Custodians of Antarctica: how 5 gateway cities are embracing the icy continent



Image: Elizabeth Leane, Author provided

Juan Francisco Salazar, Western Sydney University; Elizabeth Leane, University of Tasmania; Katie Marx, University of Tasmania; Liam Magee, Western Sydney University; Marina Khan, Western Sydney University, and Paul James, Western Sydney University

Antarctica Day celebrates the icy continent and its unique governance system. It’s the anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty’s adoption on December 1 1959. Framed in a spirit of global co-operation, the treaty acknowledges Antarctica does not belong to any one country. Article IV states:

No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica.

In practice the region is the subject of intense commercial and geopolitical interest. Our work over the past four years has made clear the benefits of developing strategies to foster international co-operation among the five so-called Antarctic “gateway” cities rather than international competition.




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These five cities on the Southern Ocean rim — Cape Town, Christchurch, Hobart, Punta Arenas and Ushuaia — share a unique interest in Antarctica and an opportunity to shape its future.

The five Antarctic gateway cities.
Author provided

How do their residents feel about Antarctica?

Our survey of 1,659 residents of these cities in July this year found they care deeply about the icy continent. Overall, and for many particular groups, environmental care greatly outweighs economic interests. Many residents express hope that this care might translate into more protective policies and action.

However, emotions were mixed, with pessimism and sadness also common responses. When we asked people how they feel about “the future of Antarctica in the next 20 years”, “hope” took first place, followed closely by “pessimism” and “sadness”.

The survey is part of the Antarctic Cities Project, which finishes this month. For the past four years an international team of researchers, city officials, national Antarctic programs and youth groups have worked together to develop a framework to strengthen Antarctic connections and a sense of guardianship for the continent. The framework encompasses the cities’ own urban sustainability strategies within a wider concern for the planet.

Our work focuses on shifting from the limited idea of “gateway” to this broader sense of becoming Antarctic “custodial cities”.

Our online survey of the cities’ residents over the age of 18 asked:

  • how informed they felt about the relationship between their city and Antarctica

  • their opinion on how important Antarctica is to their city’s identity

  • how responsible they, their families and friends think they are for the future of Antarctica.

We posed the question: “Why is it important for your city to develop an identity in relation to Antarctica?” The response “it drives us to take care of the environment” was most common (57%) across all five cities. Other responses included:

  • “it creates a unique brand for our cities” (36%)
  • “it creates more jobs” (32%)
  • “it attracts more tourists” (31%)
  • “it reinforces residents’ attachment to place” (29%).

Caring for the environment was the most selected option for all ages. Women felt this particularly strongly. Men favoured the more economically oriented options, “it generates more jobs” and “it attracts more tourists”.

Women and people between the ages of 31 and 40 reported higher levels of “hope” and lower levels of “indifference”. Indifference was higher among people between 18 and 30, reaching 16.42%. In this age group, and with men overall, “pessimism” significantly outweighed “hope”. Punta Arenas and Ushuaia residents expressed more “hope” than in other cities.

Young people’s expressions of pessimism and indifference bear witness to the urgent work of reforming our relationship to the Antarctic region. They will be the beneficiaries, and increasingly the drivers, of this reform.

A decade of co-operative custodianship

The cities first came together with the 2009 signing in Christchurch of a statement of intent to promote peaceful co-operation. Though it expired 18 months later, various city and national government policies have reinforced the five cities’ “Antarctic gateway” status. They have put forward visions for enhancing and capitalising on their Antarctic identities, a key part of their relationship to the world.

In an example of action at a local level, the City of Christchurch is moving towards a custodianship model by basing its 2018 Antarctic strategy on two key principles:

  • embracing the Maori principle of Kaitiakitanga
    meaning guardianship, protection, preservation or sheltering –
    and a customary way of caring for the environment based on traditional Māori world view to guide the city’s involvement in the region

  • taking a leadership role in sustainable actions for the benefit of the Antarctic region and the city.




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In coming together, the five cities are showing they can play an important role in defining how Antarctica is imagined, how discourse is framed and how the continent is vicariously experienced.

The Antarctic Cities Project has created an interlinked network of organisations that can learn from and benefit each other. This network of local government, national Antarctic programs, youth groups and polar organisations has produced Antarctic Futures, an educational online serious game.

The network also founded the Antarctic Youth Coalition. It was launched in February 2020 during an expedition to Antarctica with the Chilean Antarctic Institute.

Five young leaders from each of the cities steer the coalition. This year they put together an online Antarctica Day Festival to celebrate and learn more about the ongoing importance of this polar region.

The Antarctic Youth Coalition team with Juan Salazar at Collins Glacier, King George Island, Antarctic Peninsula, February 2020.
Image: Elizabeth Leane

Principles for Antarctic cities

During 2020 we began work on a Charter of Principles for Antarctic Cities in collaboration with the Hobart and Christchurch city councils. It draws from Christchurch’s 2018 Antarctic Gateway Strategy and the 2017 Tasmanian Antarctic Gateway Strategy. This charter will guide sustainable urban practice and embrace Antarctica’s significance to the economies of these cities while charting ways forward for sustainable development.

