Resource availability and security

Access to reliable water and energy is a basic human right. It is also critical to the effective operation and livability of our urban ecosystems. Working to redesign and rethink our water and energy systems to ensure better availability and security to all urban areas are some of the most important urban challenges and opportunities we face today.


Potable (drinkable) water, waste water and storm water are interrelated components of the urban environment that, if not managed, will have serious repercussions for human and environmental health. Effective water and stormwater management also plays an important role in supporting the quality and flow of water within our urban waterways, along with the greening of our private and public gardens, parks, ovals and bushlands.

Case Study Urban wetlands are Indigenous places

Reproduced with permission from the authors of Recognising the conservation and cultural value of urban wetlands (Soanes et al. 2020):

Many cities in Australia were founded on wetlands and waterways that are integral to Indigenous history and culture. In Perth, for example, wetlands sat gently on the lower parts of the ancient dunes that compose the Swan Coastal Plain, a relatively narrow strip of sandy country located between the Indian Ocean and the Yilgarn Plateau. The country was so swampy that early European records described some sections only being able to be crossed by horse. Today, the Perth railway station, located between the Perth CBD and the vibrant Northbridge, sits right at the margin of what was once a large, rich wetland, known as Goologoolup. In Melbourne, the Parkville campus of the University of Melbourne is built on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri peoples of the Woi Wurrung language group, who have belonged to and been custodians of the lands for more than 65,000 years. The waterway which once meandered through the site was drained and covered over, now only existing as an underground watercourse.

These wetlands and waterways were thriving cultural ecosystems, providing important meeting places, important resources of plant and animal life, and important pathways through the landscape for First Nations Peoples. Indigenous peoples have always gathered on and around wetlands and waterways due to the wealth of biodiversity, which provided food, technologies and medicines.

Even when suburbia started expanding, camps were established on the outskirts, often near wetlands and creeks. As cities developed, wetlands were drained to give way to farmland, many were transformed into rubbish tips, horse racing courses, golf courses and sports ovals. Some wetlands were transformed into sealed lakes in residential developments, while others completely gave way to built-up landscapes. Only a few wetlands and waterways in urban areas have retained some of their ancient features and natural vegetation.

Yet, these wetlands and waterways – including those that may have ‘disappeared’ or run channelled under our streets – are Indigenous places of immense cultural value and meaning. They form a fundamental biophysical component of a city’s environment. Embedding their cultural and ecological values in urban planning could provide a holistic foundation complementing the spatially partitioned, administrative boundary-driven approach in which urban lands and waters are often managed (Richard Walley, personal communication).

Places that have ‘disappeared’ could be reinstated through urban design and urban greening. Places that are degraded could be restored, and landscape connectivity around them improved. Places that are still thriving could be nurtured and celebrated. Indigenous stories and knowledge could guide natural resource management and biodiversity conservation practices. School children could learn about the ecological and cultural values of local wetlands and waterways. Locals and visitors could wander through the city and experience and engage with its history and culture beyond what the immediate built environment offers them.

Water consumption

While average water consumption rates across Australia fluctuate depending on availability, they remain some of the highest in the world. Capital city water use per person decreased by 16% during the millennium drought (the drought in southern Australia that lasted from 2000 to 2010, although in some areas it began as early as 1997 and ended as late as 2012). But, in the 8 years after (up to 2016–17), they remained relatively stable without any further efficiency gains (Figure 7).

Water consumption rates vary by location. For example, households in Sydney and Perth consume almost twice as much water (219 kilolitres; kL) as households in Melbourne (148 kL) each year (BOM 2019b). The Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia display similar consumption patterns; however, in response to volumetric pricing, Tasmanians have almost halved their water use since 2008 (Infrastructure Australia 2019).

Figure 07 Per-person water use by household, 2008–09 to 2016–17

The volume of water required for many of our urban environments continues to grow along with the population, but the amount of water that can be supplied to our households depends on climatic conditions combined with government policy. For example, the 14% increase in water supplied to Adelaide during 2017–18 (Table 14) is most likely a reflection of the dry, hot summer and low rainfall during the period (BOM 2021b). By contrast, the decrease in supply in Melbourne during the same period is largely attributed to ongoing water-saving measures.

