(Image: Dan Gold/Unsplash)

As I drive down to Denmark, one of a few small towns strung along WA’s wild south coast, ABC NewsRadio delivers a welcome relief from rolling east coast fires coverage: the town measured 31 millimetres of rain the previous day.

Still, something is amiss. This is a place, locals tell me, that “rains 11 months of the year and water drips from the trees the other month”.

Since 2014, Denmark has had four of its driest years on record. Annual rainfall over the past century was 1084 millimetres a year — higher than Melbourne’s — but in 2019 that was down to 771 millimetres. That’s a 29% drop, and in nearby Jerramungup the fall was even sharper (down from 430 millimetres to just 263 millimetres). 

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This translates into much steeper declines in water supply, as there is a correlation between reduced rainfall and reduced streamflow.

WA’s Water Corporation told Crikey that just 161 million litres flowed into Quickup Dam, Denmark’s main water source, in 2019. This is compared to a 30-year average of 2 billion litres. Jerramungup was one of six WA farming areas declared water-deficient last year.

Prominent conservationist and long-time Denmark resident Basil Schur says the link between the reduced rainfall and climate change is self-evident in Denmark. “I want to emphasise that this is a climate change issue and the failure of state government to address it at a policy level is completely shocking. It’s a climate change emergency that needs both emissions reductions that we haven’t seen yet and adaptive mitigation.”

The Water Corporation acknowledges the connection. “The dramatic impact of climate change in Denmark is indicative of the severe impact climate change is having right across Western Australia,” Great Southern Regional Manager Adrian Stewart told Crikey.

State Water Minister Dave Kelly goes further, saying the region is “one of the areas on the planet that has been most affected by climate change through declining rainfall”.

Several solutions have been proposed for Denmark’s water crisis, including desalination plants, new dams, and a waste water treatment plant to use for irrigation. Mark McGowan’s Labor government has shelved that latter proposal and instead approved a $32 million plan to construct a new pipeline to bring water from Albany.

The plan was announced in September, and both the shire president and the local MP Terry Redman say the first they learned about the decision was through media reports.

Kelly has said he will attend a public meeting convened for the end of January to discuss the proposed solution, and Schur expects there to be “stinging criticism” of how the process has been handled by bureaucrats in Perth. “There hasn’t been enough community consultation,” he says.

It’s a complaint echoed by others I spoke to. However, the minister’s office pointed to a 2010 publication on Denmark’s water source options that included a Denmark-Albany pipeline proposal, arguing that this publication meant that the community has plenty of opportunity to consult on the planned pipeline.

According to local environmental activist Julie Marsh, “[this is] a band-aid solution that doesn’t address the cause of the problem”.

A spokesperson for Kelly acknowledged that the pipeline plan is predicated on the subsequent development of a desalination plant on the south coast. It’s an idea Marsh opposes: “it will use a huge amount of energy, and is an environmental solution for our tap water but not for our forests.”

One local told me that last winter was the first time the creeks hadn’t run on his property. Another described dirt-biking around dried swamps where the water used to be waist-deep. 

“Sooner or later these forests are going to go up in flames — because they’ve lost a third of their water in four years,” says Rod Mitchell, who helps coordinate the Denmark chapter of Extinction Rebellion. The week before my visit, fire burnt through a third of the Stirling Ranges National Park which is an hour to Denmark’s north.

Mitchell is among a group of Denmark residents pushing the shire to convene a citizen’s assembly on the water crisis. It would be something of a test case for deliberative democracy on climate change.

Schur says last year’s decision by Denmark Shire Council to declare a state of climate emergency sends an important message to government at all levels.

“We have had 30 years or more when our state and federal governments have had time to reduce carbon emissions and they haven’t, so I hold them directly culpable for the crisis facing Denmark.”

WA is the only state in the country where emissions continue to rise, 23% on 2005 levels, and the likely approval of massive LNG expansion of the northwest coast will send this skyrocketing further. The latest projection is an outrageous 8% addition to the nation’s emissions baseline.

When pressed on this, Kelly toed the party line: “what we need is leadership at a national level as this is a global problem that requires action between national governments”.

Nonetheless, the summer’s heatwaves start on the west coast and locals want action from the people responsible.

Jesse Noakes works with Extinction Rebellion in a volunteer capacity.

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