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Are Victorians wasting too much water to handle another drought?

Could you live on just 50 litres of water per day? For one person, that would mean only about one load of washing per week, using hand sanitiser in lieu of washing your hands, and only flushing the toilet once a day.

Sound like an impossible nightmare? Well that’s what the 3.76 million people who live in Cape Town, South Africa are having to do as they count down to what is being called ‘Day Zero’. It’s as ominous as it sounds: the day Cape Town’s water supply is expected to run dry. And it could be as early as June or July this year.

These strict water saving measures may sound extreme but so far residents have managed to cut collective water consumption by more than half. In Victoria, at the height of the so-called ‘Millennium drought’ the state’s suggested personal water consumption rate was 150 litres per day.

Thinking back to the late 2000s, you may remember keeping buckets in the shower to collect excess water or the famous advertising line ‘have a shower with your fella Stella’. Even Sesame Street, the well-loved children’s show, plugged free-to-air TV with water conservation shorts to tap into kids’ conscience.

But after a decade of steady metropolitan water supply in Melbourne, how prepared are city dwellers for the next inevitable drought? Have our water conservation habits changed for good, or have we reverted to the bad old days of hosing driveways?

Are Victorians becoming Wallys with water all over again?

It has been over 30 years since the ‘Don’t be a Wally with Water’ campaign and in the ten years  since the Millennium Drought, Melbourne’s population has grown by one million people. Professor of Global Change, Environment and Society Brett Bryan and research fellow Dr Michalis Hadjikakou of Deakin University argue that as the city has grown, public attitudes to water conservation have changed – for good.

Water restrictions have really made people aware that water is a finite and scarce resource, Prof. Bryan says, and that they have to be careful with it, rather than in the days of old; going out and running under the sprinkler.

‘It seems to me that there has been long-term behavioural change whereby Melburnians respect the scarcity value of water,’ he says.

What about the long-range water forecast?

Prof. Bryan says the combination of increased population, increased industrial use, system losses and the climate-change induced drying trend and perhaps increasing severity and frequency of drought will see a shortfall of water in the medium to long term.

‘That’s something to watch out for and to mitigate against. But then we’ve got things like the north-south pipeline and the desalination plant which are risk mitigation strategies to hedge against that,’ he says.

It’s been almost a year since the first 50 gigalitres of water began to flow from Victoria’s controversial desalination plant. It is currently running at about 10% with no projection to turn it up this year.

‘The fact that the desalination plant at the moment is supplying a very small amount of water is an indication that our current supplies are meeting demand, Dr Hadjikakou argues. ‘It’s really adding security to the water supply in case it’s needed.’

'It seems to me that there has been long-term behavioural change whereby Melburnians respect the scarcity value of water,'

Professor Brett Bryan,
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

Can we avoid our own ‘Day Zero’ in Melbourne?

Melbourne will undoubtedly face water restrictions as the next drought hits, Prof. Bryan and Dr Hadjikakou believe. Ten years ago, Victoria was saved by rain and had the security of surplus water capacity because of money spent on infrastructure.

Since then there have been fundamental changes in attitudes to water including how water is used in homes and gardens, the growth of water saving measures such as rain tanks and efficient products such as washing machines and shower heads.

But even so, total demand for water will increase.

‘We need to think long term about measures like water re-use and treating storm water to sustainably increase supply,’ Prof. Bryan says.

Interested in the impact of population growth on the environment? Consider studying environmental science at Deakin.

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Professor Brett Bryan
Professor Brett Bryan

Professor of Global Change, Environment and Society, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University.

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Dr Michalis Hadjikakou
Dr Michalis Hadjikakou

Research Fellow, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University.

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