Cities turn to desalination for water security, but at what cost?



File 20190207 174873 kcdlxk.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The largest desalination plant in Australia, Victoria’s A$3.5 billion ‘water factory’ can supply nearly a third of Melbourne’s needs.
Nils Versemann/Shutterstock

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Western Sydney University

This is the first of two articles looking at the increasing reliance of Australian cities on desalination to supply drinking water, with less emphasis on alternatives such as recycling and demand management. So what is the best way forward to achieve urban water security?


Removing salts and other impurities from water is really difficult. For thousands of years people, including Aristotle, tried to make fresh water from sea water. In the 21st century, advances in desalination technology mean water authorities in Australia and worldwide can supply bountiful fresh water at the flick of a switch.

Achieving water security using desalination is now a priority for the majority of Australia’s capital cities, all but one of which are on the coast. Using the abundance of sea water as a source, this approach seeks to “climate proof” our cities’ water supplies.




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


It’s hard to believe now that as recently as 2004 all Australian capital city water authorities relied on surface water storage dams or groundwater for drinking water supplies. Since Perth’s first desalination plant was completed in 2006, Australian capital cities have embraced massive seawater desalination “water factories” as a way to increase water security.

Perth and Adelaide have relied most on desalination to date. Canberra, Hobart and Darwin are the only capitals without desalination.

The drought that changed everything

From the late 1990s to 2009 southeastern Australia suffered through the Millennium Drought. This was a time of widespread water stress. It changed the Australian water industry for ever.

All major water authorities saw their water storages plummet. Melbourne storages fell to as low as 25% in 2009. The Gosford-Wyong water storage, supplying a fast-growing area of more than 300,000 people on the New South Wales Central Coast, dropped to 10% capacity in 2007.

These were familiar issues in locations such as Perth, where the big dry is epic. For more than four decades, the city’s residents have been watching their supply of surface water dwindle. Remarkably, only about 10% of Perth’s water now comes from this source.

Perth’s two desalination plants have a combined output of up to 145 billion litres (gigalitres, GL) a year. That’s nearly half the city’s water needs. Both have remained in operation since they were built.




Read more:
Is Perth really running out of water? Well, yes and no


Modern industrial-scale desalination uses reverse osmosis to remove salt and other impurities from sea water. Water is forced under high pressure through a series of membranes through which salt and other impurities cannot pass.

Design, construction and maintenance costs of these industrial plants are high. They also use massive amounts of electricity, which increases greenhouse gas emissions unless renewable energy sources are used.

Another concern is the return of the excess salt to the environment. Australian studies have shown minimal impact.




Read more:
Fixing cities’ water crises could send our climate targets down the gurgler


Just as many of the massive new desalination factories were completed, and proudly opened by smiling politicians, it started raining. The desalination plants were switched off as storages filled. However, water consumers still had to pay for the dormant plants to be maintained – hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the case of the Melbourne and Sydney plants.

Bringing plants out of mothballs

Now drought has returned to southeast Australia. Once again, many capital city water storages are in steep decline. So what is the response of water authorities in the desal age? Not surprisingly, more desalination is their answer.

One by one the desalination plants are being switched back on. Sydney has just begun the process of restarting its plant, which was commissioned in 2010. Adelaide has plans to greatly increase the modest output from its plant this year. The Gold Coast plant, which can also supply Brisbane, is operating at a low level in “hot standby” mode.

After a dry winter, Melbourne Water is expected to advise the Victorian government to make the largest orders for desalinated water since its plant, able to produce 150GL a year, was completed in December 2012. Mothballed for more than four years, it supplied its first water to reservoirs in March 2017. The previously forecast need for 100GL in 2019-20 (annual orders are decided in April) is almost one-quarter of Melbourne’s annual demand. Plant capacity is capable of being expanded to 200GL a year.

When bushfires recently threatened Victoria’s largest water storage, the Thomson dam, the government said desalinated water could be used to replace the 150GL a year taken from the dam.

Sydney’s plan for future droughts is to double the output of its desalination plant from 250 million litres (megalitres, ML) a day to 500ML a day. This would take its contribution from 15% to 30% of Sydney’s water demand.

Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast already have the capacity to supply larger proportions of their populations with desalinised water as required.

What about inland and regional settlements across Australia? Large-scale desalination plants may not viable for Canberra and other inland centres. These regions would require sufficient groundwater resources and extraction may not be environmentally sound.

How much, then, do we pay for the water we use?

The plants supplying our biggest cities cost billions to construct and maintain, even when they sit idle for years.

The Australian Water Association estimates the cost of supplying desalinated water varies widely, from $1 to $4 per kL.

In fact, water costs in general vary enormously, depending on location and how much is used. The pricing structures are about as complex as mobile phone plans or health insurance policies.

The highest price is in Canberra where residents pay $4.88/kL for each kL they use over 50kL per quarter. The cheapest rate is Hobart’s $1.06/kL.

The issue of water pricing leads on to the question of what happened to the alternative strategies – recycling and demand management – that cities pursued before desalination became the favoured approach? And how do these compare to the expensive, energy-hungry process of desalination? We will consider these questions in our second article.


