainable solutions.

New South Wales has good results with BASIX but looks to desalination

In NSW, where more than half the state is at least drought-affected, if not in drought, according to the Department of Primary Industries. The state’s Minister for Water, Rose Jackson, said that three years of La Nina rainfall had ensured water storages were well placed to weather the fast-encroaching drought.  

She cited a range of projects she said will put “communities on the front foot so they’re in a stronger position to weather the next drought” including upgrading water networks and treatment plants across the state.

“In Sydney we’re kickstarting investigations to double the capacity of the city’s desalination plant so we can reduce the cities reliance on rainwater,” Ms Jackson told The Fifth Estate in a written reply to questions.

“As part of this any upgrade to the plant will be 100 per cent powered by renewable energy, to ensure a sustainable and secure solution,” she said. A new desalination plant is also planned for the Lower Hunter.

Ms Jackson said the NSW government has no plans to scale back standards in the state’s BASIX environmental ratings tool’s water requirements (as some observers have feared). Instead, many are hoping for the opposite: the program has been so successful at retaining water where it falls that they say rain water harvesting systems at a building level should be increased.

A 2020 report Alternate water strategy for Sydney by Urban Water Cycle Solutions and Kingspan Water & Energy, said BASIX policies had already saved the Greater Sydney region about 79 billion litres of water annually by 2019, comparable to the 90 billion litre annual capacity of the Sydney desalination plant.

It’s a real wake-up call to see just how quickly things can happen – we can’t rely on drought triggers to tell us when to build new plants or schemes

“Combined economic benefits from water and sewage services, stormwater management and reduced nutrient loads is $3.4 billion said one of the study’s authors, Michael Smit, technical and sustainability manager for Kingspan Water & Energy. “If we didn’t have BASIX we would need to find another 78 billion litres of water by 2050 and bring forward the next round of water supply plants from 2034 to 2029. Improving BASIX would bring additional stormwater benefits.

“This dwarfs Sydney Water conservation programs savings of about 0.7 billion litres and recycled water reducing demand by 13 billion litres in 2020/21.”

Sydney Water recently opened its Quakers Hill Purified Recycled Water Demonstration Plant in early November to educate residents about treated wastewater as drinking water. It said wastewater that has been recycled from industry and homes (including showers, toilets, bathrooms and kitchens) could provide up to 25 per cent of Sydney’s water needs by 2056, reducing the city’s reliance on rainfall.

Sydney Water opened the Purified Recycled Water Demonstration Plant at Quakers Hill earlier this month

However, water specialist Professor Stuart Khan said we can’t solely rely on plans to build new infrastructure as we head into drought. The 2017-2020 drought –where Sydney’s water storage fell from 80 per cent to 40 per cent in three years –  demonstrated how fast water supplies can fall.

“It’s a real wake-up call to see just how quickly things can happen – we can’t rely on drought triggers to tell us when to build new plants or schemes.

“When looking for opportunities, water efficiency comes first because it’s often the cheapest and very often the lowest energy. If you put together a business case, based on comparing the options, opportunities around saving water and water efficiency, usually come out at the top of the list.”

But Professor Khan who is Professor in the School of Civil & Environmental Engineering and Director, Australian Graduate School of Engineering (AGSE) stressed that water efficiency alone isn’t going to meet future water demands. Most of the easy wins had already been made through BASIX and water savings devices now routinely installed in residential properties.

Victoria looks to desalination and education

According to Victorian Minister for Water Harriet Shing there is more water used in her state than is collected in storage.

“Based on today’s average water usage in Melbourne, we use at least an extra 50 GL each year than what flows into our storages from rainfall,” she told The Fifth Estate. “Our desalination plant fills that gap and can supply up to 150 GL per year.”

No desalinated water was ordered for 2023-24 and at the time of writing all water storage levels in the state were at an average of at least 95 per cent of total capacity.

