By Ian Gonella

When President Clinton and his wife decided to finish off their visit to the “land down under” following his 1996 reelection victory, they chose to holiday in one of the most beautiful spots in Australia—the far north Queensland town of Port Douglas. Opposite the turquoise waters of the Great Barrier Reef and sheltered by the peaks of the Daintree Rainforest, Port Douglas is an idyllic spot, a paradise of white sandy beaches edged by swaying palm trees. A great place for the Clintons to unwind after a hectic campaign.

But, as is often the case, all isn’t what it seems to the naked eye. One of the first things the President and the First Lady would have seen as they entered their hotel was a sign in the lobby advising them and other guests not to drink the tap water. An identical sign was also in their suite of rooms along with the hotel’s offer to avail themselves of the bottled water supplied free of charge in the refrigerator.

Trouble in paradise
It must have come as a shock. How could this be? Here they were in the middle of one of the most isolated, pristine wilderness areas in the world being advised not to drink the water. What on earth could pollute the water in paradise?

The water for the Sheraton Hotel, a six-star resort, comes directly from the Mosman River, the source of which lies high up in the rainforest. It’s the same water that everyone drinks in Port Douglas as supplied by the town council. The problem with it—if indeed there is one at all—is that it’s untreated by any means whatever. It’s water that collects in the rainforest canopy from the many seasonal deluges that frequently fall and then makes its way through various streams to create the Mosman River.

In other words, the water supplied at the Sheraton in Port Douglas and to town residents is the sort we all drank before it became necessary to treat our water supplies to remove a profusion of manmade contaminants. It’s one of the few places on earth where you can still do that. Of course, the occasional possum, wombat, kuala or kangaroo may relieve themselves in or near the creek and this is enough to give just a few city dwellers on holiday in Port Douglas a “funny tummy.” In these days of contentious litigation, the hotel’s general manager prudently decided discretion was called for and had signs warning guests prominently displayed.

Are standards overblown?
The Port Douglas Council wants to treat the water supply but can’t decide whether to use a microfiltration or alum-flocculation process. The locals, who’ve never been bothered by the water, want neither. Most prefer their water just the way it is—possum poop and all.

Supporting that view, a report earlier this year from the Australian federal government’s Productivity Commission claimed that national drinking water standards are too high. Commissioner Neil Byron went on to say that adopting the water quality standards set down by the National Health and Medical Research Council would be costly to the end-user and were unnecessarily stringent claiming: “Our concern is that health experts could be unwittingly pushing for unnecessarily higher standards just because their technical capacity to test drinking water for potential contaminants is steadily improving.”

Somewhere between Port Douglas and the national capital of Canberra where the bureaucrats are based lies the truth—or reality, as we know it. In truth, the future of Australia’s water supply doesn’t look good.

A few statistics
Australia is the driest inhabited continent on the planet, with annual rainfall averaging a scant 455 millimeters—roughly 18 inches. Evaporation accounts for 88 percent of that, river runoff another 11 percent and groundwater recharge only 1 percent. To put things further into perspective, while it accounts for 5 percent of world land area, river runoff is also only 1 percent of the world total. That’s best illustrated by the fact that all of the continent’s rivers put together wouldn’t equal half of the flow of America’s Missouri River.

Yet, Australians are one of the greatest squanderers of water—with every Aussie using 320 liters or about 84.5 U.S. gallons each day (see Table 1). Equal in size to the continental United States (minus Florida), Australia is the largest island in the world with a population of around 20 million and rising. It’s this escalating population growth, combined with a lack of a potable water supply to support it that seriously threatens future generations.

In addition, reports indicate the major rivers in every state are polluted by fertilizers, human sewage and industrial waste (see River Landscapes— As a result, most city and town water supplies are now treated. Across the continent, there are more than 750 wastewater treatment plants and at least 200 water treatment plants. Over 60 percent of the population are serviced by the 19 largest urban water systems. The quality of Australian drinking water is probably as high, if not higher, than any country in the world—for the moment.

Wakeup calls
Yet confidence in Australia’s water supply was shattered in 1998 when Sydney’s 3.7 million residents were told to boil their drinking water to eradicate what was believed to be contamination by Giardia and Cryptosporidium—two waterborne pathogens that have proven deadly particularly for the elderly, very young or otherwise immunocompromised. In Milwaukee, five years earlier, a Cryptosporidium outbreak made 400,000 people ill and killed 104.

