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Water use per person per day

306 litres

Stable overall since 2009

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Drinking water quality


compliance with water quality guidelines for the last three years

Per person water demand has been stable in Greater Sydney and declining elsewhere. There has been 100% compliance with drinking water guidelines.

Overall demand for water decreased substantially during the Millennium Drought but since then, in Greater Sydney, demand has slowly increased in line with the city's population growth. Overall demand stayed relatively constant in the Lower Hunter and regional centres due to decreased consumption per person.

Longstanding measures to reduce water consumption prior to 2011, particularly during the Millennium Drought, helped moderate urban water use. For the last three years of available data, both Sydney Water and Hunter Water maintained per person water use below target levels. For regional water utilities, average water consumption per property supplied was relatively stable over the last three years, maintaining the trend of the past decade. However, compared to 1991–92, these regional local water utilities (LWUs) reduced average annual residential water use by 48% (as of 2015–16).

In densely populated areas, water extraction for urban supply has ongoing impacts on river flows, putting the health of some river systems under pressure.

For major water utilities, the use of recycled water remained steady in recent years, but has increased in areas serviced by local water utilities. Nineteen private schemes now recycle water in NSW; in the year to June 2017 they supplied 2,377 megalitres (ML) of recycled water. In some areas, changing market conditions may affect future demand for recycled water.

Water utilities for NSW metropolitan areas, regional cities and major towns all manage water supplies to ensure they comply with Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. In 2016–17, Sydney Water, Hunter Water and the large regional water utilities continued a multi-year trend of achieving 100% overall compliance with the guidelines' microbiological, chemical and physical criteria.

Related topics: Population | Water Resources

NSW Indicators

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Indicator and status Environmental
Proportion of the metropolitan and regional water supply meeting national guidelines
Getting better ✔✔✔
Total and per person water consumption for metropolitan and regional centres
Stable ✔✔✔
Water recycling - major utilities
Stable ✔✔✔
Water recycling - local water utilities
Getting better ✔✔✔


Terms and symbols used above are defined in How to use the report.


To provide a sustainable supply of water to urban areas, water managers must ensure water resources:

  • are secured for human use
  • support economic growth
  • maintain healthy aquatic systems.

Water managers must also plan for key challenges, including population growth and future climate change.

Agriculture uses more than 60% of all water consumed in NSW, depending on climate conditions, while urban areas across NSW generally use 18% or less of all water consumed (ABS 2017). Water supply to urban areas is split among the following uses:

  • residential
  • commercial
  • industrial
  • irrigation (amenity, horticulture and agricultural).

Structures to store and regulate water flow are built to provide greater security of urban water supply. Yet these structures also moderate the natural variability of stream flows. By changing flow volumes and timing, extraction of water to supply high-density urban areas can have enduring effects on river health. When river health is affected this can, in turn, affect water quality in waterways. Compounding these challenges, urban stormwater discharges can also impact these waterways.

See the Water Resources and River Health topics for more details.


Poor water quality affects its suitability for human use, increases the cost of treatment for supply and may affect the health of aquatic ecosystems. The following have important effects on water quality:

  • vegetation cover
  • land management practices in river catchments
  • land overlying aquifer recharge zones
  • stormwater runoff (in urban areas)
  • wastewater discharge (in urban areas).

See the River Health and the Coastal, Estuarine and Marine Ecosystems topics for more details.

For the last nine years of available data, water consumption per person remained relatively constant in NSW. Nevertheless, water supplies have come under constant upward pressure from:

  • hotter and drier than average weather conditions
  • a growing population (see the Population topic)
  • increases in non-residential water use over the last three years.

Key drivers of water demand are the economy, environment and demographics. In turn, these high-level drivers affect other factors that influence demand, such as:

  • people's attitude to water (for example, water use behaviour, appliance choices and rainwater use)
  • the price of water
  • development and adoption of new technology or practices (for example, water-efficient appliances, water source substitution)
  • investment in water efficiency programs
  • housing density, household size, and extent of outdoor water use
  • change in non-residential water use:
    • changes in industry type
    • efficiencies
    • use of alternative water sources.

