April 29th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Taking stock of the wheat scandal

EDITORIAL: Watering Australia: a national priority

BORDER PROTECTION: Why Australia needs naval, air force bases in Torres Strait

NATIONAL SECURITY: Lives endangered by latest intelligence leaks

ENVIRONMENTALISM: How the Great Barrier Reef is mismanaged

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Labor misses the bus / All is vanity / Kosovo's mafia / When the bills come in / Open season on Christianity

REGIONAL ECONOMIC POLICY: The end of international economic cooperation? (Part 2)

PERU: Latest Latin American country to turn left

SCHOOLS: The choice so few parents can afford

MEDIA: ABC's Easter assault on Christianity

THE WEST AND ISLAM: No alternative but to defend our values

Social cost of unfettered capitalism (letter)

Robert Manne's media critique defended (letter)

Why have a Department of Foreign Affairs? (letter)

CINEMA: Caped crusader for the know-nothing left: V for Vendetta

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Watering Australia: a national priority

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, April 29, 2006
For the past 30 years, governments have been reluctant to commit to major infrastructure projects that could tap the potential water resources of the continent and ensure Australia's long-term water security.

While much of southern Australia languishes in drought, cyclones off Australia's northern coastline, from Western Australia to Queensland, have dumped huge quantities of water in northern Australia, where Australia's population is relatively sparse. Within a matter of days or weeks, most of this water has flowed out into the oceans.

On the other hand, Australia's largest city, Sydney, now has permanent water restrictions, with reservoirs now at 40 per cent of capacity. Sydney faces immediate problems because the State Labor Government of former Premier Bob Carr abandoned plans, developed decades ago, to create a large new reservoir to augment Sydney's supplies.

The city of Goulburn, in southern New South Wales, is in an even worse situation. The available water supply for the city, which is on the highly fertile southern tablelands of New South Wales, is now about 18 per cent of capacity. Pejar Dam, its largest water storage with a capacity of 9,000 megalitres, now holds only 68 megalitres, 0.8 per cent of capacity.

Severe consequences

Much of rural Victoria faces similar problems. Bendigo, the largest city in the north of the state, is preparing to buy irrigation water previously available for agriculture, with severe consequences for many agricultural enterprises in the region.

Some demoralised dairy farmers in the area, after years of low prices and reduced access to water, have offered to sell off their water rights to stay afloat.

One dairy farmer said, "They've been on the wrong side of the ledger for five years, and, even if it did rain and we got heaps of water, it's going to take four or five years to get back."

He said that irrigators had access to only 30 per cent of their water rights this year, but they still had to pay the full price of the allocation, as well as delivery and drainage fees, and the costs of buying more water. "They're just tired, they've had enough," he said.

While it is simplistic to believe that drought in one part of Australia could be solved simply, the fact is that for the past 30 years, despite the growth of Australia's population, little has been done to tap the potential water resources of the continent.

In contrast, the post-war period saw the construction of the Snowy Mountains scheme which embraced huge dams and hydro-electric power stations in south-eastern Australia, the Ord River Scheme in Western Australia, and dams for hydro-electric power in Tasmania.

Since the 1970s, there has been a reluctance to commit to major infrastructure projects for a variety of reasons.

In part, governments want short-term results, rather than pursuing the long-term interests of the country. In the case of major infrastructure projects, the results often take years to appear, by which time the government which commissioned them is out of office.

Additionally, the influence of radical environmentalists - who oppose infrastructure projects, mining and the forestry industries on principle - has been disproportionately large, because they have played balance-of-power politics both in parliament and at the ballot-box.

Successive federal governments have paid lip-service to the problem, but effectively hand-balled it back to the states.

Lacking the financial resources to fund major projects themselves, or unwilling to go into debt, the states have looked for alternative methods of funding infrastructure works.

One solution has been the privatisation of water utilities, once the exclusive preserve of state and local governments, so that the provision of water is no longer regarded as a public utility, but simply as a resource which should be subject to the laws of supply and demand.

Associated with the privatisation of water has been the introduction of water-trading, under which "market forces" determine how water resources are to be allocated. The inevitable result of this is that water is diverted from agricultural to urban use, because city consumers are able to pay much higher prices for water than farmers.

The result of government policy has been to discourage interest in the provision of long-term water security as a solution to the problem of drought which has recurred throughout Australia's history.

Over the years, there have been a number of imaginative plans put forward, such as the scheme devised by Dr John Bradfield, an outstanding Australian hydrological engineer. It involved the diverting of water from the upper reaches of several Queensland coastal rivers into the Thomson River on the other side of the Great Dividing Range; but it was never properly evaluated.

In 2004, faced with public demands for action to meet Perth's growing water needs, the WA State Government appointed a committee to investigate the supply of water from the Kimberley region, in the state's north. However, nothing seems to have come from it.

There is an urgent need for the Howard Government to revisit this issue, as it has done recently in relation to development of Australia's uranium industry.

  • Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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