The drought is no longer a California problem. The Colorado River, which supplies water to one-eighth of the country’s population, is reporting record low water levels due to overallocation. The US needs a little perspective when it comes to how bad this is going to get. Luckily we have one: Australia.

Over the past 20 years, Australia has weathered one of the most devastating droughts on the planet. You’ve seen the dust storms. You’ve seen the wildfires. And you’ve seen the trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road. The film takes place in a parched, near-future Australia, where the control and manipulation of water is the greatest power in the world.

Even as a kid growing up in Australia, director George Miller was influenced by the scarcity of water in his environment. He remembers adults talking about the imminent water wars, he told the Hollywood Reporter. “Growing up in an isolated rural town, I was very aware of the cycle of droughts and floods, so it was a natural thing to put in this story.”

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Of course, Mad Max is fiction (we hope). But there is no question that the future it describes is not so very far flung. And over the last two decades, parts of Australia were transformed into something very close to that post-apocalyptic reality. Here’s what we can learn from Australia when it comes to managing our hydrological fate.

“The Big Dry”

Australia’s Millennium Drought is named because it started around the turn of the millennium. But it could also be seen as a once-in-a-millennium event—it’s said to be the worst drought in the continent’s recorded history.

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The country’s naturally arid climate always sees a great deal of variability in precipitation. But starting in the early 1990s, the country began to see much lower than average rainfall year after year. By 1995, an official drought was declared with the lowest annual rainfall seen in 100 years or more. Exacerbating the dry conditions were high temperatures triggered by El Niño—yes, the same El Niño that makes the Western US rainy and cool. Some major reservoirs shrunk to 25 percent of capacity or lower.

Average rainfall from 1970 to 2010. Some areas saw the lowest amounts ever recorded. Commonwealth of Australia, 2011, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Entire ancient forests were killed, lakes turned acidic, rivers evaporated, and many species were pushed to the brink of extinction. The groundwater in some parts of the country became so saline it was unfit to drink.

By 2000 the drought’s repercussions had reached major cities. The country was on the brink of a full-scale economic disaster that threatened the livelihood of its citizens. But the farms were hit hardest. The part of the country that suffered the most was the Murray-Darling Basin, which grew almost half of the country’s food (sounds a lot like California, no?).

In 2008 the Murray-Darling Basin was climatologically off the charts, receiving its seventh straight year of below-average rain and 11th year in a row of above-average temperatures. Some regions ceased all food production. Just imagine that: No more food being grown. At all.

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That same year, the Sydney Morning Herald published a radical thought—this is the new normal:

It may be time to stop describing south-eastern Australia as gripped by drought and instead accept the extreme dry as permanent, one of the nation’s most senior weather experts warned yesterday.

“Perhaps we should call it our new climate,” said the Bureau of Meteorology’s head of climate analysis, David Jones.

In preparation, Australia made some major changes in the way they looked at and lived with water.

A new grid for water

As we all have heard a thousand times this year, curbing municipal use is a very small part of the water puzzle. Still, Australia began with some impressive cutbacks in this area. Cities launched programs to promote conservation like stormwater capture, greywater recycling, and rain barrel incentives for homeowners. “Indoor use only” water restrictions went into effect in for the cities of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. Melbourne in particular was able to reduce daily per capita water use by 43 percent.

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The country then focused on investing $25 billion to strengthen the country’s water infrastructure, building a “water grid” much like how an electrical grid works. Three desalinization plants were built on the coast to service the cities of Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide. But the important part about these plants were that they didn’t simply supply water to the nearby city. They could be linked to other waterways, allowing water to travel back and forth as needed.

The new “water grid” for the region around Melbourne with improvements made from 2007-2010, Australia National Water Commission

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A series of pipelines were proposed—William Shatner’s idea doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?—to connect these previously separate watersheds into one network. Notice they are pipelines, not gravity-powered aqueducts. Meaning water could be moved either way—it could hypothetically flow in both directions..

But the biggest impacts were seen through larger, systemic improvements to the way water was managed. The National Water Plan for Water Security placed water projects under national oversight and the federal government launched a reformed system to specifically change the way water was allocated. Instead of hierarchical rights that dole out different amounts of water, scientists make predictions about how much water will be available the next year, and everyone pays the same, set market rate for water.

This spurred the biggest change in behavior because it was financially beneficial for farmers to be more efficient in their usage, according to Jane Doolan from Australia’s National Water Commission:

From a revenue perspective, in 2008-09, our irrigators used 53% of the water they used in 2005-06 which was still during the drought, but the on-farm production was only reduced 21%, so effectively through the drought, our irrigators ended up using virtually a third of their water and getting two-thirds of their production.

A final and very important goal of the water plan was to balance agricultural and economic demand while mitigating environmental impacts. The Australian government took the protection of riparian habitats very seriously, but all of this—including the privatization of the water system—was highly controversial and led to many protests.

The call for a national plan

A few weeks ago I explored the archaic and downright backwards laws that govern California water rights, many of which could stand to learn a lot from Australia’s radical restructuring. Right now, the state is currently beginning emergency water cutbacks at the municipal level—looking at water use by community and telling each one how much more needs to be reduced. But reform is absolutely needed, namely to help to fairly distribute the scarce water among California’s many powerful agricultural interests. But this is why state regulations aren’t enough: This is clearly a national problem, especially because the state produces the vast majority of the country’s food.

Empty reservoirs in the Murray-Darling Basin from 2007 look a lot like California today. Robert Cianflone / Getty Images

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It’s also obvious now that the drought is affecting more than one state. Oregon and Washington are seeing their own historic droughts. Las Vegas is plunging a new straw deep into a historically low Lake Mead. Even in wet years, the Colorado River is overtaxed in a way that prevents it from flowing into the Gulf of California. Now states like Arizona are drawing their full allotment off the Colorado River, which could spell unequivocal disaster for an entire swath of the country—a kind of ecological domino effect.

Instead of improving each watershed with these piecemeal, stopgap emergency measures, the federal government needs to see the country as a holistic system. We need to focus on policy and infrastructure working together. And we need to reform our water rights as one US system.

Preparing for change

Here’s a curious footnote to this story. When Mad Max began location scouting, Australia was deemed no longer suitable for filming an arid post-water future. After almost two decades of drought, the climate made a complete 180 and the previously-parched desert saw torrential rains. Due to the years of drought, these rains were equally devastating, as floods swept through the country in 2010 and 2011. And those wet years turned the area around Broken Hill into a verdant landscape of wildflowers. Production was moved to the deserts of Namibia.

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Since Australia’s drought ended with some of its wettest years, some of the infrastructure projects completed have never even needed to be used—yet. But with a better overall system in place, the country also had a better way to handle the influx of water. Stormwater was captured, reservoirs could be filled more efficiently, and water could be sold more fairly. The entire country was more resilient.

And then, of course, drought conditions came back.

A still from Mad Max or Sydney Harbour during a 2009 dust storm? AP/Rob Griffith

The lesson here is that in the climate of today, cities cannot just prepare for one extreme or the other—they must be prepared for anything.

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As for where to shoot the next Mad Max, Miller might need to look for yet another location. Namibia—considered to have some of the driest places on Earth—has started to see its own historic floods. Climate change may force the filmmaker to follow emerging weather patterns, chasing catastrophic droughts all over the globe for the best post-apocalyptic settings. Hopefully they won’t be filming the next Mad Max in the Central Valley of California.

Sources: Australia is not ready for the next big dry; Lessons from Australia’s Millennium Drought; A new water paradigm for California; Lessons from the Millennium Drought

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