Day Zero: How Regional Towns and Cities are Coping with Drought

Australia’s landscape is changing. The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) reports that the Murray-Darling Basin saw its driest stretch on record from January 2017 to July 2019.

The basin, which plays an integral role in agriculture and food production, currently does not have enough water to flush salt from its river system, with river flows in the upper tributaries receding in August 2019. Lack of river flow has led to massive fish kills in Lower Darling.

Water is also running out in Macquarie Valley, which was flourishing just three years ago. The Macquarie River has stopped flowing to the marshes, which have turned brown and dry.

The Narran Lakes, prized for their natural beauty and biodiversity, are drying up.

As these bodies of water get depleted in the absence of adequate rainfall, Australians in rural communities are bracing themselves for Day Zero, the day when they run out of safe drinking water.

Threatening lives and livelihoods

Local Government NSW President Linda Scott says rural cities and towns are getting ready for Day Zero, which experts believe is less than a year away, although some communities are expected to run out of water in just three to six months’ time.

Affected towns and cities include:

  • Warwick
  • Stanthorpe
  • Tenterfield
  • Armidale
  • Tamworth
  • Cobar
  • Nyngan
  • Dubbo
  • Narromine
  • Orange

Some towns have taken to trucking water from communities that aren’t as severely affected by drought.

Tenterfield is at the centre of the water crisis. The town has not seen rain seen March 2017 and water levels at the local dam are at a critical 32%. The Local Council estimates that the community could run out of water in 300 days.

Charities such as Rural Aid have trucked in desalinated drinking water courtesy of its mobile plant, which can produce up to 70,000 litres of water for its 700 residents each day.

Agricultural workers are also deeply affected by drought. Citrus, grape, and Menindee jujube growers have not been able to grow fruits this season, while poor water quality from Darling has negatively affected their businesses.

Water utilities across the continent have struggled with population growth in addition to extended periods of little to no rainfall. Human activities have also been linked to the drought – it’s been argued that large irrigators like cotton farmers may have brought on the drought sooner than expected after pumping large amounts of water from rivers to private storage.

Rising temperatures in the continent have worrying implications for the water crisis. This year has seen the second-warmest January to July on record over a 10-year period, and the fifth-warmest over a 120-year stretch. Experts fear that minimal rainfall over the long term will extend the drought. 

Water restrictions in rural Australia

To cope with the water crisis, state governments and local councils have imposed water restrictions on drought-stricken regional towns and cities.

Level 4.5 restrictions are currently in place in Tenterfield. The use of hand-held hoses and garden watering systems have been restricted to just a half-hour each day from 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., while fixed hoses and the topping up of pools have been banned altogether.

Guyra residents must comply with level 5 restrictions, which ban the use of drip irrigation, handheld hoses, fixed hoses, water sprinklers, and buckets or watering cans when not being used with recycled water. Topping up recreational and ornamental pools is also prohibited.

Armidale currently has level 4 restrictions in place, with the local council aiming to reduce water consumption by 62 litres per person.


Water conservation

Despite dry conditions in most of the continent, Australians consume about 100,000 litres of freshwater per person each year, making us some of the greatest per capita consumers of water in the world. Our homes and gardens account for 12% of water use, making it imperative for us to adjust our personal habits when it comes to drinking, cooking, cleaning, and washing. 

Everyone is encouraged to conserve water by taking quick showers, fixing leaks, doing laundry less often, and reusing water whenever possible.

Installing water-efficient shower heads, washing machines, dishwashers, and water filtration systems can also help prevent waste.

Waters Co believes in clean and healthy drinking water for all Australians. Complying with water restrictions and using water-efficient home appliances can help make our water supply last longer.