This article has been updated to clarify the status of advice on Melbourne’s use of desalinated water.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Research Lecturer in Geochemistry, Western Sydney University

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

For Pacific Island nations, rising sea levels are a bigger security concern than rising Chinese influence



File 20180830 195328 caziun.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Malcolm Turnbull promised to ‘step up’ Australian engagement with the Pacific last year. Will it continue now that he’s gone?
Lukas Coch/AAP

Michael O’Keefe, La Trobe University

When the Pacific Islands Forum is held in Nauru from September 1, one of the main objectives will be signing a wide-ranging security agreement that covers everything from defence and law and order concerns to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The key question heading into the forum is: can the agreement find a balance between the security priorities of Australia and New Zealand and the needs of the Pacific Island nations?

Even though new Prime Minister Scott Morrison is not attending the forum, sending Foreign Minister Marise Payne instead, the Biketawa Plus security agreement remains a key aim for Canberra.




Read more:
Why China’s ‘debt-book diplomacy’ in the Pacific shouldn’t ring alarm bells just yet


The original Biketawa Declaration was developed as a response to the 2000 coup in Fiji. It has served Australia and the region well, providing a framework for collective action when political tensions and crises occur. However, in the face of rapid change, it looks narrow and dated.

Why act now? The rationale is clear. Much has happened to alter the security landscape in the Pacific since 2000. But despite the commentary in Australia, security in the Pacific is not all about geopolitics. While Australia may be most worried about China’s rising influence in the region, it would be a mistake to think this is the primary preoccupation of Pacific leaders, too.

A focus on climate change as a security issue

One key reason for updating Biketawa is to realign Australia’s security interests with those of Pacific Island countries that have grown more aware of their shared interests and confident in expressing them in international relations. This growing confidence is clear in the lobbying of Pacific nations for climate change action at the United Nations and in Fiji’s role as president of the UN’s COP23 climate talks.

In the absence of direct military threats, the Pacific Island nations are most concerned about security of a different kind. Key issues for the region are sustainable growth along a “blue-green” model, climate change (especially the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters and rising sea levels), illegal fishing and over-fishing, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), transnational crime, money laundering and human trafficking.




Read more:
Pacific pariah: how Australia’s love of coal has left it out in the diplomatic cold


Some of these security issues can be addressed by redirecting more Australian military forces to the region. Indeed, “disaster diplomacy” has been an effective method of connecting Australia’s security interests with those of Pacific Island nations in the past.

However, other priorities for the Pacific seem to run counter to Australia’s current policies toward the region. For example, the Pacific’s sustainable “blue-green” development agenda seems incompatible with an export-oriented growth model that is often touted by Australia as an “aid for trade” solution to Pacific “problems”.

Climate change adaptation and mitigation must also be elevated to the top of the agenda in Australia’s relations with the region. It is the most pressing problem in the Pacific, but for political and economic reasons, it hasn’t resonated to the same extent with Canberra.

In fact, Australia has recently been identified as the worst-performing country in the world on climate action. This has not gone unnoticed in the Pacific. Fiji’s prime minister, in particular, has been clear in highlighting that Australia’s “selfish” stance on climate change undermines its credibility in the region.

These shifting priorities in the Pacific present a greater challenge for Australia, especially now that there are more players in the region, such as China, Russia and Indonesia. Australia may see these “outsiders” as potential threats, but Pacific nations are just as likely to view them as alternative development partners able to provide opportunities.

New Coalition team on the Pacific

Making matters even trickier is the leadership shake-up in Canberra. What’s perhaps most problematic is Julie Bishop’s departure as foreign minister. Bishop did more to engage with Pacific countries than any foreign minister in recent memory. The [2017 Foreign Policy White Paper], for example, prioritised increased Pacific engagement and led to the region receiving the lion’s share of Australia’s latest aid budget.

Payne will attend the Pacific Islands Forum on her first overseas visit as foreign minister. As the former defence minister, she lobbied for Australia to be seen as a “security partner of choice” in the Pacific. What remains to be seen is whether she can maintain the momentum on Biketawa Plus.




Read more:
Response to rumours of a Chinese military base in Vanuatu speaks volumes about Australian foreign policy


So the challenge for the new Coalition leadership is to find a way to push through a new Pacific security agreement that caters to both Australia’s security concerns about Chinese influence in the region and the Pacific Island countries’ focus on climate change and sustainable growth.

There are lessons that can be drawn from the decade-long negotiations between Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations over the Pacer Plus free-trade agreement, which was finally signed last year (without the region’s two largest economies, Papua New Guinea and Fiji). Australia must not underestimate the diplomatic skills of Pacific leaders or offer benefits that are perceived as being more attractive to it than the Pacific states.

Australia must also avoid allowing the leadership spill to impact its Pacific agenda at this sensitive time. Bishop’s focus on labour mobility between the Pacific islands and Australia has been most welcome, but there can be no authentic engagement with the region without addressing climate insecurity as well.The Conversation

Michael O’Keefe, Head of Department, Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University

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

Senate report: climate change is a clear and present danger to Australia’s security


Matt McDonald, The University of Queensland

The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade yesterday presented its report on the national security implications of climate change.

