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'Water police' crack down in an ever-drier Australia

Profligate shower-takers may find their water supply cut to a trickle as country endures a long drought made worse by global warming.

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– At first glance it looks like a police car – a white vehicle with a black-and-yellow checkerboard stripe running along its flanks. But as the patrol vehicle turns a corner in the leafy district of Paddington, in central Sydney, its true purpose becomes clear from the bold black lettering across its trunk: "Water Restrictions."

Australia, already the driest inhabited continent on the planet, is in the grip of its worst-ever drought.

The water crisis is no longer about desperate farmers in the Outback watching their sheep and cattle perish. Over the past six years, it has extended its grip to the cities and is changing the way Australians regard a resource they once took for granted. The patrol car is one of 50 that cruise Sydney's streets around the clock, every day of the week, sniffing out water wastage.

Climate scientists agree that Australia's drought is linked to global warming.

"There is very strong consensus," says Blair Nancarrow, director of the Australian Research Centre for Water in Society. "There's a lot of climate-model evidence that says that the drought is, at least in part, human-induced."

Data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology show that, since 1970, rainfall has increased in the barely developed northwestern corner of the continent. But it has decreased in the densely populated east and southeast, the areas where it matters most.

Australians are increasingly bombarded with pleas to conserve their most precious resource. Last October a major electricity supplier asked people to refrain from singing, daydreaming, and engaging in other "nonessential activities" in the shower to save power and water. . Exhortations range from installing a rainwater tank in the backyard to eating less meat, on the grounds that rearing livestock requires far more water than growing crops.


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