EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Water infrastructure needed, not gimmicks
, November 25, 2006
The Government's proposed emergency measures to counter Australia's drought will merely add to the problem.The water summit convened by the Prime Minister, John Howard, in Canberra on November 7, 2006, to respond to the serious drought in eastern Australia, was advised by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission that the drought was a one-in-1,000-year event, prompting headlines in overseas newspapers such as the New Zealand Herald, "Australia's dry horrors 'worst for 1000 years'", and the UK Guardian, "Australia suffers worst drought in 1,000 years", and many others.
The main emphasis of the summit was to accelerate inter-state and inter-regional water-trading. This entirely missed the point - in 22 weeks, the Murray-Darling system runs dry. There will be no water to trade.
The only immediate result from the summit was that the South Australian Government will consider the construction of a new weir at Wellington, on the lower reaches of the Murray River, to provide security for Adelaide's water supply.
The impact of the drought has been very damaging, and emergency measures by state and federal governments to mitigate its effects are important in helping rural Australia to survive and recover.
But there is a real danger that the drought will be used as an excuse to abandon farmers in their moment of great need. Already, members of the Wentworth Group and the National Water Commission have opposed drought relief to so-called non-viable farmers."Drip-feeding"
Professor Peter Cullen told the ABC's The World Today
: "What we seem to be doing, by drip-feeding these people with drought relief, is keeping them there, maximising the misery and maximising the land degradation." (October 16, 2006).
Following recent alarming statements about global warming - including Al Gore's recent film and the British Government-sponsored report by Treasury chief economist, Sir Nicholas Stern, that the world was facing a climatic catastrophe - the drought summit's dire warnings seemed to confirm the worst predictions.
What are the facts? It is undoubtedly true that eastern Australia is enduring a severe drought. But, as the Bureau of Meteorology has pointed out, dry periods are a natural part of life in Australia, particularly away from the coast and ranges. (It was just four years ago that the 2002 drought was described by the Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, as "a one-in-a-100-year drought".)
Following the 2002 drought, an Australian climate scientist, Warwick Hughes, attempted to measure the severity of that drought, by comparing annual rainfall with records accumulated over the years from hundreds of weather stations across Australia. He made the results available on his web site: www.warwickhughes.com
Hughes shows convincingly that, across most of Australia, there had been drier years in the preceding decades, and it could only be described as the worst drought for a century for part of western Queensland, an area with notoriously variable rainfall.
Hughes asked, "How is it that the myth of 'Australia's worst drought' grew so fast and these manifestly inaccurate claims get such wide currency?
"We have to realise that the media thrives on gloom-and-doom bad news stories to sell papers and rate well on TV. This will not change, but we must be very sceptical of any claims made on the media connected with the environment."
He added, "The media are natural allies of Green groups who have made an art form of distorting the science of natural phenomena to generate gloom-and-doom stories to convince us how terrible our society is, so we will vote for them or at least give them money."
The Bureau of Meteorology has listed six major droughts of the 20th century, each of which is probably as severe as the present one: the "Federation drought" (1895-1902), the 1914-15 drought, the World War II droughts (1937-45), the 1965-68 drought, the 1982-83 drought, and the long El Niño (1991 through 1995).
An examination of data on the current drought, particularly the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), which is linked with the El Niño effect, shows that Australia entered an El Niño event, which often accompanies droughts in eastern Australia, around April 2006. This has continued to the present time, accounting for the failure of the autumn and spring rains in eastern Australia this year.
It indicates that the current drought is a further cyclical event of a type which has affected Australia throughout its long history.
The long-term crisis is not the drought, still less climate change. It is rather the failure of governments over the past 30 years to expand water storages to match population growth (in most states, having explicitly declared this as policy, to get Green preferences). Moreover, governments have failed to introduce recycling and refused to expand access to subterranean water, while mandating environmental flows down rivers, and expanding watering of ovals, parks and even roadsides.
To meet the inevitable shortage of water to the cities, it is now proposed that we rely on water-trading (when there is no water to trade), and on diverting water from reservoirs established for agriculture, thereby destroying the viability of Australia's most productive agricultural land and further centralising Australia's population in the cities. These proposals are part of the problem, not the solution.- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.