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Dam growth threatens Blue Mountains world heritage status

July 9, 2019 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Having narrowly avoided the Great Barrier Reef being placed on UNESCO’s “in danger” list in 2017, Australia now faces another challenge – the prospect of Sydney’s iconic Blue Mountains region, a magnet for tourists and Sydneysiders alike, losing its World Heritage status.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) has requested an updated environmental impact statement detailing a controversial proposal to raise, by at least 14 metres, the wall of Warragamba Dam in the Blue Mountains.

The proposal would potentially change the area dramatically, flooding up to 10 square kilometres of world heritage area and 37 square kilometres of surrounding national park.

Former NSW Environment Minister Bob Debus says the area proposed for inundation “includes at least 300 known Gundungurra Aboriginal cultural sites, which would be damaged. Its cultural and conservation value is exceptional even within the Blue Mountains area.”

The WHC has asked for an updated impact statement to be submitted by December next year, if Australia wishes to keep UNESCO World Heritage status for the Blue Mountains.

The Warragamba Dam catchment area holds more water than Sydney Harbour – but Sydney’s endless growth creates a need for ever more water. Hence the call for higher walls on the dam.

Sydney is Australia’s biggest city and its population of about 5 million people is projected to double as the century progresses if immigration continues at its current rate.

Blue Mountains scene

Sydney’s water storage levels are falling faster than they have in decades, despite residents reducing their average water use. Urban sprawl is spreading as thousands of new residents stream in.

NSW Government data shows Sydney’s dam water level has fallen over the past year by about one quarter. On Saturday, the dams were 53% full. Average water use is now about 200 litres per person a day in Sydney, down from 250 litres a year or two ago, but population growth has largely wiped out the savings.

Stuart Ayres, the NSW Minister for Western Sydney as well as Minister for Tourism, stresses that no final decision has been made to raise the Warragamba Dam wall but admits that “raising the dam wall is a key part of the strategy to reduce the existing risk to life and property on the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplain…”

For Western Sydney, site of the coming Western Sydney International (Nancy-Bird Walton) Airport, the only alternative water supply would entail pumping desalinated water 90km uphill from the coast. That would be very expensive, as water is heavy and cannot be compressed. Besides, Sydney’s current desalination plant can provide only about 15% of the city’s needs.

A warning is provided by the Indian city of Chennai, home to 9 million people, where population has outstripped water supply. Chennai’s reservoirs and lakes are parched and wells have run dry after two years of drought. It is being cited as the first major world city to run out of water.

Warragamba Dam, west of Sydney

Local authorities in the Indian city are desalinating seawater and trucking in freshwater – but the supply is still only 60% of the city’s basic requirement for water and even hospitals are having difficulty functioning.

Written by Peter Needham

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