By James Paton
18 January 2016
(Bloomberg) – 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.
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 Niño-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.” […]
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.”
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. [more]