Australians are used to living with drought. Known to be the world’s driest inhabitable continent, a drought starting in 2003 proved to be the worst on modern record. Rainfalls were the lowest since 1900, and temperatures were the highest since the 1950s. Accordingly, the country sprang into action, pouring billions into desalination plants to refill the country’s water supplies. But as The New York Times reports, some question the logic of these plants, as they require an extreme amount of fossil fuels to operate.

According to the NY Times, Australia’s five largest cities have spent around $13.2 billion on desalination plants. These plants remove salt and minerals from water, making it usable for human consumption and irrigation. The positive aspects to the plants are that cities will be able to draw up to 30 percent of their water from the sea, once they are up and running. Desalination is already extensively used on ships at sea. But large scale desalination plants require an extreme amount of energy to operate, and this energy generally comes from fossil fuels.

Consequently, these plants have drawn protests. First, they are extremely expensive. The country has spent billions building them, stating that is the cost of the climate change. But Australians don’t agree. Helen Meyer is a retired midwife in Queensland. As she told the NY Times, “[It is] a big waste of money. 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?” Further, many point out that burning fossil fuels to desalinate water simple exacerbates the global warming that contributed to it.

Australia also spent a considerable amount of money on other methods of water conservation. They have developed extensive dams and pipelines to funnel water to the cities and have subsidized home water tanks designed to capture rainwater. Opponents of the plants point out that a significant amount of water can be saved just by simple actions. For example, people could take greater measures to preserve existing water by purchasing more efficient appliances.

Others hope that Australians will be open to drinking recycled water. David Mason is pro-recycled water and a resident of Queensland, which opened a $1 billion desalination plant last year. As he told the NY Times, “since there’s only so much water in the world, and it’s been through somebody’s body or some other place over the past 250 million years, maybe it’s not that bad. At least, it might be better than desalination.”

For further reading:

Australia moves to desalinate their sea water – but not everyone is happy
Drought-ridden Australia invests billions in new sea water desalination plants while some protest their carbon footprint.