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Rain is our lifeblood; let’s stop treating it as wastewater

birds drinking from puddle
Photo: Aneta Steck/Adobe Stock

There’s hope to be found in our gardens and on our streets but we need to change the way we design rainwater runoff, and we need to do it now.

When people visit my sustainable house in Sydney they all ask the same questions.

“Do you have hope?”, “Why did you do this?”, or, “Is it expensive?”

In the face of bushfires, an unrelenting drought and inaction by government, it can sometimes be hard to feel hopeful. But I tell my guests to turn to our streets and gardens to find inspiration for a better future. 

It is here that we can keep water where it falls, the way it used to work in Australia before we brought Old World ideas about water from places that had far more rain and far less heat than this dry continent, a continent that simply can’t cope with English farming methods.

Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, located beside the Sydney Opera House, is a clear example of how this introduced water culture doesn’t work.

The gardens follow the English style of design – and as a result waste an estimated six to 12 million litres of rainwater a year, possibly more.

botanic gardens sydney

Rain runs from the top of the Botanic Gardens into Sydney Harbour via buried pipes and overland through holes such in the harbour’s stone walls

The black bitumen paths around and through the garden heat up the vegetation, and the lack of water tanks and the presence of English-style lawns means rainwater is being treated as waste.

Back in 2008, in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, residents built ‘leaky’ drains for less than $300, that keep rainwater in their street gardens. That’s water that once flowed from roofs and downpipes into drains and out to the harbour. Residents have saved more than 4 million litres of water a year, or more than 40 million litres so far.

Water runs off hardened top soil and runs down drains to be washed out to sea.

Spray irrigation, like this one, doesn’t reach plant roots and is evaporated or wasted when it flows onto paths. Slow drip or subsurface drainage would be better.

The gardens lack grates and interception drains that could direct water below the soil to plant roots.

Now, when the local council renovates roads in Chippendale it installs similar ‘leaky’ pipes (although sadly, the same council has not done it anywhere else in the LGA).

There are many wonderful exceptions to business-as-usual across our urban and rural areas, such as the restoration of some waterways in Bathurst in NSW.

Recently built Sydney Council ‘leaky’ drains in Chippendale keep rain where it falls.

Wasted rainwater in the Royal Botanic Gardens, and in Surry Hills in Sydney.

But when we do get some precious rain, and I see it running off our footpaths and down our drains, out to sea, I feel like I am witnessing a crime.

Wasted rain water in the Royal Botanic Gardens, and in Surry Hills in Sydney.

And then there is the issue of trees. There is a magnetic relationship between trees, water vapour and the ocean.

The ocean is always there, drawing rain to it. When trees and vegetation are cut down, burnt, removed from farms and cities, rain falls out to sea, and the land and remaining trees heat up. The science about the arm-wrestle between the ocean, and trees and land for rain is well known.

With so much of Australia’s vegetation cleared, and so much rain wasted as it runs out to sea, we have broken that relationship.

Because we’ve removed most trees in the Sydney Basin, rain that once fell here falls out to sea.

On 30 December 2019, I took the rainfall image here. It shows rain falling on the sea outside Sydney. This is now the norm, not the exception.

We are reaping what we are sowing; we cause droughts by the way we treat trees and water as waste. We are a blind people, particularly our city designers, builders and rule-makers.

With all of this in mind, how might we find hope beyond our own gardens?

There are some success stories we can turn to for hope and guidance.

Here’s an example of hope at work, a wonderful success story where an Australian began growing trees in the Niger Republic firstly on a small scale then on a ‘viral’ scale, and helped save a country. The increasing adoption of this conservation technique, known as the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, in Africa is a great source of hope.

We can do that in our dry country, too, if we choose to.

In 1996 Michael Mobbs disconnected his Sydney terrace from town water, sewerage and electricity and uses sun and rainwater, and no sewage or stormwater leaves; sustainable house. Data on buildings, waste, energy, water, food are in the blog. With four people, house energy and water bills are less than $300 a year. Designs and other projects are in two books, Sustainable House, and Sustainable Food


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. For a more detailed brief please send an email to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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