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Arid Australia Sips Seawater

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Filed: Timeline

In one of the country’s biggest infrastructure projects in its history, Australia’s five largest cities are spending $13.2 billion on desalination plants capable of sucking millions of gallons of seawater from the surrounding oceans every day, removing the salt and yielding potable water. In two years, when the last plant is scheduled to be up and running, Australia’s major cities will draw up to 30 percent of their water from the sea.

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Desalination has also helped dampen the enthusiasm for a “big Australia,” the previous, immigration-friendly government’s projection that the country’s population will rise to 36 million in 2050, from 22 million now.“Big waste of money,” said Helen Meyer, 65, a retired midwife in Tugun, the town where the northeastern state of Queensland opened a $1 billion desalination plant last year. “It cost a lot of money to build, and it uses a lot of power. Australia is a dry country. I think we just have enough water for 22 million people. What are we going to do when we’re up to 36 million?”

The plan ... has been supplying 6 percent of the region’s water needs and has the capacity to deliver 20 percent, said Barry Dennien, chief executive of the SEQ Water Grid Manager, the utility that oversees this region’s water supply.

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Besides restricting water use and subsidizing the purchase of home water tanks to capture rainwater, the state spent nearly $8 billion to create the country’s most sophisticated water supply network. It fashioned dams and a web of pipelines to connect 18 independent water utilities in a single grid. To “drought proof” the region, it built facilities for manufacturing water, by recycling wastewater, to use for industrial purposes, and by desalinating seawater. Production of desalinated water can be adjusted according to rain levels.

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The region now has enough water for the next 20 years.

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Critics say desalination will add to the very climate change that is aggravating the country’s water shortage. To make desalination politically palatable, Australia’s plants are using power from newly built wind farms or higher-priced energy classified as clean. For households in cities with the new plants, water bills are expected to double over the next four years, according to the Water Services Association.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/world/asia/11water.html

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