Australia's Small Mining Towns Are Running Out of Water

Broken Hill

The town of Broken Hill in Australia. Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

  • Broken Hill forced to turn on desalination plant amid drought
  • Water projects may increase as southern regions get drier

The Australian mining town of Broken Hill is preparing for a future that doesn’t depend on silver and zinc, but there’s one resource it won’t be able to live without: water.

QuickTake Drought

The prospect of that commodity running out has sparked concern in the remote community more than 1,110 kilometers (680 miles) west of Sydney. The city of 19,000 people exhausted its supply of water that can be treated conventionally, forcing it this month to turn on a desalination plant to process the salty remains. Water flowing into the Menindee Lakes, the city’s key source, is at a record low amid an El Nino-induced drought.

Broken Hill’s plight underscores the vulnerability of Australia, the world’s driest inhabited continent, and the investment needed to secure water for Outback communities. Federal and state governments are committing billions of dollars to water security, as researchers predict southern Australia will experience more frequent and severe droughts.

“We’ll see a lot more communities struggle with water,” Wincen Cuy, Broken Hill’s mayor, said in his office last month. “Without water, nothing happens. From an economic prosperity point of view, it’s exceptionally important.”

Acciona, Mitsubishi

At least A$3.5 billion ($2.4 billion) of capital is being invested in Australia’s urban water industry annually, with projects aimed at making more efficient use of water resources drawing companies from Spain’s Acciona SA to Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp. Funding projects in drought-hit rural areas is a bigger challenge, said Daniel Lambert, Australasia water leader for Arup Group Ltd., the engineering firm that designed the original Broken Hill desalination plant.

“We are talking about agriculture and we are talking about mining and industry, and the importance of them to the overall economy is huge,” he said.

While northern Australia is predicted to get wetter in coming years, the more-populated south will probably get drier, said Jean Palutikof, director of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility at Griffith University.

‘Big Risk’

“Unfortunately we live in the wrong bits of Australia,” Palutikof said. “There are issues for these small rural communities that don’t have a great deal of money about how they are going to secure their water supply. It is a big risk.”

Cobar, a copper-mining town 700 kilometers west of Sydney in New South Wales state, and Mildura, a citrus and grape-growing center in northwest Victoria state with about 30,000 people, have also been identified as facing water threats.

Australia has made progress in tackling extreme weather and improving water efficiency, said Gavin Hanlon, deputy director for water at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. California, hit by significant water losses, has sought help from Australia, which employs a market-based system that allows traders, farmers and government entities to buy and sell the commodity.

Still, the country needs to improve how it allocates the resource to better reflect how much water is available, said Anthony Kiem, a water and climate specialist at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales. Cotton production accounted for 17 percent of Australia’s water consumption in the year through June 2014, the government said in November.

Sunset Strip

Drought is an intrinsic feature of Australia’s climate, and Broken Hill, the historic city that’s turning to tourism as its mining industry declines, has long grappled with an unpredictable water supply -- drawn in recent decades from a chain of lakes near the town of Menindee, 110 kilometers away.

When filled to capacity by the nearby Darling River, the Menindee Lakes hold more than three times as much water as Sydney Harbor, and are a popular spot for sailing, swimming and fishing. Today, they’re almost depleted. Holiday homes lining the biggest of the lakes at Sunset Strip overlook a barren expanse of dead trees and sand.

“It’s a sad situation,” said retiree John Hall, a local who once worked for the area’s water board. “Peoples’ livelihoods are in jeopardy.”

Brackish Dregs

Broken Hill is relying on a desalination plant installed more than a decade ago, but not needed until now, to make the lake system’s brackish dregs drinkable. The plant, recently expanded to cater for the current demand, will extend the city’s supplies for another year.

After that, Broken Hill will be able to rely on groundwater until 2019, while the New South Wales government studies long-term options, including pipelines to secure water. The state government has committed about A$500 million to finding a solution for Broken Hill, part of a broader program to improve regional water supplies.

Critics have blamed Broken Hill’s predicament on mismanagement of the lake system and an expansion of irrigation, said Hanlon, the state government water official. “But fundamentally it’s drought,” he said.

Drought-ending rains, when they come, often prompt communities to put water plans on the back burner, Kiem said. The prospect of drier conditions in southern Australia may force governments and communities to rethink their response to water security.

“We need water to survive,” Kiem said. “If we keep over-extracting our systems, if we keep persisting with flawed understanding of drought risk and estimates of water availability that assume the climate does not vary, something has to give. If it happens in Broken Hill, it has the potential to happen elsewhere.”

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