Weather also has a major effect on water demand. Deviation from average weather conditions can increase or decrease annual water consumption by 2–6% (Sydney Water 2017 & 2018). Prolonged extreme weather events such as heatwaves can cause more variation, particularly in the short-term. Climate strongly influences customers' water use levels, mainly by affecting residential outdoor and cooling tower use.

Residential customers' water use follows seasonal patterns: higher use over summer and lower use in cooler months. However, the disparity in summer and winter water use levels has diminished because people have maintained behaviours established during drought restrictions and because housing density has increased.

Day-to-day and week-to-week weather changes can also cause short-term fluctuations in water use significantly above or below seasonal trends.

Droughts are a natural feature of Australia's climate. Planning and response for wide-ranging, enduring droughts constitute a major urban water security challenge.

Climate change necessitates new, adaptive ways to plan for urban water security. Under climate change, projected long-term changes in rainfall are expected to create risks for water availability (Vaze & Teng 2011). In addition, the way climate change affects heavy, flood-causing rainfall events (both their frequency and intensity) is likely to differ from its effects on seasonal or average rainfalls (DECCW 2010).

The volume of water held in storages will vary with climatic conditions due to:

  • changes to rainfall
  • changes to evapo-transpiration and runoff
  • increased watering of lands
  • people's use of evaporative coolers in response to hotter, drier conditions.

The 2017 Metropolitan Water Plan includes a drought response strategy. This strategy aims to ensure greater Sydney can withstand a drought more extreme than any experienced over the past century.

See the 2017 Metropolitan Water Plan section in this topic and the Climate Change topic for more information.


Metropolitan water management plans

Water use planning must balance both socioeconomic demands and environmental needs. It must also account for long-term changes in water availability due to climate extremes (such as droughts and floods).

2017 Metropolitan Water Plan

The 2017 Metropolitan Water Plan sets out how the NSW Government will provide a secure and sustainable water supply to meet the needs of Sydney, the Blue Mountains and the Illawarra. Following an extensive review, the former (2010) plan was updated with the latest data, research findings and technological advances.

Developed through a collaborative approach, the plan is structured around four broad outcomes and 11 major strategies. It is underpinned by an adaptive planning response.

The plan's key aspects include:

  • optimising water supply system management by changing the mix of water supply and demand measures (such as dams, desalination or water restrictions) to provide water security at the lowest cost
  • a water conservation approach that applies economic criteria to ensure investment is optimised
  • a drought response strategy that is flexible and designed to withstand a drought more extreme than any experienced over the past century
  • a new WaterSmart Cities Program for a more integrated approach to providing water, wastewater and stormwater services to new urban release areas, and to significant new developments in existing areas
  • improving river health by releasing variable environmental flows from Warragamba Dam to bolster the health of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River.

The plan also includes a drought response strategy with a broad suite of supply and demand management measures to deploy as dam storage levels fall. Measures include:

  • a drought supply options study
  • implementing water restrictions
  • building new water supplies
  • contingency plans for response to an extreme drought.

Lower Hunter region

The Lower Hunter Water Plan (DFS 2014), released in April 2014, is a package of water supply and demand measures. These measures aim to ensure reliable water supply over the long term and set out actions to respond to severe droughts. As a key recommendation, the plan's Water Wise Rules were implemented on 1 July 2014.

Drinking water quality management

The Public Health Act 2010 and Public Health Regulation 2012 require all water suppliers to establish and adhere to the NSW Guidelines for Drinking Water Management Systems.

NSW Health records water quality monitoring compliance data, which is incorporated into the NSW performance monitoring and benchmarking system.

Improved pricing of water

Strong water pricing signals can reduce customers' water consumption and more accurately reflect the value of water resources and true costs of water supply. Important water pricing reform since the mid-1990s has seen tariffs shift away from fixed annual charges and toward pay-for-use pricing (DPI Water 2017b).

