Water is central to Sydney’s history and identity. Like Coleridge’s doomed mariner, we can see water everywhere, but are still scarred by the past memory and future possibility of drought. However, the water restrictions announced this week are unlikely to be the last and suggest that, as a city, Sydney has not yet planned for an un-rainy day.
Many will remember the last Sydney drought, that stretched for a decade between 2000 and 2011 and saw dam levels fall to almost 30 per cent, the lowest levels since the 1950s. While the public adapted quietly and efficiency to water saving habits during that period, an abundance of rain since the drought broke has let us slip back into bad habits. Now is the time to relearn those lessons and have a broader conversation about Sydney’s water future.
Our city is growing rapidly and, in doing so, putting increased pressure on natural resources like water, not just to drink but to provide sewerage services. This growth in numbers can be absorbed, but only by planning effectively and a smarter use of water. A city of 8 million people is unlikely to be fully watered by our existing dams and desalination plant, but there are ways for us to do more with less.
The Committee for Sydney believes that now is the time to have a serious civic debate about recycling drinking water. Plenty of other cities do it: London, Singapore, even Perth. We recognise that some people are uncomfortable with the idea of drinking recycled water, but at a basic minimum we shouldn’t be watering our gardens or washing our cars with fresh water.
Second, let’s plan our city for a dry days ahead. We would like to see the restoration of disused waterways to turn them into the centrepieces of new urban parks, including rivers and ponds that help to cool areas in hot weather, particularly those in the west, which is most impacted by the urban heat affect.
Building on the new regulations, let’s also encourage greater use of water efficiency measures such as repairing dripping taps, installing rain water tanks and waterless toilets, that make the most of precious resources. Finally, more use of “vertical gardens” such as the Central Park development in Sydney would also help to soak up rain and save on amounts for watering.
This week’s announcement is a wake-up call – a splash of water to the face, if you like – that Sydney needs to foster a more water conscious culture. With 99 per cent of NSW already in drought, now is the time to act to save Sydney from a parched future.
James Hulme is director of advocacy for the Committee for Sydney.