Water for life

As we enter summer, while the air gets dryer and the temperature gets warmer, we start to realise yet again the precious resource we have in water.

Indigenous Australians have always known the sacredness of our water. In the Dreaming, fresh water is the home of their creator – the Rainbow Serpent, or Waugul. Water is something to be protected and respected.

Josh Byrne recently delivered the Sir Walter Murdoch Lecture at Murdoch University. Josh, a WA local and a regular on ABC TV’s Gardening Australia, is considered by many a ‘water guru’. He has also turned his own house into an example of how households in Perth can live sustainably, using less water and energy.

He said the population of Perth is rapidly increasing; the Western Australian Planning Commission are anticipating that Perth will grow to a population of around 3.5 million by 2050. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Perth’s population currently sits at just over 2.5 million.

“This brings with it some significant challenges for a city like Perth which has been traditionally low density and sprawled,” Josh said. “That number of 3.5 million people is expected to require an additional 800 000 new homes. Forty six percent of that plan, the government is expecting to be infill within the existing metropolitan footprint.”

Josh added that the South West of Australia is also seeing some of the most profound effects of human-induced climate change in the world.


Brine shrimp (Parartemia serventyi) that is only known from naturally saline lakes in the Goldfields region of WA. It has been recorded living in lakes with seven times more salt than the ocean. It lays drought tolerant eggs that stay dormant in the dry sediment of salt lakes until the next rains.

“It’s a particular twist of geographical fate,” he said. “We’re seeing a sharp decline in rainfall. We’re seeing an increase in temperatures. And whilst there’s some range of opinion of how pronounced the next 20–50 years will be in terms of decline in rainfall and increase in temperature, there is no doubt amongst the leading scientists in this space that we will see change.”

This affects our regional areas too, as drought is devastating for our farmers. The West Australian Department of Agriculture and Food, as an example, is just one organisation that has prepared a Climate Change Response Strategy to help prepare for our changing climate in regional areas.

What does this have to do with our water? Well, quite a lot.

Here in Australia we are lucky to live amongst some of the cleanest water in the world, which Josh says is a tribute to our Water Corporation as they are leading the way in water resilience for cities with dry climates.

Western Australia is home to a unique system of rivers and wetlands; and the cleanliness and vibrancy of our waterways has a direct relationship to the quality of our household water.

There are wetlands all over WA, and 12 of these are internationally recognised by the Ramsar Convention, or the Convention on Wetlands. Signed in Iran in 1971, the Ramsar Convention is an international treaty, with an agreement to work towards the conservation of wetlands.

Adrian Pinder, principal research scientist and leader of the Wetlands Conservation Program at the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife, said the convention was originally set-up as a way to protect migratory waterbirds. In WA, there are many species of birds which fly here for the summer, returning to the northern hemisphere to breed.

“The various countries that were party to that convention, which includes Australia, agreed to nominate significant wetlands in their own countries for special protection,” Adrian said.

“They’re some of the most significant wetlands that we have in the state and they’ve been listed for their conservation values.

“More recently, the criteria has expanded to look at more than just waterbirds; so to look at their broader conservation values. So plants, aquatic invertebrates, that sort of thing.”

Adrian said that our wetlands are part of a connected system that affects a large part of our biodiversity system, not just the unique species that live in the water. Our wetlands were formed millions of years ago, originally as old river systems, which over time have formed after the ancient rivers stopped flowing.

“There certainly are wetlands everywhere; even in the desert there are wetlands,” Adrian said. “One important thing to remember, especially for wetlands in a dry continent like Australia, is that wetlands will often have no water. They’re still called wetlands; they have water when it rains.

“That drying and wetting cycle that you get in so many Western Australian wetlands has really important implications for the animals and plants that live in them. So they look pretty barren when they’re dry, but when they flood with water after rains, they just come to life.”

Adrian explained that some species of aquatic invertebrates will lay eggs while there is water, which will then lay dormant in the baked, cracking clay during its dry season – which can be decades.

When water returns, the eggs will hatch within days, and visible life returns to the area.

“Then you’ve got waterbirds. When those wetlands dry, and I’m specially talking about the arid areas, those all disappear. But when that water comes back – and it could be another few years, decades before water comes back to these areas – you’ll see water birds there very quickly.”

While WA’s Wheatbelt is home to a number of natural salt lakes, Adrian said that due to land clearing, some of our wetlands have turned from fresh lakes into salt lakes as the groundwater rises.

As our climate becomes dryer, some of our wetlands are also at risk of becoming acidic. Adrian said that rainfall in the south west of Australia is dropping faster than most places in the world.

“With climate change we’re likely to see a lot more of our wetlands drying out and that can create some problems,” Adrian said. “Some of our wetlands in the south west for instance, when they dry, they turn acid when their sediments are exposed to air.

“It’s so acidic that a lot of animals and plants can’t live in them, so they become fairly barren.”

The drying, peaty sediments are also highly flammable, causing new implications for managing bushfires.

In WA, most of our household water comes from desalination and ground water. Adrian said that the quality of our ground water is directly connected to the quality of our wetlands, as they help filter nutrients. This process also helps keep our rivers clean. In some cities, artificial wetlands are often built just for this purpose.

In rural areas, wetlands can also help stop water from flowing down stream during floods.

But they’re also more than that.

Western Australia’s wetlands are home to some of the most unique species in the world, and they deserve respecting.

“It’s not just about the water resource it’s also about protecting our natural environment,” Adrian said. “They support a lot of species that we all enjoy watching that are found nowhere else.

“If we don’t look after the wetlands those species are going to disappear. We’ll have less enjoyment as we walk around the natural environment. You won’t see the waterbirds anymore. You won’t see the herons and the frogs.”

Uncle Ben Taylor, Nyungar elder, said that for thousands of years Aboriginal people have known the value of water and its need to be protected.

“That water, it gives us life,” he said. “It’s sacred. It’s part of our religion, our culture, our spirituality.

“We’ve got to protect those sacred places. They’re drilling for oil and gas, destroying our water.

“If you destroy the water, you kill the spirit.”


In WA there are a number of wetlands which are under threat, including in Bayswater and Cockburn. To find out more about how we can work to protect them visit http://www.savebeeliarwetlands.com or http://www.envirohouse.org.au/bayswater-wetland-under-threat-development.

For more information about the Ramsar Convention visit http://www.ramsar.org or for local Ramsar information visit https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/management/wetlands/wetlands-of-national-and-international-importance.

To hear Josh Byrne’s lecture in full visit http://our.murdoch.edu.au/University-Secretarys-Office/University-history/Lectures-and-speeches/Sir-Walter-Murdoch-Memorial-Lecture-Series

For more information on Josh’s House visit http://joshshouse.com.au.

To find out more about water sensitive cities visit https://watersensitivecities.org.au/what-is-a-water-sensitive-city.

Heather Dowling

Top image: Coondiner Pool in the Pilbara (photo credit: Michael Lyons, Dept of Parks and Wildlife).

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