Cover Story: Water - Australia's most urgent priority
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, February 9, 2002
The statement of one of Australias leading businessmen, Richard Pratt, that he would be willing to set aside $100 million to assist the development of a national policy to expand substantially Australias available water resources, puts the focus firmly back on the need for Australia to complete major infrastructure projects if it is to meet the challenges it faces in the 21st century.
Mr Pratts company, Visy, has been voted Australias best environmental company in the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers annual corporate reputation survey. The survey ranks Australias Top 100 companies in a range of categories including environment, social impact, employee management and market position.
Mr Pratt told the Melbourne Age that Australia needed a national plan to marshall the countrys potential water resources, particularly flood waters which currently flow into the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the Gulf of Carpentaria, from northern Australia.
He said that Australia was under-populated, and more needed to be done to increase Australias population. "Australia should have a population of 50 million within 50 years, and to support that population, new water resources will have to be developed."
Mr Pratts comments echo recent observations by former Dean of the Engineering Faculty at Monash University, Professor Lance Endersbee.
Professor Endersbee sees the development of Australias resources as necessary to protect Australias future.
In a recent memorandum to the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, he wrote, "Australia is a comparatively empty country, and with great potential. It is also a safe country, and it is inevitable that an increasing number of troubled people will look to Australia as a haven.
"When the present growth in world population is considered in relation to the present Australian population, the comparisons are profound and disturbing."
He pointed out that the population of Asia is increasing by around 20 million - Australias current population - every six months, and added that Australia can readily support a substantial additional population, especially in the potentially irrigable areas across northern Australia.
Professor Endersbee said, "In a world of strong population pressures, and the migration of hungry and frightened people, it is incumbent on Australia to consider our response to these human needs.
"In the decade of the fifties, the population of Australia increased by 25 per cent. There was increasing prosperity and full employment. Major development projects were in hand at state and national levels, including the Snowy Scheme. We can do the same again. The Australian population could be increased from the present 20 million to 25 million by the year 2010.
"I think it would be quite reasonable to embark on a program of national development projects, to accept a prospective increase in population of 25 per cent over the next decade."
Specifically, he pointed to the fact that the summer monsoonal rains in northern Australia cause widespread flooding every year, with the surplus water flowing into the sea.
"There are potential sites for reservoirs to capture part of these floods, and vast areas of potentially irrigable land downstream and in nearby catchments. The Flinders, Victoria and Fitzroy Rivers and others all show excellent prospects for economic development on a very large scale. Some small areas have been considered in the past for cotton and found uneconomic.
"But now there is a growing demand in our region for fruit and vegetables to feed large and rapidly growing cities. With fast freight shipping and air services to markets in Asia and the Middle East these irrigation areas would develop and prosper."
It is easier for governments to focus on short-term issues, such as the next budget, or the next election, than on the long-term future of Australia. The problem with this, however, is that unless attention is given to national development issues, ad hoc responses will guarantee that they will never be properly addressed.
The challenge for Australia today is to look beyond the situation where Australia is responding to domestic events, or those in our neighbourhood, such as political instability, boat people and terrorism, and to take control of our own future.
Governments have a central role in this process, as the private sector cannot be expected to make the long-term investment necessary to bring such a program to fruition.
As Professor Endersbee commented, this was done with the Snowy Scheme. It was also done with the development of the Ord River Scheme in Western Australia, and earlier, with the Transcontinental Railway, which truly made the continent of Australia a single nation. It is being done again, on a more limited basis, with the railway line to link Adelaide to Darwin.
But Governments will not act unless there is a strong public support for such a development. Mr Pratts statement calling for a national water policy deserves - and needs - strong public support.
- Peter Westmore is National President of the National Civic Council