The early afternoon sun was pounding the parched soil, and Gus Whyte was pulling on his dust-caked cowboy boots to take me for a drive. We’d just finished lunch—cured ham, a loaf of bread I’d bought on the trip up, chutney pickled by Whyte’s wife, Kelly—at his house in Anabranch South, which isn’t a town but rather a fuzzy cartographic notion in the far west of New South Wales, a seven-hour drive from Melbourne and half as far again from Sydney.
Australia’s summers have lengthened by as much as a month or more in the past half century, exposing people to greater fire and heat extremes and placing ecosystems and farm crops at risk.
Researchers from The Australia Institute analysed data from 70 of the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather stations across southern and sub-tropical Australia, where the bulk of the population lives. They found in the past five years, summers were 50 per cent longer than they were in the mid-20th century.
Even as bushfires push into new swaths of Australia, the communities close to and within the nearly 30 million acres that have already burned are starting to reckon with a complex, expensive aftermath: fire’s threat to their drinking water.
It’s a vexing problem that a growing number of people around the world have had to cope with over the last two decades, as climate change fuels hotter, bigger fires that destroy forested catchments and consume towns and their water systems, engineers and scientists said.
Fabric curtains stretch across the huge Warragamba Dam to trap ash and sediment expected to wash off wildfire-scorched slopes and into the reservoir that holds 80% of untreated drinking water for the Greater Sydney area.
In Australia’s national capital of Canberra, where a state of emergency was declared on Friday because of an out-of-control forest fire to its south, authorities are hoping a new water treatment plant and other measures will prevent a repeat of water quality problems and disruption that followed deadly wildfires 17 years ago.
Aside from advanced economies and Mediterranean climates that sustain long growing seasons, California, Spain and Australia share an intermittent feature that reshapes their overburdened water systems every time it rears its ugly head: drought.
As populations and the demand for both rural and urban water supplies increase, so have the damaging impacts of droughts and water shortages. A recent series of bitterly dry stretches have forced lawmakers in the different continents to scrap outdated approaches and become more proactive in shielding drought.
Turning on the faucet and having water come out has become such a common daily occurrence that nobody stops to think about it. In times of abundance, everything goes smoothly. However, when rain is scarce or almost nonexistent and reservoir capacity diminishes considerably, that is when alarm bells are set off and governments scramble trying to find a solution. As they say, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
When torrential rains flooded downtown Dubai earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates’ zealous embrace of cloud seeding was blamed by some.
So if cloud seeding can cause a desert to flood, why can’t Australia use the technology to break the drought?
The answer is surprisingly simple. For cloud seeding to produce rain you need moisture to begin with. And cloud. Australia at present is in short supply of both, and even if more clouds begin to make an appearance in the Australian sky, chances are they will not be the right type.