In our new book, Cities in a Sunburnt Country, we consider how Australians have met the challenges posed by the need to provide safe water in the world’s driest inhabited continent and sewerage systems for rapidly growing, sprawling urban centres. In this land of drought and flooding rains, tensions persist between managing problems of too little water in particular times and places, and too much water in others. Home to most of the nation’s population, the five largest cities are exposed to extreme weather events, as all lie in close proximity to the coast and rely heavily on dams, rivers and nearby catchments for their water, with the exception of Perth which is increasingly reliant on groundwater and desalination plants.
In the past two centuries, developed countries have benefited from new structures and reticulation systems that provides greater control over water, contributing to an expansion in the range of available goods and services. But the distribution of these benefits has been socially uneven, with disadvantaged groups vulnerable to risks of environmental damage, pollution from defective sewers, and flooding.
The challenge to produce effective water management strategies that foster more sustainable, resilient, productive, liveable, and equitable cities is a ‘wicked’ problem – defying simple solutions and requiring analysis that bridges disciplinary divides to inform appropriate resource use and policy action. We are a team of seven researchers with a mission of seeking to contribute to the creation of more resilient and sustainable water systems through the study of water history. Our expertise spans the fields of environmental, economic, urban, and planning history. Our publications, as well as our virtual exhibition on water crises and Australian cities at the Rachel Carson Center (https://www.environmentandsociety.org/exhibitions/drought-mud-filth-and-flood), are based on shared ideas and perspectives that allow us to ask new questions of historical and current approaches to water supply and management.
While urban Australians expect reliable and safe water and waste disposal, this is threatened by the limitations of nature and the costs of maintaining, expanding, and improving existing and new networks. New technologies, especially water recycling may enable a more sustainable water supply, but such changes will be costly and will only happen with the support of major political parties and voters. At a time when the uneven impact of globalisation and technological change has made voters in middle and outer suburban, regional, and rural Australia more sensitive to job insecurity and cost of living pressures than those in well-off central and inner cities, we need clear information about the costs and benefits of water management options.
Australians are usually complacent about their real water usage and its environmental consequences. Historically, Australia has resorted to physical infrastructure to both manage and provide water, and economic strategies of water fees and rationing to regulate its use. As we move towards a more uncertain climatic future, Australians may need to rethink these strategies, including embracing centuries of Aboriginal knowledge, especially about how to conserve and use water wisely.