Deluge and Drought: Australia's Water Security in a Changing Climate - Hope 103.2

Deluge and Drought: Australia’s Water Security in a Changing Climate

The future is now - experts warn climate change impacts are here now and urgent action is needed to rapidly reduce greenhouse emissions. A new Climate Commission report has sobering news. Co-author, Professor Lesley Hughes, spoke to Open House about the impacts and increasing threats to Australia.

By Anne RinaudoTuesday 11 Dec 2018Open House InterviewsLifeReading Time: 4 minutes

Listen: Lesley Hughes in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.

The future is now – experts warn climate change impacts are here now and urgent action is needed to rapidly reduce greenhouse emissions.

Water is essential for life. It shapes where and how we live, determines the availability of food and other services that underpin human well-being and is crucial for healthy natural ecosystems. Yet in Australia and globally the water cycle has been significantly influenced by climate change, leading to more extreme droughts and floods.

Changes are here now

The Australian Climate Council has released a major report, Deluge and drought: Australia’s water security in a changing climate. The report argues that significant impacts on and risks to Australia’s water security are already evident, and these risks will continue to escalate unless deep and rapid reductions in global greenhouse gas pollution can be achieved.

The report has been co-authored by seven climate change experts, including Australian Climate Council, Councillor, Professor Lesley Hughes, who spoke to Open House about the impacts and increasing threats to Australia.

Professor Hughes is a Distinguished Professor of Biology and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Integrity & Development) at Macquarie University. Her research has mainly focused on the impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems. She is a former federal Climate Commissioner and former Lead Author in the IPCC’s 4th and 5th Assessment Report.

Very rapid changes

According to Professor Hughes “Climate has been changing globally, at about 170 times the rate in the last 40 years, as it has in the last 7,000. So what that means is that yes, we can look back in the past, but in a way what it tells us is somewhat limited, in terms of informing us about the future,  because things are happening so much faster now than they ever really had in the geological record.” she says.

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Temperature rises

The report found the severe drought gripping much of Australia has been exacerbated by climate change. Climate Councillor, Professor Will Steffen is another of the co-authors and a previous Open House guest who warned of the dire possibility Hot House Climate Change will make parts of earth uninhabitable.

“Climate change is shifting our rainfall patterns and increasing the severity of droughts and floods. We’ve always been a sunburnt country, but things are getting worse,” says Professor Steffen.

“We’ve seen temperatures rising in Australia over the long term. This has been driven primarily by the burning of coal, oil and gas. he says.

More and worse droughts, floods

The report found that the Murray-Darling Basin, which produces more than a third of our food, has experienced a 41% decline in streamflow over the past 20 years.

“Climate change means severe droughts are expected to become more frequent, increasing the risk of water shortages for agriculture and urban water supplies. We’re very concerned that streamflow in the Basin will reduce even further, affecting everybody who depends on the river as well as fish and bird life,” says Professor Steffen.

Report Key Findings

  • Australia’s water security has been significantly influenced by climate change.
  • Less water is likely to be available for agriculture, urban water supplies and ecosystems in coming decades across southern Australia, including regions surrounding Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
  • Less water is likely to flow into dams in southern Australia as a result of human-driven climate change.
  • Short-term drought solutions will be ultimately futile without concerted and rapid action to tackle climate change.
  • Australia’s long-term water security is dependent on action on climate change, particularly on the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.

Greenhouse pollution keeps rising

Professor Steffen said Australia’s water-related infrastructure, such as dam spillways and river levees, had been designed for historic rainfall patterns.

“Upgrading this infrastructure to cope with increased flooding and drought, as well as building new facilities, is expensive.  We’ve already spent billions of dollars on desalination plants,” he said.

“We must act urgently to reduce our greenhouse gas pollution levels, which have been rising for three years in a row, Australia’s water security is dependent on global action on climate change and we must do our fair share,” he said.

Health impacts of climate change

“Severe droughts, heavy rainfall and floods all affect our health in many ways – contaminating water supplies, increasing mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and ross river virus, and increasing psychological stress in rural communities,” said Professor Steffen.

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Main Photo Credit: Bore water tank during drought by Gregory Heath CSIRO Creative Commons.

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