Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Desalination Plants are Gaining Salience in Australia

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Australia is a dry country, yet it boasts 59,736 kilometres of coastline (for a state/territory breakdown of coastal lengths, see the Australian Government’s Geoscience Education web page). While the supply of salt water is seemingly endless, the supply of fresh water is critically insufficient. The situation demands innovative solutions.

Acknowledging the challenges of an ever-drying climate and a growing demand for water, the Australian government developed an initiative called Water for the Future. This initiative is designed to address the challenges faced due to the water shortage. One solution to the water crisis is the desalination of ocean water, but the practice doesn’t come to pass without criticism. Desalination plants have potentially serious economic, social and environmental impacts which require assessment, mitigation and management. That said, the number of desalination plants in Australia is rising and remains a viable option to the pressing issue of water supply (and demand) across the nation.

At a glance, the city of Perth appears to be an oasis – lush green grass and water in every direction. Yet, it faces a critical water shortage due to years of decreasing rainfall. Streams are running significantly lower and the amount running into storage has decreased considerably when compared with previous decades. What’s more, the population continues to grow by approximately 3% each year which further taxes the dwindling fresh water supply. Seeking a resolution to the impending crisis and pressured by local environmental groups, the Western Australia Water Corp. invested in a smart and renewable solution.

Perth now relies, in part, on the desalination of water from the Indian Ocean. The plant, now the largest contributor to the city’s water supply, is powered entirely by wind turbines which alone produce enough energy to power the entire desalination plant. It is presently contributing up to 20% (nearly 40 million gallons) of the daily amount of water consumed in the city. This number is predicted to rise to nearly 50% of Perth’s daily need over the next three decades. In this manner, natural and renewable assets can be utilised to create smart solutions to urgent problems. It is worth noting that the long-term impacts of this plant are not yet known.

Several other desalination plants exist in Australia as well, but not all are success stories. For example, a similar combination of drought coupled with a rapidly rising population also prompted officials in Southeast Queensland to invest in a desalination plant. This plant, located on the Gold Coast near Tugun, is incredibly controversial due to exorbitant construction and operational costs. Now deemed too expensive to operate on a daily basis, the plant is on ‘stand-by’ leaving it to operate only in times of need. This limitation of the plant’s operation is said to be saving Queensland taxpayers around $10 million per year. Despite this setback, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has vowed to bring more desalination plants into Southeast Queensland. The Australian Government is regularly asked to defend its position on promoting this policy, thus demonstrating the sharp divide on the issue.

Desalination isn’t a panacea, but it offers an innovative solution to a pressing issue. While costs may yet be prohibitive, living without fresh water is clearly beyond the scope of possibility. Given the present demand for potable water, we may soon have no choice but to procure it at any cost.

For a closer look at desalination technologies, including the advantages/disadvantages and costs/benefits of differing technologies, see this Queensland publication:

http://www.derm.qld.gov.au/water/regulation/pdf/reports/urban_wateruse/desalinationqldpart1.pdf

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Sarah Stamp

I am a recent graduate of international development practice and planning, a masters degree program based in Brisbane, Australia. Originally from the US, I've been travelling abroad for several years, and have found Australia to be the place with which I most closely identify. My research interests are centered around issues of social and environmental justice, which I've studied vis-a-vis multiple and various sectors including agriculture and food security, indigeneity, education, and natural resource management.

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