Listening to John Howard and the state premiers discussing the drought, the Murray-Darling basin and water policy is increasingly difficult, especially if you've ever given the natural world more than a passing thought. The sight of any Australian government claiming 'green credentials' leaves me gobsmacked, especially given the liberties taken with our natural environment in the last decade.
Actually, I think the premiers are worse than Howard, although his environmental credentials are hardly stellar. They talk endlessly about water shortages, citizens are harangued about saving the precious liquid, and quotas imposed and then, literally in the next sentence, the same premiers are talking about "the need to increase population," as though more people won't need more water.
Take Victoria's Steve Bracks: in one breath he talks about water shortages and dam levels being dangerously low, and in the next says Melbourne needs a million more people by 2025. Or Jon Stanhope of the ACT: he preaches jeremiads on Canberra's dire water shortage, and then announces four new Canberra suburbs full of Mac-mansions.
At present Australia is a net exporter of food, producing probably three times more than we actually consume ourselves. But at what cost to the environment? One of the unmentionable (and nowadays politically incorrect) questions in Australia is how many people the continent can sustain while retaining some respect for the integrity of the landscape. Political parties, including the Greens, scamper for cover the moment population policy is mentioned. But Australia is not infinite; there is a limit to our productive capacity, and we may well have already exceeded it.
Then there are vested interests to consider, the irrigators, the cotton and rice producers, and the people who believe that the entire purpose of the natural world is for it to be exploited. These producers talk about how they 'feed the nation' and contribute to exports. But rarely have we heard about the cost to our great rivers, like the Snowy, which are now reduced to pale imitations of their former selves, to say nothing of the salinity that besets the earth.
Then we're told the drought is the fault of global warming.
This is only partly so. It's much more the fault of farming practices totally out of sync with the landscape. Since the time of squatters, we've been abusing the continent through endless clearing, deliberate wide-scale burning, compaction of the soil by hard-hoofed animals, over-grazing, abuse of the river systems, damming, irrigation and the introduction of (feral) pests, both floral and faunal.
Drought is part of Australia's long-term weather cycle, but what we're experiencing now has much more to do with our own activities than with global warming. No, I'm not a global warming sceptic. I just think you can't move forward until you've dealt with your past.
Australia's longer-term natural history is one of dealing with fire and drought. The landscape was adapted to even periodic severe episodes of both. But it is not adapted to endless clearing, to the diversion and damming of rivers to the point where almost none run free, and to constant so-called 'preventative burning' that nowadays pretends to be ecologically friendly, but is still primarily geared to protecting property. Nor can the continent sustain endless immigration and a continually escalating standard of living.
I'll begin to take John Howard's water policies and 'new environmentalism' seriously when his government, and the premiers, begin to take some of these interconnected issues into account. As Bruce Haigh pointed out in the Canberra Times, the water problem has been staring our state and federal governments in the face for a decade. Billions of dollars will simply not fix the problem.
Haigh is right when he calls for a well-resourced organization that can look at all of the issues: scientific, historical, ecological, managerial. It will need to decide on its priorities: what is most important? Is it sustaining the natural world and giving it a chance to recover, or the illusion of endless economic growth in which the environment is treated merely as a resource? You can't have it both ways.
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06 February 2007
It may well be true that we have finite water resources - few people would argue on that one. But the only way this country will increase it's economic clout is by bringing in more immigrants...Give us your tired, your hungry and your sick...
06 February 2007
Good to see someone looking at these matters with the big picture (and only picture)in mind. The humans of the Western Industrial World need to be 'reinvented'. We need to see the whole Earth and all its species as subjects not objects. We need to change from our mindsets in all our institutions (including our religion) to find ways of bringing a sustainable relationship between the Earth and the human. The existing embedded anthropocentric attitude will prevent this from happening. Unbridled economic growth and so on have blinded us to the damage we have done to the Earth (and ourselves as an integral part of the Earth) and those we who have elected to lead us are seemingly without knowledge or wisdom. Time is running out not only for water but our species and the opportunity given us to in the creative realm.
06 February 2007
Good to see someone looking at these matters with the big picture (and only picture)in mind. The humans of the Western Industrial World need to be 'reinvented'. We need to see the whole Earth and all its species as subjects not objects. We need to change our mindsets in all our institutions (including our religion) to find ways of bringing a sustainable relationship between the Earth and the human. The existing embedded anthropocentric attitude will prevent this from happening. Unbridled economic growth and so on have blinded us to the damage we have done to the Earth (and ourselves as an integral part of the Earth) and those we who have elected to lead us are seemingly without knowledge or wisdom. Time is running out not only for water but our species and the opportunity given us to in the creative realm.
