A firefighter works as a bushfire, believed to have been sparked by a lightning strike that has ravaged an area of over 2,000 hectares in northern New South Wales state, burns in Port Macquarie on November 2, 2019. - Hundreds of koalas are feared to have burned to death in an out-of-control bushfire on Australia's east coast, wildlife authorities said October 30.
'Unprecedented' bushfires rage across Australia
01:42 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Australia is reeling from deadly bushfires and the worst drought in decades – but fears are now growing that things could get worse, as a water shortage in the country’s biggest city begins to bite.

Four people have died in this year’s blazes, which have been exacerbated by hot, dry weather. And now the city of Sydney – home to more than 5 million people – faces a warning that dams could run dry by 2022, according to CNN affiliate 7News.

Since June, the greater Sydney area in New South Wales state has been under level 1 water restrictions, which limit water usage in filling pools or running hoses unattended. It is the first time the restrictions have been implemented since 2003, during a drought that lasted until 2009.

If dam levels drop just a few percentage points in greater Sydney, residents could face even harsher water restrictions.

Dams in greater Sydney are currently at 46.6% capacity. According to the NSW water authority, they are on track to hit 40% – which means level 2 water restrictions would be imposed by next February or March.

Melinda Pavey, the state’s water minister, told 7News she didn’t want to “scare people unnecessarily,” but said the government was considering level 2 restrictions.

Level 2 restrictions would further limit the use of water in daily operations – for example, only allowing watering gardens a few days a week instead of every day.

“With the current rate of depletion we could be in a tricky situation in a couple of years,” she said, adding that this was the worst drought in NSW on record.

Meanwhile, more than 1,300 firefighters continue to battle the flames that have ravaged the states of Queensland and NSW this past month. The blazes have already destroyed three times more land in New South Wales, which is home to nearly 8 million people, than during the entire fire season last year – even before summer truly begins.

Flames approach the town of Taree, north of Sydney, Australia, on November 14, 2019.

Hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and four people have died. The fourth death was announced on Thursday – a 58-year-old man whose body was found near Kempsey in the state’s east.

While the cause of many of the blazes is natural, some people have ignored a total fire ban in effect over Queensland and NSW. Police said Thursday that they had arrested a 16-year-old in connection with a Queensland bushfire.

The drought and the fires are the most urgent symptoms of Australia’s climate crisis. Disasters like the fires and floods have devastated the livelihoods of farmers and wrought millions of dollars’ worth of damage. The country is getting hotter and drier, and the rains have stopped coming – this time last year, the dams were around 64.4% full.

According to the NSW water authority, more than 85% of greater Sydney’s water supply depends on rainfall – meaning that as the drought drags on and the dams run out, residents may face a serious water crisis with few other alternatives.

People are increasingly demanding action – thousands of climate-striking students recently walked out of class, while Extinction Rebellion activists are stopping coal trains and blocking roads.

On paper, it looks like the country is taking action – in 2015, Australia agreed to cut its carbon emissions under the Paris Climate Agreement. But many have accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his administration of not doing enough, and Morrison sidestepped questions last weekend when asked about climate change.

Ben Westcott contributed reporting.