Some remote Australian communities have drinking water for only nine hours a day



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Communities in Cape York are among those with restricted access to mains water.
NomadicPics/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Cara Beal, Griffith University

Some remote Australian communities have access to drinking water for only nine hours a day for part of the year, but these households can still use up to ten times the average of urban households.

Many communities in the Torres Strait Islands have their mains water supply limited to nine hours a day during the week, and 16 hours a day at weekends, during the six-month dry season from May to October. Some remote Aboriginal communities in mainland Australia have similar restrictions.


Read more: Water in northern Australia: a history of Aboriginal exclusion


The vast majority of these residents do not pay directly for water, as they live in public housing. A three-year research project has been using smart meters to monitor water use as well as promoting community discussion. We found the water is largely used for things that might be viewed as luxuries in an urban setting but which play an important role in community life, such as dampening roofs for cooling and washing fishing gear.

The challenge, therefore, is finding ways to manage this unsustainable water use, apart from physically turning off the water. By understanding the challenges of life in remote Australia and working closely with locals, we identified some reasonable and realistic ways to reduce water use.

Revealing the reasons for high water use

Water restrictions, which have been in place on and off since the early 2000s, exist for a simple reason: there is not enough water to meet demand, especially during the dry season.

Providing water to remote and isolated communities is expensive, whether it comes from a desalination plant (which turns seawater into drinking water) or from a groundwater bore. Typically a diesel generator is used to generate power for water extraction, treatment, pumping and sewage management.

Leaking taps contribute to high water use in some remote communities.
Cara Beal, Author provided

For the past three years I have led a team of Griffith University researchers investigating how water was being used, and how it could be reduced. We installed smart meters in three remote communities, across the Torres Strait Islands, Cape York and the Northern Territory.

The data revealed an average daily use of 900 litres per person, rising to more than 4,000L per person per day in some cases. (The average southeast Queensland household daily use is around 180L per person.) Once the energy costs of pumping and treating this water via diesel-fuelled generators are included, it’s clear this is unsustainable.

We then broke down household water use into categories such as showering and outdoor, and discussed water use habits with each participating household. This gave unprecedented insights into how, where and why water is being used in remote community households.

Beating the dust and heat

Outdoor water use makes up, on average, at least 75% of total household water demand. This can get even higher in the dry season. Leaking taps are also a major contributor.

Average residential water use per person in three remote communities from Far North Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Cara Beal, Author provided

We spoke to participants in Cape York and the Torres Strait about their water use during the middle of the dry season. We found five key drivers for this high outdoor water use (aside from leaks):

  • dust control (and flea control) from non-surfaced roads and yards
  • cooling down (watering the house roof and bare earth or concrete driveways to create an evaporative effect)
  • washing down boats and fishing or hunting equipment
  • physical amenity (gardening or greening)
  • social amenity (having a continuous source of tap water was an important resource during social gatherings, including sorry camps, tombstone openings, cultural events and extended family gatherings).

Reducing drivers of high water use

In urban areas, outdoor household water use is often described as “discretionary”. This implies that the water is associated with “wants” (like car washing, irrigation or filling pools) more than “needs” (drinking, cooking or personal hygiene).

But in the case of these remote communities, our research suggests that outdoor water use is often linked directly to health and well-being. In areas where temperatures during winter regularly climb above 30℃, dust suppression, cooling and flea control are not trivial desires.

Water is used for controlling dust from unsealed roads and bare earth in remote communities.
Cara Beal, Author provided

This means that simply adopting the typical urban water management approach is unlikely to reduce demand. Poor sanitation in many Indigenous communities further complicates the situation.


Read more: It’s a fallacy that all Australians have access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene


The challenge is to reduce water demand, to allow restrictions to be eased in the future, while maintaining a sustainable level of water use in these communities.

Community-involved solutions

We asked our participants from two communities in western Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands how they would reduce high outdoor water use.

Overwhelmingly, they observed a need for more education and awareness of why water conservation is important. Before piped water systems, people were deeply connected to their water sources and could self-manage their supplies.

Nowadays many communities have only one or two good-quality water sources, and the Western-style built infrastructure acts as a barrier to this previous personal connection to water. The economic value of water is also poorly understood in many remote communities.

Similarly, service providers (and others) need to develop a greater understanding of the cultural, social and spiritual value of water from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island person’s perspective.


Read more: The role of water in Australia’s uncertain future


Our team, together with the participants and local service providers, trialled a water efficiency pilot program. This involved both residents and local councils learning about the importance of conserving water and offering suggestions on ways to do this. Talking with the residents, it become clear that high outdoor water use was not purely driven by the fact that water is free for them.