The Sydney scare lasted for over six weeks and the news was flashed around the world, but the reality is that no one died or got sick. In spite of European and American experts brought in to analyze the problem, no cause was ever found. In fact, a serious question was raised whether the contamination readings were correct at all. As the great bard would say, “much ado about nothing.”

Much more serious, however, was the outbreak of Legionella pneumophila serogroup 1 at a Melbourne aquarium earlier this year. Apparently distributed through the air conditioning system, it killed two and made 66 people very ill indeed. This prompted Australia to issue a world alert on the possibility of tourists having contracted Legionnaire’s Disease while visiting the site.

These are isolated incidents of outbreaks that—while alarming—occur much more frequently in countries with larger populations and equally polluted waterways. And it’s not as if there’s no oversight. A National Water Quality Management Strategy is in place to supervise aspects of water quality in Australia. The quality of drinking water supplied is covered by the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, the latest of which was updated in 1996. The quality of natural waters is covered by the Australian Water Quality Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Waters, which were set for revision last year. All of these are designed to reassure consumers that the quality of the water they drink is clean and safe as well as reduce manmade pollution.

Municipal water treatment
This means that the more traditional water treatment plants presently operating throughout Australia—using carbon filtration, ozonation and chlorination—will have to be added to or replaced by microfiltration. The burning question—like the resolution of many other environmental problems that beset our world is—where does the money come to pay for this? A half-hearted suggestion in federal parliament last year was the implementation of a water tax. It may well come to that.

Still, with the world’s focus turning to the Olympic Games in Sydney this month, many want to know the quality of water supplied to athletes and spectators arriving en masse to the famous harbor city is assured.

Fully aware of the international damage caused by the 1998 Giardia “outbreak,” the federal and New South Wales governments, the Sydney Council and the Sydney Water Corporation went into overdrive to ensure a high quality water supply. When the games commence, the venue will be supplied by not one but two water treatment applications.

The first is a three-stage water treatment plant for sewage and storm water. The first stage is ultraviolet (UV) irradiation exposure for disinfection, followed by microfiltration and then chlorination to add a disinfection residual. The process is efficient down to 0.2 microns. This supply will be used for irrigation and toilets only and isn’t intended for consumption. More information can be obtained from the New South Wales website:

The second supply comes from Warragamba Dam and is treated by Sydney Water at the Prospect Water Filtration Plant. After solids have been suspended, ferric chloride (as opposed to alum) is added as a coagulant and then processed through a deep-bed homogenous sand filter.

After filtration, lime is added to the water to adjust the pH balance and it’s chemically treated with chlorine and fluoride to kill any remaining bacteria. When leaving the plant for distribution, the water is tested daily for color, taste, fluoride, chlorine, pH, iron, manganese, aluminum and, of course, our old friends Cryptosporidium and Giardia. Results are posted daily on the utility’s website ( along with quarterly bulletins.

According to Sydney Water spokesperson Colin Judge any visitor to Sydney can feel confident in drinking the water.

“With all of the actions we have taken since 1998, we now have a water treatment system that removes 99.9 percent of all contaminants or bacteria, and we are proud to say that all of Sydney’s water supply is 100 percent filtered,” Judge said.

So, let the games commence.

About the author
Ian Gonella, of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, is a journalist and filmmaker who specializes in environmental documentaries. He has won a number of international awards, including two at the New York Film Festival. His production company, The Electric Moving Picture Company, is presently in pre-production of a two-hour documentary series on water and salinity problems in Australia. He can be reached at +61 7 3356-3312, +61 7 3356-3568 (fax) or email: [email protected]

Table 1. Water use in Australia

Agriculture 79%
Domestic1 12%
Industrial2 9%
1. Ranges from 600 liters per capita in Darwin, Northern Territory, to less than 200 in Hobart, Tasmania.
2. Significantly lower than the world average of 23 percent.

SOURCE: “Water Management Overview,” Australian Water Association (AWA)

A 1998 capital expenditure survey on water and wastewater treatment plants reported the national outlay on water treatment plants would be about $182 million in 1997-98, increasing to $347 million in 1998-99. For wastewater treatment plants, the corresponding figures were $493 million and $565 million, respectively.—Australian Water Association

For more information on water quality in Australia, see the following websites:


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