Table 14 Average annual residential water supplied (kL/property)

Major urban centrea






Change, 2016–17 to 2017–18 (%)




































South East Queenslandb














kL = kilolitre

  1. The figures exclude bulk utilities because they do not supply to customers.
  2. Melbourne and South East Queensland figures are the weighted averages for the respective retailers (i.e. W8/C2 – total connected residential properties: water supply).
  3. Redland City Council did not report against this indicator in 2013–14.

Source: BOM (2019b)

Water demand from industry is growing. The electricity and gas sectors are the highest users of water, largely for hydro-electricity generation. They extract water directly from the environment (95,968 gigalitres (GL) from rivers, lakes and groundwater) and use desalinated water.

Water availability

Drinking water in Australia is largely supplied from 3 sources – surface water (9,209 GL or 93% of the total); groundwater (595 GL or 6% of the total) and sea water for desalination (132 GL or 1% of the total) (ABS 2021g).

A reduction in rainfall, such as the 20% reduction experienced in 2018–19, results in significant challenges to urban water supply and requires a corresponding reduction in water usage. During 2018–19, water consumption reduced by 9% across Australia in response to water restrictions and ‘water wise’ rules (Table 15). During this period, supply was augmented from existing storages, groundwater and desalination facilities (see Resource consumption).

Table 15 Total water use and Australian area average rainfall, 2014–15 to 2019–20

Australia has the highest per-person surface-water storage capacity of any country in the world (Infrastructure Australia 2019). As at January 2019, capital city water storages were at between 48% (Perth) and 88% (Hobart) of capacity (Figure 8) (Infrastructure Australia 2019). Groundwater extraction provides around 40% of water for Perth, whereas only around 10% of its water comes from surface water (Infrastructure Australia 2019).

In 2019–20, major Australian dams were at 48.8% of capacity compared with 84.2% in 2011–12 (BITRE 2020b). In Greater Sydney, the combined water storage dropped by 40% from 2017 to 2019. However, recent rain in Greater Sydney’s catchments has resulted in an increase from 50% dam levels in 2019 to 100% in August 2020, which presented a different risk for the city in the form of flooding (Cox & Morton 2020). In early 2021, Western Sydney and surrounding areas experienced flooding.

The need for greater water storage and supply sparked significant investment in water infrastructure from 2003–04. Major projects related to the South East Queensland water grid and the construction of desalination plants in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. Expenditure declined following the completion of these projects, returning to trend (BITRE 2020b).

Figure 08 Water storage in major dams by state or territory

Desalinated water is an alternative source of potable water. Several Australian cities built seawater desalination facilities between 2007 and 2012 in response to the millennium drought. Most of this capacity has been underused since construction, except for Western Australia, where it provides approximately half of Perth’s supply and is being used to replenish aquifers as part of a broader integrated water supply scheme. Drier conditions over recent years have led a number of other major cities’ utilities to initiate supply – or prepare for initiation – from their desalination facilities, including in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney (Infrastructure Australia 2019:607) (Figure 9).

Figure 09 Proportion of water from desalination plants and recycled in capital cities and South East Queensland, 2015–16

Water recycling and re-use

The total volume of recycled water supplied to customers increased modestly (+6%) from 2015–16 to 2019–20 (Table 16). However, trends varied between cities. Changes were most marked between 2018–19 and 2019–20 – for example, with Adelaide and Darwin significantly decreasing their use of recycled water, and Canberra and Perth increasing.

In 2018–19, the supply of re-use water (generally nonpotable water transformed from waste water) increased to 324 GL from 318 GL in 2017–18. The main user was agriculture, at 97 GL (see Resource consumption).