Many of the activities were centred on health (cooling and dust suppression) and food provision (fishing and hunting). Nevertheless, ways of reducing water use were identified. These included watering after dark, reporting leaks, using tap timers and washing hunting and fishing equipment on grass.

The ConversationThe pilot programs have shown promising results, although their funding will shortly end. The challenge will be to change behaviour over time. If this can be done, it will go a long way to reducing the need to limit some communities to nine hours of treated water a day.

Cara Beal, Senior research fellow, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Did they mean to do that? Accident and intent in an octopuses’ garden



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A gloomy octopus perched above a bed of discarded scallop shells.
Peter Godfrey-Smith , Author provided

Martin Hing, University of Wollongong and Peter Godfrey-Smith, University of Sydney

We recently published a scientific report of octopuses living together in unusual numbers at a site on the south coast of New South Wales.

Then things got a little out of hand.


Read more: Octopuses invade Welsh beach – here are the scientific theories why


Gloomy octopus

The gloomy octopus, named for large eyes that can give the animal a doleful appearance, is the most common local octopus in NSW waters. Octopus tetricus, to use its scientific name, has usually been thought of as a solitary animal, and that has been the stereotype associated with most octopus species for many years.

The recent discovery of a site in Jervis Bay, Australia where these octopuses gather in quite high numbers is challenging that perception, and revealing some striking behaviours.

The site consists of three rocky outcrops, around which octopuses have built up an extensive bed of discarded scallop shells, mixed with some human debris.

A gloomy octopus swims over scattered scallop shells.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Author provided

We think there is a process of “positive feedback” operating at the site. As scallops are brought back to the site to eat, the discarded shells provide material for additional octopuses to dig burrows. The shells line and stabilise the shaft-like dens. When the site was discovered in 2016, a total of 15 octopuses were present, along with several unoccupied dens.

This is the second site of its kind discovered. The first, reported in 2012, seems to have been formed around a discarded object, now very encrusted, of human origin.

The second site, which is entirely “natural,” shows that the same gathering of octopuses can occur without a “seeding” of the process by a human artefact.

At both sites, octopuses engage in quite complicated interactions – they produce displays, probe each other with their arms, and often try to evict other octopuses from their dens.

Other individuals of this species probably do live more solitary lives – when observed around Sydney, for example, they are almost always alone. This suggests that the octopuses have an ability to individually adapt their behaviour according to their circumstances.

Underwater city?

In September 2017, our scientific report of the second site was published, written with our colleagues David Scheel, Stephanie Chancellor, Stefan Linquist, and Matt Lawrence.

This paper received a good deal of media attention, with initial stories fairly accurate. But they seem to have started a self-sustaining process of their own, especially as a couple of early reports used the term “city” in their title. For example: “Scientists discover an underwater city full of gloomy octopuses.”

Gloomy octopus on the move.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Author provided

This was probably influenced by the nickname chosen for the site, “Octlantis,” though our article did not talk about “cities” or anything similar. Soon the authors were fielding interview requests from around the world, wanting more details of the hidden octopus city and the lives of its denizens.

New online articles about the site seemed to build successively on exaggerations made in earlier articles, until our octopuses were reported as making “art” and building “fences”.

Octlantis is not a city, and no artworks, fences, or buildings have been made. In an era of rapid and unconstrained circulation of information around the internet, often with important political ramifications, the buzz around Octlantis is a reminder of how quickly rumours can arise and feed off each other, generating a literature that becomes less and less accurate at each step.

Accident versus intent

The Octlantis site does raise interesting questions about what the octopuses intend to do, and which effects of their actions are entirely inadvertent. Questions of “intent” are very difficult in work on animal behaviour, but we think some distinctions can be made – provisionally at least – in these terms.

Octopuses collect scallops for use as food. This requires them to make excursions from their den and find their way home. They bring the scallops home to eat, we assume, because it is safer than eating in the open. They also dig dens in the shell bed, and sometimes arrange shells and other objects around the edge of their den.

It seems quite likely to us that the collection of scallops and the building and maintenance of dens are all intentional behaviours (in a low-key sense of that term).

Why so gloomy, octopus?
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Author provided

Dens are sometimes maintained with some care, and octopuses will expel debris either by carrying it away, or with use of their jet propulsion mechanism, the “siphon.” But this does not imply that octopuses have any inkling that when they bring scallops back to the site, they are improving the den-building possibilities for themselves or others. Those effects may be entirely inadvertent.

Work is continuing on these animals and their unusual homes. One interesting question is whether other octopus species behave like this in some circumstances.

Another is why we observe groups of gloomy octopuses at these particular sites, and not in other areas where a solid object has been placed on the sea floor in what looks like similar circumstances.

The ConversationHow many octopuses’ gardens are out there, waiting to be discovered?

