SYDNEY: Australia’s current drought, called the worst in 1,000 years, is the result of changing rainfall patterns and may necessitate major changes in the continent’s water economy.
Experts cited climate change as a factor contributing to the increasing uncertainty in Australian weather.
“It’s a combination of short El Nino drought and longer-term decreasing rainfall,” said Michael Coughlan, of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. “The combination of short and long-term drought is surprising – we didn’t see it coming, and it’s really shaken everyone up.”
The findings come as part of the World Meteorological Organistion (WMO) report on the 2006 global climate, made public today. 2006 was the 6th hottest year on record globally, according to the U.N.’s weather service, and saw prolonged droughts in Australia, the U.S., Brazil, and the Horn of Africa.
Some Australian experts don’t see rainfall on the arid continent increasing again anytime soon.
“Drought is too comfortable a word,” said John Williams, the New South Wales state Commissioner for Natural Resources. “Drought connotes a return to normal. We need to be adjusting.”
According to Williams, Australia is a nation of extremes, where droughts and flooding rains are the norm. The last 50 to 60 years, when Australia developed much its water infrastructure, have been times of relative plenty, he said.
He harked back to the years between 1900 and 1950, when rivers in the Murray-Darling system were dry for a total of 17 years. “It’s only been dry 5 years since then,” he said. According to Williams, the continent is reverting to the drier conditions of the past, exacerbated by climate-change induced uncertainty.
It’s a return to the sequence of the first 50 years [of the century],” he said.
Williams and others think that Australia’s new rainfall pattern will require fundamental changes in the way water is used.
The years of high rainfall have led to an over-allocation of water resources that we can no longer sustain, said Williams. “We need more water storage and desalinisation, or better water usage.”
Jenifer Simpson, an industrial chemist and water advocate, agreed, stressing water recycling as the way to reduce reliance on uncertain rains. “Right now our ‘water cycle’ is not a cycle,” she said. “Our current urban water cycle is a straight line from dam to disposal, with a shortage of water at one end and pollution at the other.”
She said that the technology exists to make recycled water safe for drinking, but that a lack of understanding between the water industry and the community prevented recycled water’s acceptance.
“Recycling should be accepted and exploited,” she said.