International Perspectives on the Drought

As the drought becomes more and more severe, and citizens and policy makers try to figure out mitigation strategies, it is helpful to examine the approaches that have helped other regions survive these parched periods. While it may not be advantageous to mimic their strategies in all respects, it is valuable to learn what has and has not worked in other places.

Australia has a long history of droughts, and the world’s driest habitable continent has developed a number of strategies that have helped the parched nation survive. Accordingly, Californian officials are now consulting with experts from Australia to help examine, analyze and implement some of the same measures that proved successful in the land down under.

Unfortunately, in an interview with US News, Daniel Connell, an Australian environmental policy expert, characterized California’s response to the drought as “absolutely pathetic.”

The Australian Drought

Whereas our current drought seems insufferably long to Californians who have struggled to survive the water shortage for over four years now, a particularly severe drought struck Australia from the years 1995 to 2012. This 17-year-long drought was the worst on record, and it forced the country to take significant steps to weather the crisis.

Unlike in California, where much of the emphasis has centered around simply surviving until the rains return, Australians took the opportunity to make significant change. This is an important point for Californians to consider – more droughts will come, and we should use this current drought to prepare for the future. As explained by Rebecca Nelson, senior fellow at the University of Melbourne, School of Law, “Don’t waste the crisis.”

In Australia’s case, they implemented a variety of strategies to help not only survive the drought, but to alter their way of life. Some of the measures they adopted include:

  • Policy makers enacted water restrictions that lowered the daily per capita water usage to 55 gallons. For comparison, Californians use approximately 105 gallons of water each day.

  • Policy makers imposed hard caps on the amount of water that could be drawn from a given river basin.

  • In contrast to water restrictions imposed on U.S. soil, which are typically enacted at the local or state level, Australia’s federal government imposed the country’s water restrictions.

  • Australia built several desalination plants and the accompanying pipelines to carry the fresh water, but most of these lay idle now, as the country is experiencing a “wet” period.

  • Australia imposed significant water restrictions on the agricultural sector.

  • Because information and water usage data is so crucial for effective water management, the Australian government began metering water usage, thereby enabling adjustments and reallocations of water supplies.

  • Australia now trades water as any other commodity, such that the price of water reflects its availability. This provides an economic pressure that tends to deter overuse and waste.

  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Australia kept most of their water-saving strategies in place once the drought ended. This has fostered a change in the national attitude toward water, and helped the country prepare for the inevitable droughts in the future.

Picking Priorities

Droughts inherently cause tension between the environment and the economy.

For example, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state uses water in three primary ways. Fifty percent of the state’s water is used for environmental purposes, such as keeping reservoirs and rivers sufficiently full and ensuring habitats have enough ground water to remain healthy. Forty percent of the states’ water supply is dedicated to agricultural activities, and about 10 percent is provided to urban areas, who must import water to meet their needs.

Of course, those living in urban areas should strive to reduce their water consumption — it would be foolish not to take such steps. However, urban water usage only represents 10 percent of the total water budget. Even a 50 percent reduction in water usage by every man, woman, child and corporation would only result in a 5 percent reduction in total water usage. The bulk of the savings can only come from that allotted to agricultural uses or for the environment.

It is easy to see that it may be economically advantageous to allot more water to the agricultural industry during times of drought, but it is essential to ensure the environment has enough water to remain healthy. Wisely, Australia valued its urban forests during their drought and prioritized them when allocating water. By continuing to support their trees, Australians helped mitigate some of the drought’s effects, as trees help cool the atmosphere and block desiccating winds.

Additionally, as trees cannot be replaced as quickly as lawns and ornamental plants can, it is important to protect the existing forests and other habitats, which will not regenerate quickly if allowed to perish.

The End May Be In Sight

Hopefully, just as Australia managed to survive its drought (and set themselves up for a better future), California will learn to endure the current drought.

One thing that may help reverse the Golden State’s fortunes is the development of an El Nino weather pattern. You can read a deeper explanation of the El Nino phenomenon here, but simply put, El Nino events feature increased water temperatures and atmospheric air pressures in the eastern Pacific Ocean. When these changes occur, it has significant effects on the world’s weather. One of the typical effects is increased rainfall in California.

El Ninos occur on a cyclical basis, and, fortunately, meteorologists are seeing the pattern develop now. Some predict that the phenomenon will bring increased rains to California during the summer, and these may continue throughout the fall and winter as well. While this rainfall will not be sufficient to end the drought completely, it will surely help take the edge off.

It is important to note that El Nino events can be difficult to predict, as many meteorologists forecasted an El Nino event last winter, and it failed to materialize. Ironically, while El Nino events bring increased rains to California, they can cause droughts in other regions, such as – you guessed it — Australia.