Martin Hing, PhD Researcher in marine and behavioural ecology, University of Wollongong and Peter Godfrey-Smith, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As China flexes its muscles in Antarctica, science is the best diplomatic tool on the frozen continent


Adrian McCallum, University of the Sunshine Coast

Science has always drawn people and nations to Antarctica. But territorial claims and political tensions are also part of the history of that continent.

China is investing heavily in infrastructure and capability in Antarctica with research stations, airfields, field camps and plans for more. Science must continue to play a pivotal role in easing territorial tensions, as interest in Antarctica increases.


Read more: How China came in from the cold to help set up Antarctica’s vast new marine park


A brutal scientific history

Some argue that Captain Robert Scott and his team perished on their infamous return journey from the South Pole because of their dogged determination to haul 15kg of geological specimens.

Science has always nestled alongside the dominant motivation of territorial claims. But in Antarctica, it has evolved as a tool of diplomacy between nations, as a means to suppress tensions about national claims to the land.

This tension is not new. It was during his 1929–31 expedition that Sir Douglas Mawson claimed what is now the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) as British sovereign territory, with sovereignty eventually being transferred to Australia in 1936.

Australia’s National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), formalised in 1947, were not established for scientific reasons. Rather, they were meant to support our territorial claims and enable investigation of valuable mineral and marine resources located within the AAT.

A recent event in Hobart held by the Australian Academy of Science, examining the future of antarctic science was underscored by such themes.

A time of increased tensions

In their 2016 book, The Scramble for the Poles, academics Klaus Dodds and Mark Nuttall suggest that the planting of a Russian flag beneath the North Pole in 2007 precipitated a new scramble for resources in the polar regions.

In their view, there is an ongoing and under-discussed unease among Antarctic players when it comes to territory. This is felt particularly keenly by countries that have publicly reserved their right to make a future Antarctic claim (such as the United States and Russia), and those that have made no such claim, nor reserved such a right (such as China).

Australia is one of the original seven Antarctic claimants; we claim 42% of the continent. Our actions in Antarctica are pivotal as we grapple with increasing interest in the continent from assertive states such as China.

In a Special Report to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2017, Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury outlined three stations, three airfields and two field camps that China has in the AAT. She also noted China’s intention to build a fourth station on King George Island, with plans for a fifth station for the Ross Sea region.

Only weeks ago, Brady released a book, China as a Polar Great Power that further examines the game changing nature of China’s growing strength at the poles.

This power has grown, she argues, thanks to the country “investing more in capacity than any other nation”. This includes investment in BeiDou, China’s own global GPS network, which will enhance capability for the Chinese military.

What is Australia doing about this?

Australia is emerging from a long period of under-investment in Antarctica to slowly address this geopolitical situation.

In 2012, the US released an examination of its need to renew its infrastructure and logistical capability in Antarctica. In 2016, the Australian Antarctic Division released its own Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan.

These documents explain Australia’s future role in Antarctica and outline the measures we need to implement to retain our role as an Antarctic leader. These measures include things such as the re-establishment of our overland traverse capability, an upgrade of our ageing Antarctic stations and the investigation of year-round aviation links.

Progress is being made. Australia’s newest icebreaker was recently named and the first steel was cut in June 2017. A Modernisation Taskforce has been established.

Australia’s new icebreaker will be called RSV Nuyina.
Australian Antarctic Division/Damen/DMS Maritime/Knud E Hansen

Without these vital infrastructure and operational assets, we lose the ability to conduct science across our territorial claim. If we lose this, we can no longer wield science as a valuable diplomatic tool.

Science as a bridge builder

Science has long served as a bridge builder in Antarctica, but how long can it sustain this role?

The importance of ongoing scientific collaboration between Australia and China in Antarctica has been discussed.

It is generally asserted that the capacity of science to serve as a form of “soft power” diplomacy is sound and that sovereignty can best be sustained by deploying a continuous and substantial scientific program.


Read more: Revenge served cold: was Scott of the Antarctic sabotaged by his angry deputy?


But, although Antarctica is considered “a reserve for peace and science” under International governance, the robustness of the Antarctic Treaty too is often discussed. Contemporary media continues to illustrate concerns over our claim in Antarctica.

The Chief of the Australian Defence Force spoke recently on such matters in Washington and a colleague and I are currently examining the implications for Australian Defence policy of other states’ assertive actions in Antarctica.

The ConversationScience must continue to play a pivotal role in sustaining peace in Antarctica so that alternative tools need not be called upon.

