The Economist: Australia facing “severe water shortage” as population explodes

By Leith van Onselen

The Economist ran an interesting article on how overpopulation and climate change are straining the world’s water supplies, with Australia likely to experience a “severe water shortage” by mid-century:

Last year Cape Town in South Africa averted only narrowly the unwanted prize for being the first of the world’s big cities to run out of water. By the time rain finally broke a three-year drought, water levels in the reservoirs supplying the city had fallen to below 20%, and officials were discussing the feasibility of towing an iceberg from Antarctica to provide meltwater to drink. Four years earlier, it had been São Paulo in Brazil that had teetered on the brink, with reservoirs reduced to 5% of capacity.

Even the sober assessment of the un’s latest annual world “water development report” smacks of a kind of desperation. Already, it notes, more than a quarter of humanity—1.9bn people, with 73% of them in Asia—live in areas where water is potentially severely scarce (up, other studies suggest, from 240m, or 14% of the world’s population, a century ago). The number facing shortages almost doubles if you count those at risk at least one month a year. Meanwhile, global water use is six times greater than it was a century ago—and is expected to increase by another 20-50% by 2050. The volume of water used—about 4,600 cubic kilometres a year—is already near the maximum that can be sustained without supplies shrinking dangerously. A third of the world’s biggest groundwater systems are in danger of drying out. So the numbers living under severe water stress are expected to climb to as many as 3.2bn by 2050, or 5.7bn taking seasonal variation into account. And they will not just be in poor countries (see map). Australia, Italy, Spain and even America will endure severe water shortage.

Three main factors will drive the continued growth in demand: population, prosperity and climate change. In 2050 the number of people in the world is expected to increase to between 9.4bn and 10.2bn, from just under 8bn now…

Water scarcity is the elephant in the room of the population debate, and an issue that Australia’s mass immigration ‘Big Australia’ boosters and policy makers conveniently ignore.

Last year, Dr Jonathan Sobels – a senior research fellow at the University of South Australia and the author of a key 2010 report prepared for the Department of Immigration entitled Long-term physical implications of net overseas migration: Australia in 2050gave a brilliant incisive interview on ABC’s Radio National that among other things warned that Australia’s water security is being placed at risk from endless mass immigration:


…we are coming up towards physical limitations within our physical, built and natural environments that will lead to compromises in the quality of our life…

Not only are the dams not filling, but the ground water supplies are not filling. The only option you have open to you is water efficiency use and whacking up desal plants. But if your population keeps increasing at the rates we have seen in recent times, you won’t be able to afford putting up billion dollar desal plants, which also have their environmental impacts…

Of course, desalination plants are environmentally destructive and hideously expensive, with costs borne by the incumbent population, as noted by The Conversation:

The desalination plants were expensive to build, consume vast quantities of electricity and are very expensive to run. They remain costly to maintain, even if they do not supply desalinated water. All residents pay higher water rates as a result of their existence.

Indeed, modelling by Infrastructure Australia in 2017 projected that household water bills would more than quadruple in real terms because of population growth and climate change, rising from $1,226 in 2017 to $6,000 in 2067. The report also warned that “the impact of these changes on household affordability could be substantial… and could lead to significant hardship”:

As noted in the 2010 report prepared for the Department of Immigration, entitled Long-term physical implications of net overseas migration: Australia in 2050:

Decreased urban water supply is a significant environmental constraint exacerbated by higher levels of NOM.  Modelling shows the vulnerability of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to deficits in water supply, on a NOM strategy of 260,000 pa.: a view strongly supported by empirical review of State Government reports…

Only NOM levels of 50,000 pa or less result in Melbourne and Sydney maintaining a small surplus of net surface supply over demand on average out to 2050, assuming current climate conditions persist. Potential options to alleviate water stress at high NOM levels over the longer term may be hard to find.

Former Treasury Secretary, Ken Henry, raised similar concerns in 2009:

“…with a population of 22 million people, we haven’t managed to find accommodation with our environment. Our record has been poor and in my view we are not well placed to deal effectively with the environmental challenges posed by a population of 35 million.”

Clearly, Australia’s mass immigration ‘Big Australia’ policy is a key threat to Australia’s water security. So why exacerbate the problem in the first place, when it can be ameliorated by simply returning Australia’s immigration intake back toward the historical average of 70,000 people a year?

Growing Australia’s population to 43 million over the next half-century, as projected by the ABS, will be an unmitigated disaster for Australia’s water supplies and natural environment:

It’s time policy makers acknowledged this fact.

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