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It has taken settlers a long time to accept that drought is endemic in the Australian natural system, and that their own environmental practices can exacerbate its effects. The geographer R.L. Heathcote once observed that 'the Australian historical reaction to drought has been generally to view its onset with indignant surprise'. Sometimes drought years were even excluded from the official arithmetic of average rainfall because they were regarded as exceptional. In the city, droughts were correlated not only to rainfall but also to storage capacities, water distribution reliability, consumption patterns and engineering vision. And they became manifest in water restrictions, duststorms (for example, that of 8 February 1983), bushfires (Black Friday 1939, Ash Wednesday 1983) and a politics of blame that generally resulted in renewed plans for the building of more dams (for example, the Maroondah Reservoir was prompted by the 1914-15 drought and the Thomson Dam by those of 1967-68 and 1972-73). In 1951 the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works claimed that Melbourne presented peculiar challenges to water managers: a very widespread area of supply, and a greater seasonal variation between maximum and minimum daily consumption of water than any other large city in the world.

The most dramatic and memorable droughts to grip Melbourne were those of 1895-1902, 1937-45, 1967-68, and 1982-83. The first of these was doubly devastating as it came as the city's commercial and industrial boom ended. In November 1902, it was claimed that every building in the city was coated with thick layers of dust. In 1967, with the help of the Mines Department, the Melbourne City Council sank bores in Royal Park and the Fitzroy Gardens, but the water was found to be too salty. Private gardens could only be watered by buckets or watering cans. For the first time in 50 years, orders for rainwater tanks poured in to sheetmetal works from householders. In 1982-83, great cracks appeared in homes as ground dried and shifted, drinking fountains in the city were turned off and people were urged to 'adopt' a tree on their nature strip. Only in the final decades of the 20th century would city planners and politicians publicly admit that the city could never be drought-proof.

Tom Griffiths

Keating, Jenny, The drought walked through: A history of water shortage in Victoria, Department of Water Resources Victoria, Melbourne, 1992. Details