All NSW water utilities now have domestic water metering. As of 2007, all free water allowances for potable water supply ceased. Up to 2011–12, a gradual increase in the median residential water usage charge for local water utility customers was reflected in ongoing reductions in average demand per connected property. This demand reduction fostered relatively stable costs for the typical residential water supply bill (Consumer Price Index adjusted) since that time.

At current levels of demand per connected property, the average water supply bill for the typical NSW residence was $625 in 2015–16 (Jan 2017 dollars, NSW DPI-Water 2017b). This represents only a 22% increase over 21 years (DPI Water 2017b).

Mandatory plans

Under the Water Management Act 2000, statutory water sharing plans were developed to help secure long-term potable water supplies for regional towns and cities. These water sharing plans provide better security of entitlement for all water users, as well as for environmental flows. In NSW, most regional water use is now covered by a water sharing plan.

See the Water Resources topic for more details.

Consumers’ average water consumption is likely to decrease due to:

  • the long-term shift towards higher-density living
  • greater use of water-efficient appliances through the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) scheme.
  • the implementation of Water Wise Rules
  • the NSW Building Sustainability Index (BASIX) requirements.

In addition to national and state-wide initiatives, there are three distinct components to water management in NSW:

  • metropolitan water use (Sydney, the Illawarra, the Blue Mountains and adjacent areas; and the Lower Hunter)
  • urban water use in regional areas (the Upper Hunter, Central Coast and country towns)
  • rural water use (see the Water Resources topic).

National programs

National Water Initiative (NWI)

The National Water Initiative (NWI) is a shared commitment by governments across Australia to increase water use efficiency. NSW's implementation plan for the NWI lays out specific actions for the initiative's eight key elements (NSW Government 2006). All 32 eligible NSW urban water utilities have met the national auditing requirements of the initiative. Information is published annually by the federal government through National performance reports. The Productivity Commission reports good progress by states and territories on NWI implementation. However it recommends addressing the re-emergence of out-dated public policy and the challenges associated with climate change and population growth, particularly for the urban water sector.  (Productivity Commission 2017).

National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS)

Initially a NSW program, the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) became a national program to rate buildings for their measured environmental impacts, including water consumption.

Commercial office buildings, hotels, shopping centres and homes were the first spaces to be eligible for NABERS water ratings. In 2016–17 the scheme was extended to public hospitals, and the following year (2017–18) NABERS jointly certified 274 hospitals. Also during 2017–18, NABERS began ratings for apartment buildings. A NABERS internal benchmarking tool for schools, which includes water ratings, has been developed in partnership with the NSW Department of Education.

NABERS has driven substantial water efficiency gains for offices, hotels and shopping centres (NABERS 2018). From 2010–18, for example, cumulative water savings for rated NSW office buildings totalled 279,431kL.

Labelling standards

The national Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards scheme (WELS) mandates registration and water efficiency labelling for washing machines, water-using dryers, dishwashers, toilets, urinals, taps and showers. The NSW Government has further made WELS compliance mandatory for plumbing fixtures in rental properties and for water-using appliances in residential complexes. The state government has incorporated WELS into the BASIX scheme in NSW.

State-wide programs

Water Wise Rules

Water conservation measures adopted during droughts over the last decade have been replaced by simpler, common-sense Water Wise Rules for Sydney, the Blue Mountains and the Illawarra (see Figure 6.1). These permanent rules aim to save water by embedding good practice among all water users. Present water consumption remains well below levels seen prior to the previous drought. However, obtaining the level of water use reduction achieved during times of water restrictions, and maintaining them, is yet to be accomplished.

Building Sustainability Index (BASIX)

NSW's Building Sustainability Index for new homes was introduced in 2004 to ensure homes are designed to use up to 40% less urban water compared to pre-BASIX levels. Commitments made on BASIX certificates indicate that, in the average BASIX-compliant home, a person consumes about 135 litres of water each day. Savings provided by BASIX reduce state-wide demand by 13GL a year and by the end of 2013–14, cumulative water savings in NSW exceeded 134GL of potable water (DPE 2015).