“We’ve invested in critical water infrastructure for using recycled water and stormwater as well as in educating Victorians to develop water saving habits for the future including through the Schools Water Efficiency Program and the Target 150 program,” Ms Shing said, adding that the state’s water sector is working towards net zero emissions by 2025.

Victoria also recently amended its variation in the National Construction Code so that from 1 October all Class 1 buildings must have a rainwater tank connected to sanitary flushing systems (previously builders could choose between a tank or solar hot water to comply).

South Australia

In South Australia, Deputy Premier and Water Minister Susan Close said desalination is a fundamental pillar of the state’s water security measures, augmenting traditional sources such as rainfall captured across their 10 reservoirs and water from the River Murray.

“SA Water currently operates 11 desalination plants, with two treating seawater and nine treating groundwater,” she said in a written statement to The Fifth Estate.

The state was building a second seawater desalination plant at Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island to support the city’s growth, with another plant planned for Eyre Peninsula to ensure water security for the region.

And by the end of 2024, a further two groundwater desalination plants are also expected to be operating in the state’s far north and north-east, at Marla and Marree,

Ms Close said the state’s geography and climate means that SA Water is one of the state’s highest users of electricity, which is offset mainly by solar. Also, its three major treatments plants use biogas as an energy source.

Stormwater harvesting is also part of SA’s water security plan: 1000 litre rainwater tanks have been mandatory for all new builds since 2006.


South East Queensland Water in October released its water security strategies for the next 30 years, which include expanding the Gold Coast Desalination Plant, investigating a new desalination plant, connecting Wyaralong Dam to the grid and building a new downstream water treatment plant, and maintaining purified recycled water as a back up when the grid reaches 40 percent.

As to how sustainable these plans are in relation to the energy required, a SEQWater spokesperson said, “over the next five years, Seqwater’s investments in projects and initiatives will incorporate considerations of how Seqwater sources and consumes energy within its operations, as well as across its energy related value chain.”

In Queensland sustainability at a built environment level relies on an optional approach: if a local government area opts in to the Queensland Development Code, then 5000 litre tanks are compulsory in new residential builds.

Gold Coast desalination plant Photo: Seqwater

Western Australia

Desalination has provided around half of Perth’s drinking water for the past five years, with a 100-billion litre-a-year plant recently approved and expected to start operating in 2028. Western Australia was the first state to introduce large-scale desalination and also to use groundwater replenishment using purified recycled water. Currently Perth’s dams are sitting at just over 50 per cent, more than 13 per cent down compared to this time last year. 

Our future water security

The CSIRO may have been hoping for more solutions to come online before now, but are these plans enough to get us through?

Professor Khan believes it should be a multi-pronged approach. “It’s a mixture of industry, of fixing leaks in the system, but taking Sydney as example, 70 per cent of the city’s water use is residential, so the big gains come from residential properties.”

Michael Smit said considering urban water cycles at the building scale reveals opportunities for water efficiency, reduced infrastructure, rainwater harvesting, recycling, stormwater management, restoring healthy waterways and urban cooling.

“We can help address some of our most difficult urban water problems by designing better buildings.”

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  1. The ongoing housing crisis has spawned many media articles with nearly all arguing that the crisis was the result of a supply problem and all we had to do was build more houses. However, Leith van Onselen the Chief Economist at the MB has provided a more realistic view pointing out that in the last financial year our population growth was around 630,000 due to high immigration but we only built 170,000 homes. What is worse the construction rate is falling as building firms go bust and material and land costs explode. But even this doesn’t give the full picture because the construction rate does not include the impact of house demolitions which were 114,323 in the 5-year period up to 2021. There have also been 134,000 homes damaged by weather events in 2020 including 5303 destroyed in NSW alone and this toll is likely to increase as weather events intensify. There is a very real prospect that regions of Australia – even some cities – will become uninhabitable due to water shortages and cities like Darwin, Broome and Port Headland exceed the livable temperature niche. This would create a surge of internal climate refugees seeking homes in localities already short of housing.