Table 16 Recycled water supplied (megalitres), 2015–16 to 2019–20

Major urban centre






Change, 2018–19 to 2019–20 (%)




































South East Queenslandb














  1. Data for 2016–17 and earlier are sourced from the 2016–17 published National Performance Report, as the definition of W26 changed from 2017–18.
  2. Melbourne and South East Queensland figures for W26 are the aggregated figures for the bulk utility and the retailers.
  3. Seqwater and Redland City Council did not report against this indicator in 2015–16.

Source: BOM (2021b)

Water quality

The quality of our drinking water is good overall (Infrastructure Australia 2017). It is regularly monitored against the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, which provide clear guidance on standards for service providers.

A survey of customers about water quality in 2016 found that overall satisfaction was good, averaging a score of 7.2 out of 10. Scores were, however, higher for urban providers (scoring 7.24 out of 10) compared with regional providers (7.02 out of 10) (WSAA 2016). Such variation reflects challenges identified by Infrastructure Australia with the monitoring, reporting and auditing of water services and their comparative quality in regional and remote areas, with results being less frequent and sometimes not publicly disclosed.

The same customer survey found satisfaction with drinking water quality was highest in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. Satisfaction with the quality of the water was also found to be a strongly related to trust and value for money (WSAA 2016).

The quality of our urban waterways is another key factor in the livability of cities. A growing number of programs have been put in place across the country to rehabilitate our blue grids or waterways for recreational activities such as fishing, swimming and boating. One example is the Parramatta River in New South Wales, which was reopened for public recreation in 2015 after being closed for 72 years due to poor water quality (Infrastructure Australia 2019). The Parramatta River Catchment Group’s Our Living River campaign aims to make the waterway swimmable by 2025 (Parramatta River Catchment Group 2021).

The South Australian Government’s River Torrens Recovery Project, led by Green Adelaide, commenced in 2014. It aims to improve water quality and ecosystem function in the river and the coastal waters where it enters the sea by better managing stormwater run-off and contaminants. These improvements support community enjoyment of the Torrens Linear Park, which runs alongside the river through Adelaide and is also a refuge for urban wildlife and pollinators. The ancient river red gums and reed beds found in the park hold important cultural significance to the Kaurna people – the Indigenous people of the Adelaide Plains (Green Adelaide 2020).


Energy is a critical resource to support the function of the urban environment, with homes and industries consuming more than two-thirds of the world’s total energy (mostly derived from fossil fuels). In Australia, residential uses combined with construction, transport, manufacturing, electricity, gas and water account for 71% of nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (DISER 2020a).

The Australian population grew by 1.5% to reach 25.4 million people in 2018–19. In comparison, Australia’s energy consumption rose by 0.6% in 2018–19, compared with an average growth of 0.7% a year over the previous 10 years. Most of the growth that occurred in 2018–19 was in the mining sector, with a 3% decline occurring in manufacturing in the same year (DISER 2020b).

Across Australia, households remain the most significant users of energy in 2018–19 (1,268 petajoules; PJ), followed by manufacturing (915 PJ) and transport (691 PJ) (Figure 10). This represented a decline of 2.2% since 2016–17 in household energy use with a similar decline of 1.4% occurring for industry energy intensity over the same period (ABS 2020d).

Figure 10 Final use of energy by industries and households, 2015–16 to 2018–19

Fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) accounted for 94% of Australia’s primary energy mix in 2018–19 (Table 17). Oil (including crude oil, liquefied petroleum gas and refined products) was the largest component of supply (39%), followed by coal (29%), gas (26%) and renewables (6%).

Coal consumption is the only fuel source to have declined in the past 10 years. This change is largely due to reductions in brown and black coal-fired electricity generation as renewable energy generation grew strongly; +5% in 2018–19 and 3.9% over the 10-year average (Figure 11). The increase was driven by 50% growth in solar energy and 17% growth in wind energy consumption.

