Water management in Australia

The whole Australian population has access to a drinking water supply. However, the factors of increasing aridity, growing demand from the various sectors, and limited resources have incited Australia to develop various solutions to ensure access to this essential service for everyone, today and into the future.

Nearly 500 dams have been built on Australian water courses to capture and store water. In the Murray-Darling basin alone, no fewer than 28 major dams have been erected. These dams are no longer adequate to store enough water to meet the needs of Australia’s growing population and its economy, due to the decrease in rainfall and surface run-off in their catchments over recent years. It is increasingly necessary for cities to restrict commercial and residential water usage. During the 2000s, Australia experienced one of its worst droughts on record and as a result, by the end of 2006, 71% of the Australian population was living with daily water restrictions.


Trevallyn Dam, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

Seawater desalination

In recent years, the desalination of sea water—which involves removing the salt to produce fresh water—has been explored in Australia as an alternate water supply. Faced with a growing population and increasing water demands, at the same time as the possibility of more frequent droughts, the largest Australian cities are investing massively in the construction of desalination plants. According to forecasts, 30% of the water used by Australia’s five most populous cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane) will come from the sea by 2012.

However, this alternative is not universally accepted for a number of reasons. There is a concern that the high cost of this technology will result in significantly greater costs to users of the water supply. Secondly, desalination consumes a large amount of energy, and its widespread development could contribute to the climate change that is already having an impact on Australia. Finally, the waste materials produced by the desalination process could have a negative impact on aquatic life and the ecosystems.

Recycling wastewater

Every day, millions of litres of wastewater are channelled from residences, companies and farms to treatment facilities, which use various processes to eliminate the contaminants in the wastewater. Once treated, this water is returned to the water courses or to the ocean. The city of Sydney alone disposes of some 450 billion litres of wastewater into the sea each year.

Following the example of several cities in the world, Australia is turning increasingly to the recycling of wastewater. Once treated, this water can be reused for various domestic, industrial and agricultural purposes to replace the use of drinking water. The city of Sydney has set a goal to recycle 70 billion litres of water each year by 2015 to fill 12% of the city’s needs. In 2010, 44 billion litres of recycled water were used in Sydney and in the region of Illawarra that would otherwise have been drawn from drinking water reserves.

Rainwater harvesting

Rainwater harvesting is another solution put forward by the Australian government to improve water management. Paved surfaces in urban areas do not allow water to seep into the ground, so a huge amount of water runs into sewer drains and rivers. Harvesting rainwater that can then be reused for various purposes not only allows for reduced consumption of drinking water, but also reduces the risk of flooding. A growing number of Australians are now harvesting rainwater at home and elsewhere—a simple gesture that can make a big difference!


Water tank in a park in Melbourne, Australia 

Some figures

  • The volume of rainwater that runs off each year in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney is equal to 1,285 gigalitres, or nearly the equivalent of the total volume of water consumed by households in these cities.
  • Rouse Hill, the largest recycling plant for Sydney’s domestic wastewater, provides recycled water to 20,000 households. Each year citizens use 1.7 billion litres of recycled water for their toilets, watering their gardens, washing their cars, etc.

Find out more

  • Refer to the brochure published by Sydney Water.
  • Read the article published by the New York Times.
  • For information on Sydney dams, catchment area and how you can help, click here