Last Updated Jan 22, 2018 · Written by Philippa Land
For anyone looking for a place to live, there are a few basic necessities. Food, water, shelter, and the possibility of making the home a permanently safe place. For the founders of early Sydney, finding water was at the top of the priority list. But it was that same water source that provided some of the biggest challenges for the colonists, and at one time nearly destroyed the city.
The story goes that when Captain Arthur Phillip sailed around Bennelong Point in January of 1788, he spotted a wide-mouthed stream entering Sydney Harbour. At high tide, this little stream was even deep enough for schooners to sail part way up, a major bonus for a young harbour town. Farther up they found that the stream began in a swampy area around present-day Hyde Park and cascaded cheerfully down several waterfalls, draining an area of about 82 hectares.
The outlet of the original Tank Stream near Circular Quay
Captain Phillip immediately declared this as the spot for the new colony. Knowing a freshwater supply was vital to their survival, Captain Phillip created a greenbelt on either side of the stream 15 metres wide. Residents weren’t allowed to build, pollute, cut down trees, or allow their livestock to graze within the greenbelt.
And if weather patterns were the same in Australia as they were in England, that strategy might have worked.
But by August of that very same year, heavy rains had washed away much of the efforts of the new colonists and convicts. As it often does, drought soon followed. Captain Phillip ordered the convicts to dig the stream deeper, doing his best to increase the dwindling water supply. The convicts were also ordered to enlarge the river bank in three places to create storage tanks, holding about 20,000 litres of water each.
This desperate act gave the babbling stream its name: The Tank Stream.
But subsequent leaders of the colony did not understand or value The Tank Stream the way Captain Phillip did. The greenbelt was opened to grazing livestock and new structures were built. Almost immediately, pollution of the stream and illness among the colonists erupted.
The Tanks, built as a failsafe against future drought, also didn’t exactly work as the original plumbers intended. In wet weather, they filled with sediment, and in dry weather dwindled to a trickle.
As much as quantity was a concern, it was quality that would present the biggest challenges. Although every new Governor would try to reverse the damage (including severe flogging of polluters), the destruction was too far gone.
By 1828, The Tank Stream was abandoned as a drinking water source and officially recognized for what it already was—an open sewer and a source of disease. Thirty years later, The Tank Stream was diverted underground and a stone culvert built over top in the hopes of stopping the spread of waterborne diseases.
Today, The Tank Stream is a very functioning stormwater drain and a vital part of Sydney’s floodwater management.
The failure of The Tank Stream as a source of drinking water was a tough lesson to early settlers in the Sydney area and highlighted the importance of reliable wastewater management.
But it wasn’t until 2010 that the right to safe drinking water was called out by world leaders as a basic human right. Today, 71% of the global population has access to safe drinking water, and 89% have at least “basic service,” defined as a round trip of 30 minutes or less to collect that safe water.
While those sound like good numbers, that still leaves 844 million people worldwide without even the most basic of water services. Unsafe or contaminated drinking water carries diseases, like the early Tank Stream did, including cholera, diarrhea (which kills about 500,000 people every year), dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.
These diseases, like Captain Phillip knew, are preventable and avoidable with access to safe drinking water and properly managed wastewater. It might seem like the lessons from The Tank Stream have already been learned, but water supply and poor management of wastewater continues to spread diseases to hundreds of millions every year and is an ongoing challenge.
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We are lucky to live in a place with a fresh and safe water supply. Sydney’s water is monitored 24/7 using the most advanced technology and undergoes up to 70 different water quality tests before it reaches your house.
Sydney’s water supply at Lake Burragorang at Warragamba
After that, there’s not any official oversight or water quality monitoring, so once your water leaves the public domain and enters your pipes, it’s up to you to be sure it’s still safe.
For your incoming pipes, although lead poisoning is not as prevalent in Australia as in other places, it’s still a concern if your house was built before the 1930’s. But lead-based solder was common in Australia up until 1989, and there is a potential for the lead to still leach into your water. If you think this might apply to your house, your pipes should be investigated by a professional.
Your outgoing plumbing is even more complicated. Your sewer pipes are fitted with safety features and specific configurations to ensure your wastewater doesn’t pose a health and safety risk to the people in your house. It’s important that your sewer plumbing is verified and monitored by professional plumbers.
You can also keep your drinking water safe at home by being up to date on your water quality tests, whether that’s supplied by your utility or a home kit. It’s also important to keep your home’s plumbing up to date and up to code. After all, at one time, it was safe to drink straight from The Tank Stream.
In modern-day Sydney, we have some of the best plumbers as well as in other major cities such as Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane. Our professional plumbers may not have built the Tank Stream, but they’re still pretty amazing at helping out with anything from emergency blocked toilets to solar-powered hot water systems all over Australia. Get a quote today.