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Norfolk Island locals work with CSIRO, Defence, to find long term water solutions

Liz Clarkson and Kia Handley, Tuesday February 11, 2020 - 13:18 EDT
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Norfolk Island has had a very dry summer so far with only 12mm of rain. - ABC

As many drought-stricken communities on mainland Australia celebrate hundreds of millimetres of rainfall, Norfolk Island received less than 2 millimetres, heightening community concerns about running out of water.

Some households have already run out of water and are relying on the kindness of neighbours to top up their tanks months after the island last recorded meaningful rain.

"It was around September [or] October when we last had rain," said farmer Haydyn Evans.

"We had about four inches then, but because we've had two years in a row of dry winters it's starting to flow on."

Mr Evans said water is constantly on the minds of residents weighing up how much they need to avoid running out, and what the long-term solution to the problem is.

"Most households would have nothing less than a 30,000 litre tank, which can keep you going about three months," he said.

"But with less rain coming each month that's changing, and we need to start thinking about the future."

Help has arrived

With no sign of rain, the Federal Government and the Australian Defence Force have set up a temporary water purification and desalination plant on the island.

The desalination system can produce 100,000L of drinking water a day and will operate for three weeks before an assessment as to whether it is still needed is carried out.

Mayor Robin Adams said the technology will make a big difference.

"We are so isolated," she said.

"We're this little dot sitting in the middle of the Pacific, and you look around and see all this water but there isn't a drop to drink — unless you have the infrastructure to help you do that.

"Out of the all this stress it's nice to see some good is coming.

"As a community we're waking up to the fact that weather patterns are changing — Norfolk Island is on notice for warmer weather and less rain as time goes on, so we need to be responsible in the long term."

A better way to monitor water

As well as the immediate plans, an extensive project is under way to better understand water levels and collection on the island.

The CSIRO and is halfway through an 18-month long project looking closely at Norfolk's unique water situation.

"One of the challenges is that while there is excellent climate data courtesy of the BOM, there's very little to no baseline hydrological information," project leader Cuan Petheram said.

"Without that data we can only use anecdotal information, which can't always tell us when ground water is getting low."

There will be no single solution to Norfolk Island's water security, and Mr Petheram said he is preparing a range of options to increase the community's resilience.

"We're looking at everything from hydrological measuring equipment to how we can harvest rainwater and connect free roof space with very large storages," he said.

"If we do that and look at things like getting rid of exotic weeds that use large quantities of water, we feel this will make a difference in years to come."


© ABC 2020

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