Cape Town water crisis a stark reminder for drought-prone Australia

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Water stress map: www.wri.org creative commons licence

Cape Town’s water crisis is making news around the world, but nowhere should it be ringing alarm bells more than in our neck of the woods – South East Queensland. It’s not that long ago since the Millenium Drought (2001-2009) reached a dramatic point in late 2007. Brisbane became the first Australian capital to endure Level 6 water restrictions at a time when the region’s main reservoir, Lake Wivenhoe, dropped to 15% capacity.

In Cape Town, South Africa, the town water crisis is so parlous that taps were to have been turned off on April 16, but conservation efforts by the city’s 4 million people has pushed this out to June 4. Cape Town introduced Level 6 restrictions last month. Reports from the South African capital sound a bit like conditions in South East Queensland, circa 2007-2008.

The so-called ‘Day Zero’ – when water in Cape Town’s six reservoirs drops to 13.5% – means taps will be turned off and residents will have to queue at standpipes for daily rations. (Think dystopian movies like Young Ones or The Worthy).

A news report this week described a sudden sharp shower in Cape Town (10mm or so). People were said to have rushed out of restaurants, bars and shops just to feel the rain on their faces.

Residents are being encouraged not only to limit their showers but also to have baby baths over the shower outlet to collect the grey water for recycling. As was the case in Brisbane, Cape Town residents are being discouraged from washing their cars and flushing toilets (unless really necessary).

According to our local utility, SEQWater, during our own water crisis in 2007-2008, Brisbane residents successfully halved daily water consumption to 140 litres per person under Level 6 restrictions, which included a ban on filling pools. Gardens could only be watered with buckets (with water collected from those three-minute showers). The motto, ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow’ was nailed to many a dunny door.

Conditions are tougher in Cape Town, where residents are limited to 50 litres each per day. The Guardian reported that Cape Town’s water crisis was accelerated by a drought so severe it was not expected for another 384 years. Plans to diversify with more boreholes and desalination plants are not scheduled until after 2020. The city’s biggest reservoir, Theewaterskloof Dam, has mostly evaporated or been sucked dry since the drought began in 2015. The shoreline is receding at the rate of 1.2 metres per week, The Guardian reported.

Tucked away in its two-page feature on Cape Town’s water crisis was the colourful but completely unhelpful statement from an un-named homophobic pastor who blamed the drought on gays and lesbians.

Back home, South East Queensland’s water crisis in 2007-2008 ushered in a new era of water management, resulting in the SEQ Water Strategy, which set a water consumption target of 200 litres per day.

SEQWater spokesman Mike Foster says the biggest single change since the Millenium Drought was construction of a 600 km reverse flow pipeline network that allows treated water to be moved around the region. The utility also now has a ‘drought-ready’ strategy which is triggered when storage falls to 70%. Currently the region’s dam levels overall are at 75.9%, so nobody is losing sleep over the average per capita daily water consumption of 184 litres.

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Baroon Pocket Dam spillway January 2011, image by Bob Wilson

FOMM wrote in March that water levels at our local dam, Baroon Pocket, had dropped to 46%. SEQWater supplemented the Sunshine Coast through an extended dry spell in 2017. Baroon Pocket Dam is now back to 78% (this photo of the spillway (January 2011) shows what can happen when 750mm falls in one month.

Blame it on climate change if you like, but the Sunshine Coast region has recorded below average annual rainfall in three of the last six years. What really did the damage was an eight-month stretch from July 2016 to February 2017 with an average rainfall per month of only 43mm. Source: Bureau of Meteorology monthly rainfall.

The South East Queensland Water Strategy aims to maintain regional water security into the future through management and operation of a water grid including a recycling facility and a desalination plant.

SEQWater owns and operates 26 dams, 51 weirs, and two borefields, including 12 key dams which supply as much as 90% of the region’s drinking water. Foster says SEQWater is now planning for far worse events than the Millenium Drought.

“Cape Town never thought they would experience more than two failed wet seasons in a row. South East Queenslanders never thought we would experience two failed wet season in a row either.

“But we went through the Millenium Drought and nearly a decade of failed wet seasons.”

Foster says that if SEQ was again faced with a Millenium Drought scenario, the strategies put in place would allow water supply to be maintained with medium level restrictions.

Meanwhile, in far more parched countries

You might feel relieved to learn that Australia was not one of 33 countries identified by the World Resources Institute as facing extreme water stress by 2040. However, Australia is one of six regions facing increased water stress, water demand, water supply, and seasonal variability over the next 22 years.

