Published on The Water Blog

Perth’s fresh water thinking for urban water security

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Perth, Australia. Photo by Pedro Szekely Perth, Australia. Photo by Pedro Szekely

Perth, Australia, is famous for being an isolated provincial capital city, surrounded by the Indian Ocean and the outback. The nearest city of more than 1,000 people is Adelaide, more than 2,000 km away. It is also renowned for having some of the most pristine, untouched beaches in the world. Founded in 1829 and not officially a part of Australia until 1900, Perth has developed largely on a course of its own.

The beach-lined metropolitan area has a population of around two million, and one vital challenge: urban water scarcity.

Daunting Present, Promising Future

Perth has historically enjoyed a Mediterranean climate. Its position on the western side of the continent creates long, dry summers with steadily declining rainfall and an accompanying reduction in groundwater recharge.

Those long summers have become more severe in the last few decades. Like the entire southwest of Western Australia, Perth has experienced the growing effects of climate change since the 1970s, and is now drier and hotter than at any time in its recorded history. Groundwater has historically been Perth’s hedge against seasonal drought, but groundwater reserves are now being taxed beyond their traditional limits.

Over the last 50 years, Perth has seen a 20% decline in annual rainfall; this reduction in surface water has greatly affected groundwater recharge, which in turn has led to long-term drying effects in some areas. The decline in rainfall has accelerated in the last 20 years, and streamflow into the city’s reservoir has also decreased.

The challenges facing Perth are largely related to augmenting natural sources of fresh water. In this sense, it has much in common with Cape Town, South Africa, which in early 2018 narrowly avoided becoming the world’s first major city to entirely run out of water.

The governments of Western Australia and of municipalities like Perth have invested heavily in water sourcing and conservation schemes, largely to accommodate population growth. With groundwater resources diminishing at accelerating rates, governmental agencies have shifted their focus away from spurring human settlement and squarely toward meeting the challenges of climate change.

Perth has avoided a water crisis through a multifaceted strategy that encourages water conservation, develops alternate sources of water to complement its dwindling groundwater supply, and seeks new ways to recycle both storm water and wastewater.

Perth’s Water Corporation, run by the Western Australia government and accountable to its Minister of Water, is primarily responsible for supplying and managing the water used by Perth’s residents. Its long-term strategy for sourcing water and managing its use even has a brand name: Fresh Water Thinking.

Fresh Water Thinking’s public face includes direct outreach and education to Perth’s residents regarding their current water use and steps they can take to reduce their impact on the area’s water reserves. It also partners with regional plumbers and landscapers to encourage homeowners to adopt water-saving fixtures and landscape designs. The program’s branding was designed to create an emotional connection between citizens and the campaign. Citizen engagement included education on water conservation, the sourcing of water, and the development of water resources. It also included producing of radio, film, and video media.

As a result of direct outreach, education, and engagement with citizens, Perth’s citizens have reduced their per capita use of water and are widely supportive of new realities like sprinkler rosters and demand-management campaigns. Future responses to even more severe water shortages will succeed largely because Perth’s citizens accept the challenges of potential chronic water challenges, and support innovative ways of meeting those challenges.

Equally important is the time invested by the Water Corporation in testing the equipment and techniques used by its groundwater-replenishment efforts with local officials and state regulators.

More directly, the Water Corporation operates two high-capacity desalination plants that now provide nearly half of Perth’s water supply. The older of these two plants has been operating for more than ten years; the other has the capacity to meet 30% of Perth’s drinking-water needs all on its own.

Some in Perth argue for a third desalination plant. Others point to the region’s success with water recycling. Because water can be treated in various ways before it is used for appropriate purposes, recycling is a flexible and targeted way of meeting water demands beyond residential use. The Water Corporation plans to recycle 45% of all wastewater by 2030.

Perth was designed to rely on groundwater, and groundwater will be its primary source of water for domestic use, industry, parks, and public facilities for the foreseeable future. The interrelated strategies behind Fresh Water Thinking are designed to supplement nature’s ability to recharge groundwater reserves while pursuing longer-term strategies geared toward introducing reliable, significant alternative water sources.

Together, these approaches and actions build resilience to climate change and water scarcity.

Water crises seem to confirm our worst fears about the effects of climate change on our most critical resource, fresh water. Cities like Perth are proving every day that the vanishing availability of ready water needn’t necessarily spell disaster.

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Lauren Nicole Core

Special Projects, Water Global Practice, The World Bank

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