Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Australia's Troubled Waters

The National Water Commission’s baseline water assessment (pdf) has revealed that Australia’s total water resource has diminished by 20 per cent in the last ten years. The report released yesterday compared a 2005 baseline against the previous audit taken in 1996-1997 and found that a series of dry years and double counting of surface water and groundwater resources had contributed to the shortfall.

The report noted that only 10 per cent of all rainfall enters the river system or recharges ground aquifers. The remainder is lost to evaporation and water use by plants. Agriculture was by far the biggest consumer of water using 65 per cent of the usable total (mostly for irrigation). Household use and the water supply industry used 11 per cent each with other industries accounting for another 7 per cent. NSW’s Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area was the top region in for water consumption. Dam storage levels across Australia declined 18 per cent in the period between 2002 and 2005 with NSW (33 per cent) and Victoria (22 per cent) hardest hit.

The water audit is another grim addition to a litany of statistics that point to a water crisis situation in the world’s driest inhabited continent. On 20 June, Media Monitors produced a media release (pdf) about the current water debate in Australia. They examined media coverage of the debate and found that the majority of discussions on the issue focus on problems rather than solutions. Its damning findings were that practical actions to address the water crisis were blocked by what it called “Federal-State politics, dead-locked in competing claims and counter-claims by vested interests and stymied by NIMBYism”. It concluded that although there was universal awareness that a water crisis was happening there is very limited objective information and education for the public to make informed decisions.

Media Monitor presented their analysis in a report (pdf) called “Water in Australia: A Drought of Action, a Flood of Politics, Vested Interests and Nimbyism”. The report did a detailed content analysis of water issues in 1,200 articles in the Australian media between 1 January and 30 April 2007. The report found that community awareness is close to 100 per cent with a total of 80,000 media reports discussing water issues in the period measured. This figure included TV, radio and press coverage but mostly ignored Internet coverage.

The report found there was no cohesive bipartisan strategy (pdf) in place to manage Australia’s scarce water resources. The most significant roadblock is the often fractious nature of the State-Federal political relationship. State premiers advance local interest and are critical of Canberra and the other state governments. Meanwhile the federal government stands accused of usurping state rights to gain political advantage. The divide between Labor governed states and a Liberal Commonwealth adds to the general suspicion.

Most media coverage focuses on what the report calls the “politics of water” or the policies, proposals and viewpoints of politicians and vested interests. This involves claims and counter-claims by politicians, environmentalists, farmers, lobby groups and residents potentially affected by infrastructure projects. This chorus of opinion drowns out the little factual analysis that remains. The coming federal election is likely to exacerbate the trend. In terms of public support for options, recycling is most preferred ahead of desalination with building new dams a distant third. But all solutions suffer from considerable opposition with the ‘yuk factor’ being a major obstacle to recycling.

Nimbyism is rife in the public debate. The report quoted two examples. Firstly, residents in the south Sydney area who vocally oppose a planned desalination plan at Kurnell on the grounds of disruption to marine life and expense Secondly, the fishing industry on Bribie Island who have “angrily vowed to fight any move to build a desalination plant in the area, warning that such a project would demolish their business” according to the 12 April edition of Brisbane’s Courier-Mail.

The study expressed surprise at the relatively little coverage of practical measures that are available to combat the crisis such as domestic water saving techniques, water tanks, more efficient irrigation and reducing industry’s use of water. The report also criticised the media for their simplistic attitude to heavy rainfall and the erroneous belief that the end of the drought is the end of the problem. There is insufficient recognition that regardless of drought conditions there is “long-term deep-seated inadequacies in Australia’s policy, infrastructure and management systems in relation to water”.

While the report acknowledged that it is difficult to make recommendations based on media debate analysis alone, the seriousness of the issue demands immediate and strong action. It argues that some of the substantial federal communication budget should be directed to a national public education campaign on water (the current amount spent is insignificant compared to the budget allocated to the WorkChoices PR campaign). It also advocates a stronger role for neutral scientific bodies such as CSIRO and suggests a National Water Summit to debate research papers from national and international experts. Finally, and perhaps, most optimistically, is the reports desire to see a more widely based bipartisan approach to water management in Australia.

Nonetheless the alternatives are dire. Continued water shortages along the patterns of the last few years will lead to greatly increased water prices, contribute to rising electricity prices, lead to power shortages, will cause food prices to skyrocket, kill agricultural industry, cause the death of the Murray-Darling river system and impact the Australian lifestyle and the ability to take gardens and swimming pools for granted. Australians of the future will look back dimly at the parochialism of the early 2000s that destroyed their inheritance.

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