Australia Turns to Desalination Amid Water Shortage Parts of Australia are getting drier than ever — so dry that some cities are scrambling to adapt by finding new water sources before it's too late. Perth has just opened the continent's first reverse-osmosis desalination plant — and it's run on wind power.

Australia Turns to Desalination Amid Water Shortage

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When you hear that music you know it's time for another installment of Climate Connections. NPR and National Geographic are traveling the world looking at how people are shaping Earth's climate and how climate shapes people. This month we're focusing on the Pacific, and today we visit Australia. Parts of that island continent are getting drier than ever, so dry that some cities are scrambling to adapt by finding new water sources before it's too late.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from the Western Australian city of Perth.

(Soundbite of tennis match)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: The grass courts at Perth's Peppermint Grove Tennis Club look good - so good, so green, you can't help wondering if all this talk about drought and running out of water is for real.

Beyond the fence, sailboats and kayaks bob in the Swan River, a thick ribbon of blue that winds through a city bordered on the west by the Indian Ocean - a city where there seems to be water everywhere, but one that's facing a serious water shortage.

Mr. MALCOLM TURNBULL (Australia's Federal Minister for Environment And Water Resources): Over the last 10 years or so, Perth has seen its rainfall decline by about 21 percent on average, but the stream flow into the dams - that's to say the extra water running into storages - has declined by about 64 percent.

We've seen similar - although not quite so dramatic - declines in stream flow across Southern Australia.

SULLIVAN: Malcolm Turnbull is Australia's minister for the Environment And Water Resources. He calls Perth the canary in the climate change coal mine, a city scrambling to find other sources of water for a growing population, a population riding a wave of economic prosperity fueled by China's insatiable appetite for Western Australia's natural resources.

Gary Crisp is with the Western Australia Water Corporation.

Mr. GARY CRISP (Business Development Manager, Western Australia Water Corporation): Perth's population is about 1.7 million, and the city is growing at a massive rate because of the resources boom, because of India and China. So something like 750 families per week are moving to Perth and together with that we've got a reduction in rainfall and a reduction in runoff. So we need more water. We're absolutely running out.

SULLIVAN: And that helps explain why the Water Corporation turned to the nearby Indian Ocean to help solve its problem.

(Soundbite of desalination plant)

SULLIVAN: The Kwinana desalination plant south of the city opened just a few months ago. It's the first of its kind in Australia, covering just a few acres in an industrial park next to the ocean. Simon McKay is the project manager.

Mr. SIMON McKAY (Kwinana Desalination Plant): Water is taken in from Cockburn Sound - the Indian Ocean. The intake structure itself is about 250 meters offshore. The intake velocity in the pipe is only 0.1 meters per second. So it's less than the escape velocity for the fish. The fish can escape quite easily.

SULLIVAN: Slow enough to let the fish escape, but fast enough to provide nearly 40 million gallons of drinking water each day, or roughly 20 percent of Perth's daily consumption. And that makes the plant the single largest source of water for the city.

Mr. McKAY: It's very much the heart of the process. These large racks to your left here, these are the first part of reverse osmosis (unintelligible) reverse osmosis is done in two stages. We remove about 99 percent of the salt in the first stage, the balance of one percent in the second stage.

SULLIVAN: After the first stage, if I drank the water, it would be fine, basically.

Mr. McKAY: It would, it would.

SULLIVAN: It would taste a little salty but I could drink it.

Mr. McKAY: Your taste buds wouldn't pick up the salt after the first stage.

SULLIVAN: McKay says it doesn't take very long either for the seawater to be ready for the tap.

Mr. McKAY: So coming from the ocean through the pre-treatment, through the reverse osmosis part, into the drinking water tank and out to distribution about a half an hour.

SULLIVAN: Desalination plants have been around for decades - in the Middle East, for example. But they've always been expensive to build and expensive to run. New technology has made them cheaper and more efficient, but they still consume a huge amount of energy.

And environmentalists in Perth balked at the idea of using coal-fired plants to provide power for this one, forcing the Water Corporation to find a non-polluting, renewable alternative.

(Soundbite of wind farm)

SULLIVAN: The Water Corporation found that alternative - a three-hour drive north of Perth, near the town of Cervantes, where they are doing more than tilting at windmills.

This is the Emu Downs Wind Farm, where 48 giant wind turbines - each as high as a 15-story building - turn slowly but steadily in the stiff breeze while cattle graze below.

Mr. KERRY ROBERTS (General Manager, Emu Downs Wind Farm): This is probably one of the top 10 or 20 sites within Australia for this sort of activity.

SULLIVAN: Kerry Roberts is the general manager of the wind farm.

Mr. ROBERTS: So if you look at the combined output of the wind farm at maximum wind speeds, 24 to 28 miles per hour, you're looking at an output of close to 80 megawatts.

SULLIVAN: So these 48 wind turbines can generate enough power to power that desalination plant; that's about 160 miles south of here.

Mr. ROBERTS: Correct.

SULLIVAN: And that plant produces about 40 million gallons...

Mr. ROBERTS: Drinking water per day, yes. That's a pretty good amalgamation of renewable energy and looking at replenishment of natural resources for the West Australian area.

SULLIVAN: This successful marriage of renewable technology and need has Western Australia Water Corporation engineer Gary Crisp thinking big.

Mr. CRISP: I predict and I believe what will happen is that desal will account for at least half of Perth's water in the next 30 years.

SULLIVAN: Other water-stressed, seaside cities in Australia are taking a serious look at desalination, as traditional water sources dry up due to lack of rain, overuse, or both. Sydney is expected to commission a plant even larger than Perth's in the next few months.

And the desal boom extends far beyond Australia's shores. Simon McKay, the man in charge of getting this plant up and running, will soon be off to Muscat in Oman to build another. His company's order book is filling up quickly, he says, and he doesn't expect that to change in his lifetime. Neither does the Western Australia Water Corporation's Gary Crisp.

Mr. CRISP: The world is going reverse osmosis, seawater reverse osmosis, just like we are. And California has just announced one big plant; I think it's 190 megaliters a day in Carlsbad. There's numerous plants being planned and built in south of Spain. So desalination is here to stay, and provided energy is not taken out of the normal coal-burning system, I believe it's the solution for the semiarid parts of the world.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And you can find more stories about climate change in the Pacific at There you will also see a very different take on global warming and the latest episode of our animated series. It's all about carbon from NPR's Robert Krulwich and Public Television's Wild Chronicles.

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