The report makes several findings and recommendations, noting at the outset that climate change has a range of important security implications, both domestically and internationally.

Tellingly, none of the expert submissions questioned the rationale for this inquiry, nor the claim that climate change challenges Australian national security.




Read more:
US military strategists warn that climate is a ‘catalyst for conflict’



The report concludes that:

the consensus from the evidence (is) that climate change is exacerbating threats and risks to Australia’s national security.

Significantly, it also notes that climate change threatens both state and human security in the Australian context. Here are some of the key security implications.

Sea-level rises and natural disasters are key challenges

The report emphasises the risks posed by rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency and intensity of environmental stress (droughts and floods, for example) and natural disasters such as cyclones. In turn, it notes that these could trigger population movements, with people displaced by extreme weather events or rising seas.

This, the report argues, would have significant implications for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions involving the ADF have increased significantly in Australia and our region in recent years. The report predicts that the ADF will face even more pressure to carry out this type of mission in the future.

In its submission, the Department of Defence pointed out that the ADF was not established to provide these roles. The report recommends the creation of a senior leadership position within Defence to plan and manage disaster relief missions both here and abroad.

Australia, and its backyard, are particularly vulnerable

The report notes that Australia and its region are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Australia’s population is largely clustered in coastal areas, and this is also true of the Asian region generally and the Pacific specifically. Pacific island nations – as low-lying and with limited resources for implementing adaptive measures – are acutely vulnerable to sea-level rises. In the Asian region 40 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2010-11 alone.

The report argues that Australia’s obligation to its neighbours in the region, acknowledged in recent statements on the Pacific, will create significant pressure on Australia and its defence force to manage the implications of climate change. It recommends sending even more aid to the Pacific region to help build climate resilience.

Defence needs to plan ahead

While the report acknowledges Defence efforts, a key finding is the urgent need for Defence to plan for a climate-affected world.

Future deployments associated with disaster relief and population movement, for example, will require urgent Defence planning to ensure personnel have the right training, resources and equipment. Australia’s forces will need to be trained and equipped for the likely ever-increasing number of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in particular.

The report notes that Defence acquisition will need to account for temperature rises in future decades. This includes ensuring that equipment is fit for purpose in the long term. It will need to be able to withstand higher temperatures and potentially to run on different types of fuel.

The committee also recommends that Defence establish its own emissions reduction targets regarding energy use.

While more mundane, the management of existing infrastructure and real estate in the context of climate change, already the subject of Defence assessments, is also crucial. Defence is Australia’s largest land owner, and much of its infrastructure and resources will be exposed to higher temperatures and sea levels. The report recommends that Defence release existing risk assessments of assets’ exposure to climate change.




Read more:
Defence white paper shows Australian forces must safeguard nature too


The issue cuts right across the government

While many of the recommendations are specifically for the Department of Defence, a core theme of the report is the need for a “whole of government” response. Besides adapting to climate change, the government needs to take action to limit the extent of the problem in the first place. This means that all departments, all levels of government, and society as a whole need to work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The need to commit to mitigation efforts is a surprising, but welcome, finding of the consensus report.

As the report points out, to deal with future disruption both here and abroad, Australia will need to build resilient societies that can adapt to change. This poses challenges to urban planning, aid programs and health services as much as to Defence.

The report makes several recommendations aimed at fostering this type of across-the-board response from the government. Among these are the development of a Climate Security White Paper and the creation of a Climate Security role within the Home Affairs portfolio to oversee domestic responses to climate change. In both cases, these are responses to suggestions in expert submissions that existing measures and responses were partial and uncoordinated.

What does all this mean?

Potentially, not much. Recommendations of Senate inquiries are just that, and governments have the right to politely ignore or dismiss them. This is more likely to happen to reports proposed by the opposition or, as in this case, by the Greens.

When the inquiry was announced in mid-2017, the government described it as unnecessary. In its response to the report, Coalition senators generally indicated that they felt existing arrangements were sufficient.




Read more:
Climate change and security: a wake-up call for Australia


It is nevertheless telling that Australia’s Defence establishment – on the face of it a bastion of conservatism – is worried about climate change. In my conversations with Defence officials, two things are apparent.

First, they are increasingly aware of the need to plan ahead to meet the challenges of climate change, including many of those noted above. This reflects the fact that Defence is an area in which long-term planning and threat assessment have always been central.

Second, they are also acutely aware of the toxic politics of climate change in Australia. Given its recent history, even those in Defence who are most convinced of the need to act are concerned about putting their heads above the parapet, so to speak.

The ConversationViewed in this light, it may be that these recommendations – in a consensus report, arising from a Senate inquiry and based on expert advice – provide just the basis for mainstreaming climate consciousness into defence and security planning. In the process, it is possible it’s just this sort of intervention that encourages changes in public debate and broader climate policy orientations. In Australia’s rancorous history of climate politics, stranger things have happened.

Matt McDonald, Associate Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland

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