Adrian McCallum, Lecturer in Science and Engineering, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Time for a global agreement on minerals to fuel the clean energy transition


Damien Giurco, University of Technology Sydney; Nicholas Arndt, Université Grenoble Alpes, and Saleem H. Ali, The University of Queensland

Representatives from around the world are meeting in Bonn this week to discuss progress towards the goals of the Paris climate agreement. A large part of this challenge involves rapidly scaling up the deployment of renewable energy, while curbing fossil fuel use – but little attention has been paid to the minerals that will be needed to build these technologies.

Wind and solar infrastructure, batteries and electric vehicles all require vast amounts of mined (and recycled) resources. These range from copper for wires and electric motors, to lithium and cobalt for batteries, to smaller amounts of rare metals like indium and gallium for solar cells.


Read more: Mining for metals in society’s waste


The problem is that the current system for mining these minerals is not always efficient; it’s polluting and is subject to increased social pressure and public protests. Instead, we need a new international mechanism to coordinate global mineral exploration that looks to our future supply needs.

As technology advances, more and different metals are needed.
Zepf V, Reller A, Rennie C, Ashfield M & Simmons J, BP (2014): Materials critical to the energy industry.

Challenges for minerals supply

While the Paris agreement has created a global framework for managing carbon, nothing similar exists for minerals. This leaves the pursuit of sustainable resource development largely in the hands of mining companies and state-owned enterprises.

Mining these resources generates significant water and air pollution. This problem is increasing: for example, global copper ore quality is declining over time. That means that copper mining now requires excavating twice as much ore as ten years ago to yield the same amount of copper, creating much more mine waste.


Read more: Treasure from trash: how mining waste can be mined a second time


Lower commodity prices have meant that investment in exploring new mine sites has fallen. But it takes a long time to develop new mines – it can often take 20 years to go from finding a metal deposit to beginning mining, and only around 20% of discoveries since 2000 have led to an operating mine.

Lack of investment in exploration is driven by short-term thinking, rather than a long-term plan to supply rising demand.

In parallel, resistance to mining, often at a local level, is increasing worldwide. Environmental catastrophes, of which there have been many examples, erode social trust, often delaying or stopping mine development.

A new global mechanism to more effectively plan resource supply could help rebuild trust in local communities, limit price spikes to ensure equitable access to metal resources, and balance the international tension which arises as industries and governments compete for minerals from a shrinking list of countries able to tolerate and profit from sustaining a mining industry.

A global agreement on mineral resources

Developing a global mechanism will of course be difficult, requiring substantive dialogue and strong leadership. But there are organisations that could step up, such as the United Nations Environment Assembly, or the newly established Intergovernmental Forum on Mining Metals and Sustainable Development.

The global community is well aware of the threat that rising sea levels pose to low-lying countries. We need similar awareness of the crucial role minerals are playing in the energy transition, and the risk that supply problems could derail sustainability goals.

To that end, we need to globally coordinate several crucial aspects of mineral development. To start with, while most detailed information on where minerals are mined and sold is privately held, there is publicly available data that could be used to predict possible imbalances in supply and demand internationally (for example copper, iron, lithium, indium). Publicly-funded institutions have an important role here. They can assess how known supply will meet future demand, and deliver insight into the changing environmental impact.

It should also be entirely possible to develop inventories of recyclable metals, which can be an important supplement to large mining operations.

Compiling inventories of recyclable metals is underway across Europe as part of a move towards a circular economy (where as much waste as possible is repurposed).


Read more: Explainer: what is the circular economy


While recycling for for metals like lithium for less than 1%, around 40% of steel demand is met from scrap recycled during manufacturing and from end-of-life products and infrastructure. Thinking smarter about eventual dismantling of buildings at the time when they are built, can support better use of recycled resources.

Geoscience agencies already offer maps of underground minerals, demonstrating that this kind of co-ordinated perspective is feasible. Extending this approach to recyclables can mitigate environmental impact and ease the social objections to new mines.

A global mechanism for mineral exploration and supply could also be an opportunity to promote best-practice for responsible mining, with a focus on social license and fair and transparent royalty arrangements.

Overcoming resistance

It’s a challenging proposition, especially as many countries display less enthusiasm for international agreements. However, it will be increasingly difficult to meet the Paris targets without tackling this problem.

In the decades ahead, our mineral supply will still need to double or triple to meet the demand for electric vehicles and other technologies required by our growing global population.

In short, resource efficiency and jobs of the future depend on an assured mineral supply. This should be a nonpartisan issue, across the global political spectrum.


The ConversationThe authors gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Edmund Nickless, Chair, New Activities Strategic Implementation Committee, International Union of Geological Sciences to this article.

Damien Giurco, Professor of Resource Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Nicholas Arndt, Professor of Geosciences, Université Grenoble Alpes, and Saleem H. Ali, Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment, University of Delaware (USA); Professorial Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.