How Australia’s Perth is battling a water crisis

Jun 18, 2014

By Phil Mercer


On the south-western coast of the world’s driest inhabited continent sits a green, vibrant city that is defying a chronic lack of rain and warming temperatures.

Perth is Australia’s driest major city, yet in its central areas at least, does not feel like a place that has confronted a water crisis. From its perch on Mount Eliza, Kings Park peers majestically over skyscrapers and office blocks, offering lush oases for weary workers and visitors, along with some of the most perfect grass your correspondent has ever seen.

The park with its grand avenues, memorials and statues has become a symbol of Perth’s resourcefulness in the face of monumental environmental challenges.

Between 1990 to 1999, the average annual rainfall in the Western Australian state capital was 766mm. Since 2009, that figure has fallen to 656mm.

“Western Australia has seen climate change happen faster and earlier than almost anywhere else on the planet. In the last 15 years the water from rain into our dams has dropped to one-sixth of what it used to be before that,” said Sue Murphy, chief executive of the Western Australia Water Corporation.

“We’ve pretty much lost the capital of Western Australia Perth’s water supply and so in the last 15 years we’ve had to rebuild that supply.”

‘Climate independence’

For a city touched by the Indian Ocean, it has not had to look far for part of the solution. Two large water factories or desalination plants that turn the sea into potable supplies, have been built. Perth can now get half of its drinking water from the ocean, although conservationists worry that the process is expensive and energy hungry. There has been a hefty price for the community, with household bills doubling in recent years.

While stripping salt from seawater has helped to insulate a growing population against the effects of a drying climate, authorities have been experimenting with the Gnangara system, Perth’s largest source of groundwater.

A decade-long trial of injecting treated wastewater into deep aquifers up to 1,000m underground has recently ended. The recycled supplies have been flushed into sandy soil, which acts as a natural filtration process, before clean water is extracted for drinking and irrigation.

“The groundwater replenishment trial was highly successful and is now in production,” said Greg Claydon, the executive director of Science and Planning at the Department of Water.

“The project… is a highly innovative, sensible approach to the sustainable management of the use of the Gnangara groundwater resource. The green light to progress to seven billion litres a year last year is part of the state’s climate independence plan.”

6 comments on “How Australia’s Perth is battling a water crisis

  • We visited this beautiful city earlier this year. I could recommend a trip to anyone in thinking of travel. I don’t know how they’ll manage for water in the long term, but at the moment there is enough for drinking and keeping parks and gardens watered.

    Close to the city are a couple of natural wonders that are really worth seeing. Cervantes, a town that’s a short trip north of Perth has The Pinnacles and examples of stromatolites. Throw in some of the best beaches you could imagine and it amounts to a great place for a holiday. A good idea to visit before it dries up and blows away.

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    donster57 says:

    I’d like to endorse Nitya’s comments though I’m quite possibly biased as I now live in this city. I was raised 160kms east of Perth so I guess I can be termed a local. The park at Cervantes is really at its best at sunset when the limestone pinnacles cast eerie shadows across the sand. The park ranger leaves for home at around 1630 so I guess it’s free after that time (or at least it was last time I went there in 2010) Another best kept secret of Western Australia is a town called Esperance on the south coast. At around 7 hours’ drive from Perth, few overseas travellers muster the enthusiasm to venture there however the beaches, scenery and climate are perfect. I’d recommend this trip be taken between June and August when the farms are a lush green with paddocks of wheat, oats, barley and canola (bright yellow when in flower). Stop off halfway at Wave Rock just a few kilometres east of the town of Hyden for lunch before continuing on to Esperance. The return trip to Perth should involve the south coastal towns of Albany, Denmark, Cowaramup, Margaret River, Busselton and Bunbury. Allow at least one week for this sojourn. You won’t be disappointed. With regards to Perth’s water supply …. its been raining here for a few days and no one complains.

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  • I wish I’d read your advice before taking our trip! It’s a long way to travel so we probably won’t be returning in the near future….maybe someday?

    Our visit to The Pinnacles was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced in my life! I really wish I’d known about the afternoon shadows because we could have made a second journey after 4.30. It was worthwhile going to the information centre as we were shown how the pinnacles formed. Each structure had a character all its own. Like everyone else visiting this area, we took hundreds of photos!

    Unfortunately we only travelled as far south as Cape Leeuwin, spending the night at Augusta. We did pass through many of the small coastal towns you mentioned and thought they were all great. I’m not sure why the water of the Indian Ocean is such a beautiful shade of blue or why the beaches are free from seaweed. Perhaps it has something to do with ocean currents?

    Anyway, I consider Perth and its environs one of the world’s best kept secrets. I hope the desal plants and access to groundwater prove adequate for its needs for future sustainability.

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  • I’m very envious of those of you who’ve visited Perth; it sounds wonderful.

    The deep aquifer and sand purification system and desalination plant are nifty examples of the fruits of the great endeavour science.

    There’s now a great and growing need to ensure that the teaching of science to children doesn’t become adulterated.

    In the UK we have a worryingly fragmented and hole in the wall education system at present which is allowing the unscrupulous distortion of the teaching of science.

    So, although it seems that in Australia there’s a well coordinated, can do, no nonsense way of doing things, I hope that those of you from that glorious Continent will forgive me for saying that in aforementioned department your current incumbent in Canberra sounds like a bit of a liability!

    Incidentally, one of our daughters spent some time doing voluntary work in Darwin a few years ago, and for the first time in her twenty years her eczema completely disappeared; but sadly, after the twenty odd hour flight back to Heathrow it had started to flair up again; I think she might end up living in the Northern Territories!

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