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May 27th 2011 print

Ron Pike

Water isn’t the problem

Our recent water shortages were all caused by the failure of Governments to build water conservation structures for the last 35 years; not because there was a shortage of water.


Water reform does not have to be water torture


It is quite incongruous that during the recent long drought we railed about our variable weather, low rainfall and water shortage and as a result enacted the ill-considered Commonwealth Water Act 2007.  Then, following severe flooding across much of Australia, we shed tears about flood damage caused by too much water, raised special taxes and called a Royal Commission to consider the cause and consequences.

Given past experience surely a more rational practical people should be able to see we can mitigate both problems with the same infrastructure.

We have the opportunity and capacity to improve both sides of the water equation, but to do so we have to refute many incorrect “accepted truths” in relation to water.

The first claim that needs to be questioned is “that Australia is short of water.”

This totally untrue claim is usually associated with the statement, “Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth.”

While the second statement is technically true it is totally irrelevant unless we also appreciate that we have a miniscule population compared to the other continents and countries.

 If we look at our water availability per head of population (which is much more meaningful), whether via total precipitation or by average annual runoff, we see that rather than Australia being short of water, we have an abundance, even if our population was to double or treble.

Precipitation per head of population in megalitres per annum.

Australia: 122      Brazil: 121     USA: 29     China:   11   Japan: 5.9

Water is in fact our most abundant renewable resource and all we have to do is sensibly harness it and use it.

While the average annual run-off from mainland Australia is 290 million megalitres, (plus an unknown amount of storm water) and another 50M megalitres from Tasmania, our annual use is:

All households and industry:       4.2M megalitres.

Manufacturing and Mining          2.5M megalitres.

Agriculture (average) varies widely depending on availability      7.5M megalitres.

Total annual average use              14.2M megalitres.

We are not short of water, but we are short of practical policy to conserve and distribute this abundant element of antiquity and the basis of all life on earth.

But to do so we have to critically question and refute the other Bob Brown and Greens propagated assertion: “Dams destroy rivers.”

In the Australian environment correctly sited, properly engineered and practically managed dams are always an enhancement of the environment and of the river ecology. Dams simply store water in times of excess flow (thereby mitigating flooding) to ensure continuing stream flow and water for all users, including the environment in times of drought and even periods of no catchment inflow.

Rather than dams being a negative for the environment as claimed, the facts are that it is our reliable dams, weirs and even irrigation infrastructure that provide the most reliable and pristine habitat for most native aquatic flora and fauna.

Our recent water shortages were all caused by the failure of Governments to build water conservation structures for the last 35 years; not because there was a shortage of water.

It is time for Politicians from both sides of politics to recognise that while they meant well in passing the Water Act 2007, they got it wrong.  Rather than being water reform, it is more like water torture and there is a better way of managing our abundant water resources.

A new water policy that embraces the multiple outcomes of increasing water availability, flood mitigation, producing clean hydro power and increasing aquatic habitat, IS water reform and should obviously have appeal to all politicians and both sides of this debate.

History is going to be scathing of governments, political parties and all involved in the decision to waste taxpayer money in building desalination plants, ineffective “water saving” schemes and the totally unnecessary water buy-back.

Taxpayer money could have been much more economically used to build dams and associated works that would provide far greater quantities of water (and produce hydro power) at a fraction of the cost of the irrational political decisions taken to appease myopic environmentalists.

There is ample capacity in most of our river valleys to provide for water conservation, flood mitigation, the production of hydro power and expand aquatic habitat providing we clear our minds of the false notion that dams destroy “wild rivers” and recognise that a non flowing river is useless to the environment and mankind.

 In most of Australia, unless man intervenes, all of our rivers fluctuate between raging torrents to times of no flow. Only when we appreciate this fact can we plan for a better outcome for all species reliant on water in our rivers.

Recent weather and the huge floods that followed the end of the El Nino (drought) period we have recently witnessed, should remind us that nothing has really changed since Dorothea Mackellar penned her famous poem and that the claims made by environmentalists were at best sensationalist and at worst driven by an anti-advancement ideology which seems to be the Green mantra.

It needs to be understood that prior to the man’s intervention to conserve excess water for release in dry times, that our rivers irregularly ran dry. The rivers of the lower Murray-Darling Basin ran dry four times between 1788 and the completion of Burrinjuck Dam in 1928. However, since the completion of Burrinjuck on the Murrumbidgee in 1928, Eildon on the Goulbourn in 1929, Hume on the Murray in 1931 and Wyangla on the Lachlan in 1935, despite the growth of our population, the development of inland cities and towns, the growth of regional industry and vast developments of world class irrigated agriculture, the rivers have not run dry since.

We owe much to the visionary politicians and others who had the foresight and determination to plan, invest in and bring to completion the water conservation, hydro power systems and irrigation industries that have made it possible for our Nation to independently grow and flourish with an abundance of food and fibre, vibrant permanent wetlands and thriving regional communities.

It is now time to again show some of the same spirit and faith in our future with some visionary policy but the Water Act 2007 is not it.

We do have the capacity to enhance our fresh water resources to the everlasting advantage of the environment we all share.