News Feature | June 11, 2015

Low-Tech Methods Carried Australia Through 13-Year Drought

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

The California drought is nothing compared to the so-called Millennium Drought that plagued Southeast Australia for over a decade, according to a recent article in TakePart. “You think California’s four-year drought is apocalyptic, try 13 years. That’s how long southeastern Australia suffered through bone-dry times.”

Australia managed to survive the drought, in part by improving the conservation behaviors of its residents. When the drought ended in 2009, “residents of Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, were using half the amount of water they had when it began,” the report said.

Now U.S. researchers want to know how the country accomplished this. “A group of researchers from the University of California, Irvine, set out to investigate how Melbourne, a city of 4.3 million people, dramatically cut water consumption, and whether the city’s experience might hold lessons for California and other drought-stricken regions,” TakePart reported.

It was not fancy new technology that helped the nation through arid times. Australians went low-tech to survive their drought, according to their study, recently published in WIREs Water. “Salvation came from a $2,000 rainwater tank rather than a $6 billion desalination plant,” TakePart reported.

Conservation was key in Melbourne, where residents managed to cut their water use significantly during the drought. “Reduced water demand occurred primarily through residential and industrial water conservation programs, restrictions, together with emergency reductions in the environmental release of water to streams. The city also experimented with using recycled water, in place of surface water, to support agriculture in the Werribee Irrigation District,” the study said.

“Water pricing was not strengthened during the drought, and thus not regarded as a drought demand management tool, primarily because Melbourne water companies lacked independent price-setting powers,” the study continued.

Australia posed stringent water restrictions during the drought, and the benefits of these rules did not disappear when the rain came. When the drought ended, “Australians had fundamentally changed how they handle this precious resource. They treat water as a commodity to be conserved and traded, and carefully measure what's available and how it's being used. Efficiency programs cut their average daily use to 55 gallons, compared with 105 gallons per day for each Californian,” the Associated Press reported.

Drought-policy expert Linda Botterill of the University of Canberra explained the importance of this line of research.  

"We can expect longer, deeper and more severe droughts in Australia, and I believe the same applies in the U.S.," she said, per AP. "As a result, we need to develop strategies that are not knee-jerk responses, but that are planned risk-management strategies."

To read more about drought, visit Water Online’s Water Scarcity Solutions Center.