Drawing on the ocean desalination experience of water-scarce Australia, the Carlsbad water desalination plant recently began operations in San Diego, California to address urban water needs. Image: Bovlb/Wikimedia Commons.

California and Australia Collaborate on Adapting to Climate Change


The 50-million-gallon-per-day Carlsbad water desalination plant recently began operations to provide water to over 100,000 homes in San Diego County. Also a victim of drought and a forerunner in adopting seawater desalination technology to address urban water needs, Australia was among the first to congratulate San Diego on the accomplishment. Australia and California both face significant environmental and economic impacts from climate change, with severe droughts in both regions in recent years.

Given their similar outlooks in light of changing climates, California and Australia have been learning from each other’s experience and working together to adapt. In October, a delegation of California lawmakers led by Senate President Kevin de León traveled to Australia for a week-long trip to study water infrastructure and policies. After the “Millennium Drought” from 1997 to 2009, Perth in Western Australia, a sister city to San Diego, built two desalination plants, which now supply 45% of the city’s drinking water. Other Australian cities like Melbourne have developed effective water management programs and policies. Three Californian universities and two Australian universities are taking part in a five-year joint-research and education project, funded by a $4.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation, to study the technologies and policies put in place in Australia and the potential adoption of low-energy approaches in the southwestern United States. Beyond residential and agricultural water supply challenges, droughts are also a major contributor to severe wildfire outbreaks. Firefighting experts from Australia and the US have been helping each other fight wildfires since 2000, with a large contingent of Australians battling blazes in the US as recently as the summer of 2015.

In addition to these adaptive responses to climate change, California and Australia also support each other on mitigating the causes of climate change. Blessed with abundant sunshine and support by their respective governments, Australia and California are leaders in clean energy development and have mature commercial market for clean energy deployment. Australia now leads the world in rooftop solar and possesses huge potential in battery storage, making it an ideal market for Californian clean energy firms. Tesla recently announced that its new Powerwall system will be on sale in Australia, making it one of the first countries outside the US to gain access to the home battery system. Australian energy innovation is also arriving in the US, as Holtville, California recently bought floating solar technology from the Sydney-based Infratech Industries. The system will enable the residents of Holtville, mostly farmers, to have access to renewable power and clean water without sacrificing their farm land.

Though there are key differences in the policy approaches to climate change in California and Australia, examples such as these make it clear that working-level partnerships are a major part of responding to the global challenge.

Zhonghe Zhu is a recent graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington.