Sydney’s droughts and governance

Xenia writes*

Droughts are nothing new for Sydney. So how did 2019 come to be the first year in a decade in which water restrictions had to be introduced (The Guardian)? While various developments have led to this situation such as population growth or pricing, this blogpost focuses on the impact of climate change and the inadequate response from governance to the threat of water scarcity.

Let us first take a look at the changes in availability of water resulting from climate change. According to the Office of Environment and Heritage of NSW, temperatures in Australia have increased by 0.9°C since 1910 and the rate of temperature change has also increased. As the figure from the Bureau of Meteorology (below) illustrates, the temperatures in Australia have increasingly been above the mean temperature since 1980. Additionally,  these developments went hand in hand with a decrease in rainfall since 2013 (The Guardian).

The impacts of these changes are diverse. Most important for Sydney’s water security are the reductions in runoff, greater rainfall variability, and longer & worse droughts (Climate Council). Droughts pose a serious threat to Sydney’s water supply because of the way the supply system is built: the city relies on its 15 reservoirs, the largest one behind the Warragamba dam (Bureau of Meteorology). Droughts and reduced precipitation threaten the water supply to these reservoirs (WaterNSW).  Sydney’s desalination plant constitutes the only rain-independent water source, but it can only meet 15% of the city’s demand (Sydney Desalination Plant).

Given that climate change and its consequences are not a new phenomenon, the question is how those responsible in Sydney’s water supply have prepared for droughts. There have been a few shortcomings. The Metropolitan Water Plan of 2017  is supposed to set clear objectives on how to ensure the supply of water to Greater Sydney, but the plan is (according to The Guardian) based on data from the drought in 1939 without considering changes in population or climate. Obviously, these two factors greatly affect both the demand and the availability of water. Another concern for the stability of the water supply arises from the inadequate work of the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and Sydney Water Corporation. In 2020, the Audit Office of NSW charged both entities with failing to implement water conservation techniques from the Metropolitan Water Plan. The Department failed to assess investments or draft plans, and Sydney Water Corporation inadequately implemented existing initiatives. The Audit Office concluded that these failings leave Greater Sydney’s water supply vulnerable to droughts.

Bottom Line: Climate-change-driven droughts are putting Sydney’s water supply at risk, and inadequate governance is not helping reduce that risk.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “Sydney’s droughts and governance”

  1. Hi Xenia,
    Firstly I want to say that this was very interesting to read and that it was nice how you first explained how exactly climate change is impacting water availability, then what the consequences are for Sydney and finally how the city lacks proper response mechanisms. I was wondering if Sydney is planning on installing more desalination plants and thus relying more and more on this technology? Also, in terms of pricing, is there a difference between prices from the conventional rainwater and the desalinated water? Or do all customers pay the same (cheap price?), as we have learned that this is often the case.

    1. Hello Iris, thank you for your comment.
      There are plans to expand the current desalination plant in Sydney. After the expansion, the plant would be able to provide up to 30% of Sydney’s water supply. However, since the water supply situation in Sydney is currently not as urgent as it used to be, the plans have been put on hold. The government is currently investigating alternatives.
      The desalination plant only starts operating when dam levels fall below 60% and continues operating until the dam levels are at 70% again. Since July 2020, the water price in Sydney reflects the additional costs of droughts. If the dam levels are above 60%, the price is $2.35 per kilolitre. This price increases to $3.18 per kilolitre if the dam levels are below 60%.
      I hope this answers your question.

  2. Hi Xenia! Very nice post. You made it very factual and straightforward which helps understand this clearly complicated issue. As always, the problem is compounded by bad governance, bad history, climate change and sometimes other factors as well. I’m wondering, since I know they must treasure their rainwater so much, if they have taken any steps to optimize every drop and capture storm-drain water and other sources of rainfall to then treat and reuse it (let alone sewage water because, as we learned, the competition and lobby power of desalination plants is a bit high there). More indirectly related: have you found mentions of bills/actions to reduce their climate impact in order to fight against the harsh future that awaits them or do they remain rather stingy and skimpy there? Best of luck for the final!

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