The top 11 water-stressed countries in 2040, each considered extremely highly stressed with a score of 5.0 out of 5.0, are projected to be Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, San Marino, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon.

The 2015 report forecasts rapid increases in water stress across regions including eastern Australia, western Asia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the North American West, northern China, and Chile.

Nothing focuses the mind on the need to conserve water more than a summer camping holiday in a water-scarce national park. At the Bunya Mountains national park, east of Dalby, bore water is available in the national park camp ground. But it is labelled ‘non-potable’ and visitors are advised to boil and/or sterilise the water before using. We have a 60 litre tank under our caravan and we also take two 10-litre containers as back-up. Even so, after five days the van tank was less than half full and by the time we drove home on a stinking hot Sunday, we were sharing the last few mouthfuls from a water bottle.

Fine, just walk into the Kilcoy IGA and buy some bottled water, right? Maybe not. In Cape Town, supermarkets were forced to introduce a per customer limit after a big run on bottled water.

You may recall I was enthralled a while ago by Ben H Winters’ series, The Last Policeman. This cli-fi trilogy depicts the urban chaos developing as the population wait for the cataclysmic arrival of an asteroid which will destroy the planet.

Winters expertly conjured up underlying tensions between survivalists, conspiracy theorists or escapists who have “gone bucket list” or found easy ways to do themselves in. Then there are those with no particular moral code. As of the policemen in Winters’ second book says: “Just you wait until the water runs out…”

More reading: The 11 cities most likely to run out of water

http://bobwords.com.au/doesnt-rain-soon-mate/

http://bobwords.com.au/dont-drink-the-water/

 

Prickly Pear makes a comeback

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Photo of Prickly Pear near Roma by Bob Wilson

You don’t have to travel far inland in Queensland to see that Prickly Pear, the invasive scourge of farmland in the early 1900s, is making a comeback. ‘The Pear’ as it is sometimes known by farmers, has started to re-appear, growing and spreading after the floods of 2011 and 2012.

The Opuntia species (a member of the Cactaceae family) was introduced to Australia (by white settlers) in the late 1880s to form hedges and provide fodder for times of drought.

Prickly Pear, a cactus plant from the Americas, thrived in the Australian outback. The combination of cacti and rabbits, another introduced species, took a heavy toll on Australian farmland at the turn of the century. By the 1920s, Prickly Pear was a major problem. After some years of experimentation, authorities introduced a biological control in the form of the Latin American Cactoblastis Moth. The moth lays eggs on the prickly pear and its larvae eat the cactus. This was hailed as one of the world’s most successful examples of biological control (the moth eggs were distributed manually). Within six years all varieties of the prickly pear cactus had disappeared.

Not so circa 2017, with varieties of Prickly Pear re-emerging along roadsides and in paddocks around western Queensland and the southern Downs. When we travel I notice things like this and habitually make notes (usually when I’m a passenger).

In some areas (Goondwindi to Inglewood is particularly bad); the cactus has spread into farmland back from the road. Some plants look unwell, though whether through poisoning or biological controls we don’t know.

At this point it should be noted that the variety known as Tree Pear (photos) has some resistance to Cactoblastis, though it can succumb to a cochineal insect. The Southern Downs Regional Council recommends the application of herbicides.

In the interests of moistening a dry subject, let me digress and mention two folk bands that enshrined the Prickly Pear legend into folklore.

Toowoomba musicians John and Sandy Whybird formed Cactoblastis Bush Band when John, then a high school teacher at Chinchilla, saw what Prickly Pear could do to the land. He taught students about the pest and the late 1920s solution to the invasive species.

The band, which recently recorded a CD, performed at the Chinchilla Museum last September to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the introduction of Cactoblastis to the area.

A Brisbane folk duo (Jan Davis and the late Tony Miles), adopted the clever stage name Prickly Pair. They played together for eight years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

My research led me to the Urban Dictionary, which defines Prickly Pair as slang for the stubble growing back on a man’s testicles after shaving (for an operation or whatever).

Anyway, the Common Pest Pear is back and local farmers ought to know that notification of infestation is required under the Biosecurity Act 2014. No-one expects a problem of the scale which caused farmers to walk off their land after ‘The Pear’ and rabbits finished off what floods and drought had missed. There’s a plaque alongside the Moonie River at Nindigully that commemorates the success of the Cactoblastis moth, when the use of poisons and cochineal insects proved to be ineffective.

Early settlers, in their wisdom, decided to set up a cochineal industry to provide dye for clothing. The cochineal is a scale insect from which the natural dye is extracted. The insects are found on the pads of prickly pear cacti then brushed off and dried.