The charter aims to celebrate the unique polar heritage of these cities and emphasises the crucial role of youth organisations for engaging with the future of Antarctica. And it acknowledges that human connections with Antarctica extend well beyond the last two centuries, embracing Indigenous conceptions of caring for Country, both land and water.

In the Anthropocene, global public consciousness of, and responsibility for, the icy continent in a time of climate change is increasing. These cities’ relationship with the region to their south and to each other is a valuable part of their urban identity and Antarctica’s future – something worth celebrating on Antarctica Day.




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The Conversation


Juan Francisco Salazar, Professor, School of Humanities and Communication Arts & Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; Elizabeth Leane, Associate Professor of English and ARC Future Fellow, University of Tasmania; Katie Marx, PhD Candidate, Centre for Marine Socioecology, University of Tasmania; Liam Magee, Senior Research Fellow, Digital Media, Western Sydney University; Marina Khan, PhD Candidate, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, and Paul James, Professor of Globalization and Cultural Diversity, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cape Town is almost out of water. Could Australian cities suffer the same fate?


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The world is watching the unfolding Cape Town water crisis with horror. On “Day Zero”, now predicted to be just ten weeks away, engineers will turn off the water supply. The South African city’s four million residents will have to queue at one of 200 water collection points.

Cape Town is the first major city to face such an extreme water crisis. There are so many unanswered questions. How will the sick or elderly people cope? How will people without a car collect their 25-litre daily ration? Pity those collecting water for a big family.




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The crisis is caused by a combination of factors. First of all, Cape Town has a very dry climate with annual rainfall of 515mm. Since 2015, it has been in a drought estimated to be a one-in-300-year event.

In recent years, the city’s population has grown rapidly – by 79% since 1995. Many have questioned what Cape Town has done to expand the city’s water supply to cater for the population growth and the lower rainfall.

Could this happen in Australia?

Australia’s largest cities have often struggled with drought. Water supplies may decline further due to climate change and uncertain future rainfall. With all capital cities expecting further population growth, this could cause water supply crises.




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The situation in Cape Town has strong parallels with Perth in Australia. Perth is half the size of Cape Town, with two million residents, but has endured increasing water stress for nearly 50 years. From 1911 to 1974, the annual inflow to Perth’s water reservoirs averaged 338 gigalitres (GL) a year. Inflows have since shrunk by nearly 90% to just 42GL a year from 2010-2016.

To make matters worse, the Perth water storages also had to supply more people. Australia’s fourth-largest city had the fastest capital city population growth, 28.2%, from 2006-2016.

As a result, Perth became Australia’s first capital city unable to supply its residents from storage dams fed by rainfall and river flows. In 2015 the city faced a potentially disastrous situation. River inflows to Perth’s dams dwindled to 11.4GL for the year.

For its two million people, the inflows equated to only 15.6 litres per person per day! Yet in 2015/6 Perth residents consumed an average of nearly 350 litres each per day. This was the highest daily water consumption for Australia’s capitals. How was this achieved?

Tapping into desalination and groundwater

Perth has progressively sourced more and more of its supply from desalination and from groundwater extraction. This has been expensive and has been the topic of much debate. Perth is the only Australian capital to rely so heavily on desalination and groundwater for its water supply.

Volumes of water sourced for urban use in Australia’s major cities.
BOM, Water in Australia, p.52, National Water Account 2015, CC BY

Australia’s next most water-stressed capital is Adelaide. That city is supplementing its surface water storages with desalination and groundwater, as well as water “transferred” from the Murray River.

Australia’s other capital cities on the east coast have faced their own water supply crises. Their water storages dwindled to between 20% and 35% capacity in 2007. This triggered multiple actions to prevent a water crisis. Progressively tighter water restrictions were declared.

The major population centres (Brisbane/Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide) also built large desalination plants. The community reaction to the desalination plants was mixed. While some welcomed these, others question their costs and environmental impacts.

The desalination plants were expensive to build, consume vast quantities of electricity and are very expensive to run. They remain costly to maintain, even if they do not supply desalinated water. All residents pay higher water rates as a result of their existence.

Since then, rainfall in southeastern Australia has increased and water storages have refilled. The largest southeastern Australia desalination plants have been placed on “stand-by” mode. They will be switched on if and when the supply level drops.




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The role of water in Australia’s uncertain future


Investing in huge storage capacity

Many Australian cities also store very large volumes of water in very large water reservoirs. This allows them to continue to supply water through future extended periods of dry weather.

The three largest cities (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane) have built very large dams indeed. For example, Brisbane has 2,220,150 ML storage capacity for its 2.2 million residents. That amounts to just over one million litres per resident when storages are full.

The ConversationIn comparison, Cape Town’s four million residents have a full storage capacity of 900,000 ML. That’s 225,000 litres per resident. Cape Town is constructing a number of small desalination plants while anxiously waiting for the onset of the region’s formerly regular winter rains.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

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