Desalination in Australia

Justin Stein
May 25, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2015


Fig. 1: Construction of pipeline from Victoria Desalination plant to Melbourne. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The idea of desalinating the ocean's water to make it drinkable has long been around. In the modern age, the first desalination systems came about so that ships could have fresh boiler water for long voyages. Then, beginning in the mid twentieth century, novel desalination processes began to surface in the United States and Europe, and by the turn of the century there were thousands of desalination plants across the world.

Today, the world faces a changing climate. For the world's driest inhabited continent, Australia, this is quite evident. For the first decade of the twenty-first century, Australia experienced extended periods of dry conditions, often referred to now as the Millennium Drought. [1] Indeed, most of Australia's most populated cities such as Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney were all affected by "persistent or periodic" drought episodes. One consequence of the Millennium Drought has been rise in desalination projects, with a rising concern for fresh water present on the minds of the Australian government and citizenry.

Victoria Desalination Plant

Of all of Australia's states, one in particular was hit by drought much more than the rest: Victoria. In the southeastern tip of the country, recorded rainfall during the period between 1997 and 2009 was the lowest ever recorded. [1] In response to the threatening climate change as well as a rising population with greater water and energy needs, the Victorian government was pushed to act. In 2007, the government announced the Victorian Desalination Project, a "rainfall independent way to drought-proof [the] water supply." [2] As the most ambitious seawater desalination project in Australia, it would supply up to 150 gigaliters of water per year to Victoria, including providing over a third of Melbourne's total annual water usage. [2] Over the next two years, an Environmental Effect Statement, public reports, approval applications, and contract bidding were all undertaken and submitted before construction began in late 2009. After years of construction, including building the pipeline from the plant to Victoria's coastal capital of Melbourne as pictured on the right, the Victorian - also known as the Wonthaggi - desalination plant was completed. (See Fig. 1) In a turn of events, Victorian water supply levels began to rise following 2009 and the Millennium Drought. With this relatively unforeseen development, the Victorian government decided the desalination plants use would not be required, and it was put into stand-by mode.


Flashing forward several years and the political as well as literal climate is once again changing in Australia. Though often portrayed as a "white elephant" by critics of the several billion dollar plant that has never been used, the Victorian desalination plant may soon prove its worth. Melbourne's water storage levels have been back on the decline. 2015 proved to be Australia's fifth-warmest year on record. Moreover, several drier years saw drought re-emerge through several parts of the country, including south-western Victoria. [1] Thus, with an emerging water shortage and pessimistic expectations for the near future, it could well be that Victoria's great desalination plant could come to life.

© Justin Stein. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Technical Report: Projections for Australia's NRM Regions," Climate Change in Australia, Bureau of Meteorology, Government of Australia, 2015.

[2] K. Mitchell et al., "Environment Effects Statement," Victorian Desalination Project, 4 Dec 08.