Rainwater tanks

People across NSW are using more rainwater tanks to complement their piped water supply. For example, 26 local water utilities saw 42,600 residential rainwater tanks (typically 4–5kL) installed in areas they service (DPI Water 2017a, Appendix J).

Efficiency and recycling initiatives

Water recycling schemes reduce the need to discharge wastewater and can also improve nutrient levels that affect the health of streams and rivers. By making water use more efficient, these schemes free up water supply, which dams can instead release for environmental flows, improving downstream river health. In 2015–16, a total of 28.2GL of water was reported as being recovered from urban water recycling schemes. The schemes were operated by Sydney Water, Hunter Water, local councils and private schemes (DPI Water 2017a, Table 8). 

In 2016–17, Sydney Water and Hunter Water estimated daily water leakage at 83L and 96L per connected property, respectively (BOM 2017).

Sydney Water and Hunter Water actively look for and repair leaks. Under its Water Conservation Plan Sydney Water expects leak detection and other programs to achieve water savings of 17.9GL over five years (Sydney Water 2018). Hunter Water expects to save 215ML annually with targeted infrastructure improvements, such as relining the Black Hill Reservoir (Hunter Water 2017).

Although the Regional NSW Water Loss Management Program was completed in 2011, most local water utilities continue to build on the program with further water loss management activities. Prior to the program, state-wide average real water loss was 154L daily per connected property; it is now down to 70L daily per connected property for participating local water utilities (DPI Water 2017b).

Urban water management in regional centres

In NSW, more than 1.9 million people in over 500 country towns receive support from programs to maintain and augment water supply systems. These programs aim to protect public health and water security and deliver better environmental and social outcomes.

Safe and Secure Water Program: This program provides $1 billion to co-fund eligible water and sewerage projects. These include projects for catchment, town and local-scale water security, town water quality, public health, and risk remediation works on some dams. This new program has already allocated funding to the Broken Hill water supply pipeline.

Country Towns Water Supply and Sewerage Program: Concluded in 2017, this was a key program to assist regional local water utilities provide urban water supply and sewerage services. Along with the NSW Best-Practice Management of Water Supply and Sewerage Framework (NOW 2015b), the program mandated:

Infrastructure improvements funded under the program were required to deliver improved public health and environmental outcomes, and security of water supply. Running for more than two decades (1994–95 to 2016–17) the program invested over $1.27 billion for more than 500 projects (DPI Water 2017b).

Water-sensitive urban design aims to integrate the water cycle and the built environment. This planning approach for cities, towns, suburbs and even high-rise buildings is already a longstanding requirement for new developments in many local government areas.

With its strategy A Metropolis of Three Cities, the Greater Sydney Commission explicitly aims to capture and re-use energy and water flows (GSC 2018; Objective 34). This objective complements commitments under the 2017 Metropolitan Water Plan. As Sydney grows, opportunities to apply water-sensitive urban design will expand, producing exemplars of best practice that can then be applied elsewhere in NSW.

In August 2018, the NSW Government approved a new policy and planning framework to manage Greater Sydney’s urban water. This new framework will be implemented between 2018 and 2020 and reviewed in 2022.  Key initiatives include:

  • Sydney Water and WaterNSW will jointly develop an integrated, 20-year capital and operational plan to identify capital investment required to meet Sydney’s future water needs.
  • A stand-alone emergency drought response plan will identify measures to take during drought; the plan will be reviewed every five years.
  • A Greater Sydney Water Strategy will replace the 2017 Metropolitan Water Plan. The strategy will provide a comprehensive approach to Sydney's water management.
  • Obligations under the framework will be embedded into Sydney Water’s and WaterNSW’s operating licences.
  • A new performance monitoring framework will be introduced to ensure utilities are held accountable for delivering their responsibilities under these plans.


