Melburnians are serious about using water responsibly.
I lived in Melbourne for nearly three years, from 2010 to late 2012. When I first arrived in Australia, I had the perspective of someone who had never been affected by a water shortage: I knew water conservation was important, but in a vague, non-scientifically based, “don’t waste water, save the oceans” way. No matter how much water I used or did not use, I had absolutely no doubt that more water would pour out of the tap by the gallon the next time I turned it on. I was so certain of this being true for the indefinite future, that I didn’t spend much time thinking about where my water came from.
For Melburnians, this was not the case.
Southeast Australia’s Millennium Drought lasted over a decade, from 1997 to 2009. According to a 2015 report published in WIREs Water, Melbourne was able to reduce its per capita water consumption by almost 50% during this period. Still, as the report states, at the end of the drought in June 2009, Melbourne’s water “storage volumes fell to a historic low of 25.6% of capacity”. It was a really bad drought.
Fortunately, the Australian government already had a legal framework in place before the Drought began that allowed for a swift initial response and incremental water restrictions on agriculture, industry, and the public. The framework also supported water conservation programs and the exploration of innovations such as recycled water in agriculture. In addition to water savings through policy and infrastructure innovations, the Millennium Drought created a cultural shift in Melburnians’ moral compass to include a respect for the water they use. Every use is justified; if there is a way to reduce the amount of water used, they will attempt it.
My time in Melbourne made me a more conscious water consumer with a deeper appreciation for the water that comes out of my tap. Over four years after leaving Australia, I find myself justifying my longer-than-five-minute shower every time I step into the tub. I notice myself glaring at those who wash a spoon or a mug with a gallon of water gushing out of the tap before placing it into the dishwasher*^. I am automatically conscious of times when I am using water responsibly, and times when I could do better. However abundant water may seem, there is not an indefinite supply.
American’s don’t need to look very far to gain a clear picture of what a water shortage looks like; instead of conserving water with the vague idea of “not wasting the ocean” we can conserve water to help prevent a California or Texas water crisis in our own states. As climate change intensifies and droughts become more common, it has never been more important for each of us to do our part conserving as much water as we can. This includes those of us in water-rich areas. Paying attention to our own water usage habits at the individual level is a great place to start.
How do you conserve water? Share in the comments below!
*Dishwashers do a better job both sanitizing dishes and conserving water—you don’t need to “pre-wash”, or even “pre-rinse” dishes by hand. (More info from treehugger)
^In case you don’t have a dishwasher, an Australian taught me how to hand wash a sink full of dishes with minimal water: 1) fill sink with a couple inches of water to wet and soak dishes. 2) Get a soapy sponge to soap up all the dishes one by one (start with silverware and work your way towards pots and pans), place soaped up dishes on side of sink. 3) drain dirty water and refill sink with small amount of water, rinse dishes in the sink in the same order as soaping them. 4) dry dishes, and congrats! You saved water, and your dishes are sparkly clean.
Alex Setmajer is a sustainability professional with experience in sustainable business practices/CSR, sustainable rating systems, sustainability certifications, research, materials, waste reduction, communications and employee engagement. Her mission in life is to increase the sustainability and transparency of supply chain and sourcing practices, as well as increasing product and material health and transparency to consumers. Alex is based in Portland, Oregon and blogs at www.thisvastnow.com