Table 17 Australian energy consumption by fuel type
Figure 11 Australian energy consumption by fuel type, 1978–79 to 2018–19

Consumption of bagasse, the remnant sugar cane pulp left after crushing, declined by 9% but remained the largest source of renewable energy in Australia at 23%. Use of hydro energy was flat in 2018–19, but wind and solar energy grew rapidly over the 10-year period. Combined, these energy types now form 33% of all renewable energy consumption, up from 11% a decade ago. Wind energy surpassed hydro energy for the first time in 2018–19 (Figure 12) and energy from solar photovoltaic systems grew by 50% in 2018–19 (DISER 2020b).

Solid municipal and industrial waste generated 5 PJ of energy in 2018–19, up from 1 PJ 5 years ago. Biogas from landfill, sewerage and other sources provided a further 16 PJ of energy in 2018–19 (DISER 2020b).

Figure 12 Key renewable energy sources, 2002–03 to 2018–19
Assessment State of the urban environment
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, and the situation is stable.
Somewhat adequate confident

Most Australian cities have good levels of livability, especially when compared with cities in other countries. Livability and the impacts that its components have on the environment varies from inner areas to city fringes, as well as from large urban environments to small towns. The growth of our cities, compounded by the impacts of climate change, is increasing the pressure on our resources and especially our water supplies. Waste recycling and disposal continue to be a challenge. Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 11.1, 11.2, 11.3, 11.7

Assessment Liveability - Major city (population > 1 million)
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, and the situation is stable.
Medium confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing the environment was in poor condition, resulting in diminished environmental values, and the situation was stable.
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing the environment was in poor condition, resulting in diminished environmental values, and the situation was deteriorating.

The livability of Australia’s largest cities is increasing with a greater focus on improving access to urban services, expanding and connecting the green and blue spaces, as well as access to a broader choice of jobs and housing. However, livability varies between areas. Inner and older parts of large cities have seen increases in livability, but outer areas have seen worsening in their situation with loss of tree canopy, increasing heat waves, long commute time and lack of good amenities.

Assessment Liveability - Urban areas (population between 1 million and 10,000)
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, and the situation is stable.
Medium confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing the environment was in poor condition, resulting in diminished environmental values, and the situation was stable.
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing that air quality was good, and air pollution posed little or no risk, but the situation was deteriorating.

This category of assessment puts together 2 categories from 2016: 10,000 to 100,000 and 100,000 to 1,000,000 people. Overall, urban areas in this category have a good level of livability, with reduced traffic levels and levels of emissions, and improving air and water quality. There are varying pressures related to the expansion of the urban footprint and varying levels of access to local services and goods. Some urban areas in this category could also face resource security challenges. Location is one of the main aspects related to the pressures. The impacts of climate change and other elements are experienced differently between inland and coastal areas. Smaller regional cities have suffered extreme bushfires, floods, mice plagues, and skills and labour shortages. This leads to an overall poor grade in livability in these areas. However, smaller cities provide more choices for people who want to work remotely and better prospects of improved livability.

Assessment Liveability - Smaller urban areas (population <1,000 people)
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in poor condition, resulting in diminished environmental values, and the situation is stable.
Low confidence
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing the environment was in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, but the situation was deteriorating.
Assessment graphic from 2011 or 2016 showing the environment was in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, and the situation was stable.

Smaller urban areas have less impact on the natural environment and enjoy less traffic congestion, but they may require greater travel to urban services, employment, food and recreational facilities. These areas may also have energy and water security and quality issues. However, these smaller regional cities have also suffered extreme events and shocks, as explained in the previous category. More evidence is required, as the data available on smaller places are unclear.

Assessment Resource availability and security
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in poor condition, resulting in diminished environmental values, and the situation is stable.
Medium confidence

The security and sustainability of our resource use continues to be strained as populations grow and the effects of climate change increase in severity. Larger cities place greater pressure on resource availability; however, the security of resources in smaller urban areas is often more of an issue given they do not have the critical mass to support significant infrastructure investment. Fast-accelerating climate change is threatening resource availability and security, leading to an overall assessment of the state as poor. However, there are some management opportunities, especially in water and energy. Waste management continues to be a challenge.