The Pear is commonly spread by birds and animals eating the fruit and excreting seeds. However, the new spread of Prickly Pear has been accelerated by floods moving broken cacti pads from one location to another.

The State Government’s Business Queensland website describes the Pear as “vigorous in hot, dry conditions, causing other plants to lose vigour or die. It competes and invades pastures and impedes stock movement and mustering.”

Authorities took the rampaging cacti seriously and began investigating biological control agents in 1912. More than 150 insect species were studied, with 18 insects and one mite released in Queensland.

Today, eight insects, including Cactoblastis cactorum remain established in Queensland. An article by Leonie Seabrook and Clive McAlpine in the Queensland Historical Atlas describes Prickly Pear in Queensland as a generic term for five different Opuntia cacti.  Three are low-growing shrubs up to 1.5 metres high and two are tree pears, growing up to three metres. The article observes that at the height of the infestation in 1925, prickly pear had spread across 24 million hectares in Queensland and New South Wales.

While the (imported) Cactoblastis Moth was hailed as a biological saviour, early settlers must shoulder the blame for importing invasive species and pests into Australia. Apart from prickly pear and many other weed species, settlers also introduced cane toads, rabbits and feral goats, pigs, cats, brumbies, foxes and camels.

Prickly Pear observations aside, we had four lovely days hiking in Carnarvon Gorge where the weather was balmy. It did rain on the last day but I went for a walk anyway. It’s only rain, as they say in NZ.

As you’ll have gathered, we just spent 10 days towing our little caravan out to Carnarvon Gorge via Rolleston and back via Injune, Roma, St George, Nindigully, Goondiwindi and Warwick. Today we headed home, via Toowoomba and Esk.

Other on-road observations included a lot of road kill, a feral cat, a lone kangaroo out in the middle of the day, a couple of pelicans in a dam, two emus foraging in the long grass, an abandoned car that had been pillaged for parts and a bloke on a recumbent bicycle (the rider lying down and pedalling in a reclining position). We saw two vans smaller than our 12-footer and a massive RV being towed by a 4×4 (with a small car being towed behind that).

We had the usual (and unusual) mishaps common to most caravan expeditions. Like trying to move the car when it was still shackled to the caravan by metal chains (good one, Bob). I bought one of those stainless steel coffee percolators you brew on the stove. First cup I poured tasted a little soapy. As I sipped further down the cup it transpired someone had left a spoonful of congealed dishwashing liquid in the bottom of the cup. (Guess who usually does the dishes? Ed.)

A highlight of the trip was the free camp at Nindigully, where about 50 caravanners were camped beside the Moonie River. A goodly number of them gathered in the pub to watch the State of Origin decider. Many people left at half-time (we assume they were NSW supporters or maybe they were just cold). The ones who remained were in good spirits, taking their crushing defeat like good sports. As we headed back to the van in the dark we heard a chorus of cheering and the war cry ‘Queenslander!’ from the pub.

How do you reckon NSW will go next year?” I asked She Who Spilt A Pot of Pepper In the Van But Didn’t Want It Mentioned.

“I reckon they’re cactus,” she said, chortling quietly under her maroon beanie.

Online subscribers might have noticed we did not file a FOMM last week. That’s because we were out bush and offline. I did post a 2014 column to email subscribers. You can read it here:

https://accounts.google.com/o/oauth2/approval/v2?auto=false&response=code%3D4%2F95ecdlLPrRNanWf2kHbdOTsrt5gIfRbSQ-pTeN6r60s&approvalCode=4%2F95ecdlLPrRNanWf2kHbdOTsrt5gIfRbSQ-pTeN6r60s

If it doesn’t rain soon, mate

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Baroon Pocket Dam March 8, 2017 (Photos by Bob & Laurel Wilson)

Conversations in the street of any Australian town often involve the weather, which over the past four months has been bereft of rain or “dry” (pronounced “droy.”

Tim: “How’s things, Harold?

Harold: “Droy, mate!”

Tim: “Got 10 points last night – hardly worth measurin’.”

Harold: “How’re dams holdin?”

Tim: “Nothin’ but mud and mosquitos.”

Mrs Harold: “If it doesn’t rain soon, mate, we’re gonna move back to the town.”

The latter is the narrator’s refrain from one of my songs; the laconic farmer, chin up as usual, watching the ABC. He’s being harassed by the banks, making do with pumpkin scones and home brew and tells the wife that if she must pay bills, pay the one with the lawyer’s letter – today.

Australian farmers are well-used to Continue reading “If it doesn’t rain soon, mate”