ABS 2017, 4160.1 Water Account, Australia, 201516, Bureau of Statistics, Canberra []

BOM 2015, National Performance Report 201314: Urban Water Utilities, Bureau of Meteorology, Canberra []

BOM 2017, National Performance Report 201617: Urban Water Utilities, Bureau of Meteorology, Canberra []

DECCW 2010, NSW Climate Impact Profile, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, Sydney, []

DFS 2014, 2014 Lower Hunter Water Plan, Metropolitan Water Directorate, Department of Finance and Services, Sydney []

DPE 2015, BASIX Scores and Savings, Department of Planning and Environment, Sydney []

DPI Water 2016, 2014–15 NSW Water Supply and Sewerage Benchmarking Report, Department of Primary Industries Water, Sydney [ (PDF 10.8MB)]

DPI Water 2017a, 2015–16 NSW Water Supply and Sewerage Benchmarking Report, Department of Primary Industries Water, Sydney [ (PDF 8.3MB]

DPI Water 2017b, 2015–16 NSW Water Supply and Sewerage Performance Monitoring Report, Department of Primary Industries Water, Sydney [ (PDF 2.9MB)]

DWE 2009a, 2006–07 NSW Water Supply and Sewerage Benchmarking Report, Department of Water and Energy, Sydney []

DWE 2009b, 2007–08 NSW Water Supply and Sewerage Benchmarking Report, Department of Water and Energy, Sydney []

GSC 2018, Greater Sydney Region Plan: A Metropolis of Three Cities  Connecting People, Greater Sydney Commission, Sydney []

Hunter Water 2017, 2016–17 Annual Report, Hunter Water Corporation, Newcastle []

Hunter Water 2018, Compliance and Performance Report, September 2018, Hunter Water Corporation, Newcastle []

IPART 2017, Licence Compliance Under the Water Industry Competition Act 2006, Report to the Minister, Annual Compliance Report Water, October 2017, Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, Sydney [ (PDF 0.9MB)]

Metropolitan Water 2017, 2017 Metropolitan Water Plan: Water for a Liveable, Growing and Resilient Sydney, Department of Industry, Skills and Regional Development, Sydney []

NHMRC & NRMMC 2011, Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (2011), National Health and Medical Research Council & Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council, Canberra []

NOW 2010, 2008–09 NSW Water Supply and Sewerage Benchmarking Report, NSW Office of Water, Sydney, []

NOW 2011, 2009–10 NSW Water Supply and Sewerage Benchmarking Report, NSW Office of Water, Sydney []

NOW 2012, 2010–11 NSW Water Supply and Sewerage Benchmarking Report, NSW Office of Water, Sydney []

NOW 2013, 2011–12 NSW Water Supply and Sewerage Benchmarking Report, NSW Office of Water, Sydney []

NOW 2014, 2012–13 NSW Water Supply and Sewerage Benchmarking Report, NSW Office of Water, Sydney,

NOW 2015a, 2013–14 NSW Water Supply and Sewerage Benchmarking Report, NSW Office of Water, Sydney []

NOW 2015b, NSW Best-Practice Management of Water Supply and Sewerage Framework, NSW Office of Water, Sydney []

NSW Government 2006, NSW Implementation Plan for the National Water Initiative, NSW Government, Sydney [ (PDF 0.6MB]

Productivity Commission 2017, National Water Reform: Productivity Commission Inquiry Report no. 87, 19 December 2017, Productivity Commission, Canberra [ (PDF 3.9MB)]

Sydney Water 2017, Water Conservation Report 201617, Sydney Water Corporation, Sydney [ (PDF 1.3MB]

Sydney Water 2018, Water Conservation Report 201718, Sydney Water Corporation, Sydney

Vaze J & Teng J 2011, ‘Future climate and runoff projections across New South Wales, Australia: results and practical applications’, Hydrological Process, 25(1), pp. 18–35 []