07 February 2007
Precise, accurate and called for. What Collins manages to do is to allow the reader to go beyond the spin used in political arguments and see the drastic need to face a situation that in a sense is withour precedent. It is sad to realise that ethics has such a low priority with politicians, being replaced with the expedient need of finding a platform that allows them to stay in government.
12 February 2007
I agree with you that State Premiers are probably worse than the Federal Government when it comes to having nothing to say about the preservation of vital water supplies and the prevention of overdevelopment - until it's time to elect new governments!
You say that a body of professionals is needed to work out the entire water solution scheme - what is the CSIRO doing do you know - can we mere voters find out if there is actually anything that can be done to meet current and future needs.
Is it possible to keep dividing our limited resources to cater for the developer/unions/big business/Labor government driven push for more and more development. Jobs being the bait always used.
Has anyone mentioned - or is it just too sensitive - the fact that land - handed over to our Aboriginals at Norah Head - which they claimed was sacred and precious to them - was sold almost immediately to developers for $41m, and is now the ghastly Magenta Foreshores Development of seemingly hundreds of buildings in the sand dunes. And the Central Coast is in a state of critical water shortage!
Still more and more developments going on everywhere.
There are NO saints in all this - but you are right in suggesting that no amount of money is going to "fix" the problem! Where does that leave us poor mortals trying to decide whose hands we can place our poor Country in?
14 February 2007
I agree with your title "Populate and our environment will perish" I think we need to extend this to the whole world.
The world population is growing at an alarmimg rate (currently 6.6 billion and growing at 7.5 million/yr) and add to that the fact that a large number live in conditions of poverty is even more alarming. To bring the 3rd world out of these condition (as we must) and let them realise their potential to live like us in the west will put a tremedous strain on the world resourses! Look at the changes in China and India. If they all lived to the standards in the west can the world resourses cope?
We need to start thinking about how to slow the population increase or even reduce the population if we are not to over run the planet. Mind you there is a bonus as people become more affluent, the birth rate reduces which then slows population growth!
We must however break from the fixation of ever rising Gross Domestic Product at the expense of an irreversible declining Gross Earth Product.
We must ask the questions.. Do we really want to increase our economic clout? Surely not at the expense of the world environment?
On the issue of global warming, more population also means more carbon dioxide. Each one of us proces CO2 as we breath! Then when we do things we produce even more by driving cars, working etc.etc..! The world is finite...
15 February 2007
Congratulations on a timely and refreshing comment. Tim Flannery has addressed this issue in the past, with little support and some ridicule. And now the SA government is planning a desal unit at the head of Spencer Gulf, a sensitive and important marine environment. Why not recycle water from the iron triangle towns for mining (if it must go ahead). Where do we go from here?
18 February 2007
The debate on water conservation and the availability of water resources needs to be informed by consideration of all sources of water, not just ‘fresh’ water. The current shortages are directly due to an infrastructure of dams and distribution that was premised on a much smaller population which could reasonably meet all its water needs with high quality drinking water. As Paul Collins says, "what we're experiencing now has much more to do with our own activities than with global warming", and I'm not a global warming sceptic either. The issue would be urgent even if climate change were not a threat in its own right.
Our present levels of population have clearly outgrown our capacity to sustainably use drinking water for all water uses. The current drinking water restrictions are essential and are unlikely to be responsibly removed even if population growth were terminated and the rains come. However, governments should be pursuing alternative water resources through recycling and recovery. Much can be done without resorting to desalination plants.
Other environmental considerations aside, we won't know what level of population can be sustained until we provide appropriate infrastructure for recycling, recovery and reuse of water for the many non-drinking purposes that are critical to community sustainability. Those purposes include leisure and recreation that are critical to social capital and community well-being, such as watering for sporting facilities and gardens.
We have in recent decades recognised our responsibility to cease the dumping of raw sewage in our oceans. We now treat that sewage but continue to dump into the oceans treated water that is of a quality close to that needed for many community and industrial purposes. The recovery of such treated water and of drainage water are but two alternative sources of water supply, given the development of appropriate infrastructure.
We have already reached a level of water consumption that is unsustainable at current population levels with our current water infrastructure. Those population levels and some further increase are arguably sustainable if governments recognise the need to invest in new infrastructure to facilitate reuse. The challenge is to recognise that much of our water use does not require water of drinking standard. In any event, the arguments against drinking recycled water are shown to be a nonsense by the constant recycling and reuse (including drinking) of the water that makes its way through the Murray Darling river system.
Doncaster East, Victoria
18 February 2007