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Desalination Schemes Stir Debate in Parched Australia


Authorities in Western Australia say they can show the world how to conquer a water crisis that had threatened to decimate the state capital, Perth, amid a long-standing drought and declining rainfall. Desalination is at the heart of Western Australia's approach to satisfying the thirst of a booming population that lives on the edge of a desert.

Western Australia's efforts to curb consumption and find new sources have led officials to make the bold claim that the state no longer has a water crisis, even though rainfall levels have been halved in recent decades.

The southern hemisphere's first desalination plant opened near Perth, just over two years ago.

Jim Gill, the former head of Western Australia's Water Corporation - the region's monopoly supplier - says the catalyst for the project was one of the driest periods ever recorded.

"2001 was the winter from hell and we only get our rainfall in winter. So, it was unbelievably dry and we postulated the scenario of another two or three or four years like that and, frankly, we were going to have to shut Perth down," Gill said. "We were going to run out of drinking water. Luckily, we'd done the homework on desalination and we had the confidence to go ahead and do it. No, we don't have a water crisis anymore. Desalination was just one component of what we did. We put a lot of effort into demand management, as well, so we tried to get people to save 15 percent, which is not huge."

Western Australia says the key to keeping the taps flowing is a diverse supply that includes pumping water from underground and reservoirs, as well as desalination.

However, skeptics believe that this approach could lead to disaster.

Paul Llewellyn, a Green's member of parliament in the state's upper house, insists that desalinated water "exacerbates the climate problem" by using too much energy and is too expensive.

He is calling for a complete rethink and for water to be used far more efficiently.

"It's not beyond the realms of possibility that Perth could be our first ghost city. That's extreme, but I think it's a challenging concept that we are living in an extremely dry place and what we should be moving to, to meet this water challenge in Western Australia is a much more intelligent, water-efficient economy," Llewellyn said.

Western Australia has opted to spend its way out of a water crisis by building a desalination plant that sits just off the main highway at Kwinana, south of Perth. It has the look of a large factory. A second facility is to open in two years time - when a third of the state's drinking supplies will come from treated seawater.

The technology provokes differing attitudes among residents in Kwinana.

"I can't see a problem with it. But I'm not sure," one woman said. I'm not an environmentalist so don't know what impact it will have on the ocean but, to me, if they can't get the water naturally, they'll have to do something because it's my grandchildren and their grandchildren that are going to suffer if we don't do something about it now."

What about the desalination plant down the road? Is that a way forward?

"I don't believe so," one man said. "I think desalination plants are a waste of energy. What it's doing is heating up the seawater and it's altering the ecology around that
area."

Rather than spend millions turning the sea into drinking water there are those who believe that what Western Australia really needs is a giant pipeline linking Perth to brimming tropical rivers up north.

For 20 years, Ernie Bridge, a former state minister for Water Resources, has championed the idea of channeling supplies through a 2,000-kilometer pipe from the Kimberley region.

"It would simply shore up Perth for the next 100 years. There'd be no requirements on the water deliverers to contemplate hastily looking at other projects," Bridge said.
"I can never understand a country like Australia seriously turning to desalination when you've got that abundance of potable water, surface water, renewable water with the monsoons that fall annually available to us in the north. I mean, I think there's a bit of stupidity that's associated with governments and their policies of committing to desalination."

However, there appears to be little political or public appetite to exploit these deep reserves. As Perth's population continues to grow, the debate about water and the various theories that have been put forward to ensure that the city does not run dry will inevitably become increasingly fierce.

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