Sunday, December 31, 2006

Privatizing politics - the big dry

Satellites have been used to map all of Australia's fresh water for the first time, and the picture is bleak. In just three years, the continent has suffered a net loss of 46 cubic kilometres of fresh water - enough to fill Sydney Harbour more than 90 times.

Water is a big topic of conversation in Australia, or the lack of it at least.

Even Tasmanian, an island state below the rest of the country doesn’t escape. Some centres in the state are just two days away from officially documenting 2006 as their driest year ever.
The individual states have jurisdictions over their own waterways, but those same waterways don’t stop at state borders. The issue of managing the dry continent’s river systems is a constant sore point between states and the Federal Government.

Federal Agriculture Minister, Peter McGauran, wants the Feds to do a takeover of the system.

The states have had control of rivers since federation.

"The rivers that cross state boundaries and the water systems that flow into the major rivers ought to be under the principal control of the Commonwealth," Mr McGauran

PM Howard is bleating in the background, but staying out of the debate for now.

But the real fear is being voiced by some state premiers: Victoria’s Premier Steve Bracks dismissed Mr McGauran's claim as another backdoor bid to privatise Australia's water.

You see, the Howard government has a stage passion for handing over the country’s infrastructure to private operators. Water would be just one more act of generosity with publicly owned recourses.

Is there really anything wrong with resource privatization? Most would say that depends on your philosophical view, but I would argue that the record of privatisation in Australia and elsewhere is dismal – a failure.

Let’s stick with water and a prime example. The map shows the vast inland river system which feeds much of the agricultural area west of the Great Dividing range. It empties into the Southern Ocean near Adelaide in South Australia, and supplies that city with it’s drinking water.

The Murray/Darling River System feeds four eastern states, beginning in Queensland in the north.

At a place called St George, in the state’s south, massive farm dams on Cubbie Station, a cotton growing property, have become a contentious focal point of the national water debate.

Frustrated farmers downstream in New South Wales have accused the giant cotton farm of siphoning off the lion's share of the available water that historically has flowed from north-west Queensland into the New South Wales river systems.

But not even the nation's biggest irrigator is immune from what is now widely seen as the worst drought in the nation's history.

During infrequent floods, Cubbie is accused of diverting nearly the whole flow from nearby rivers into their holding dams. The water from those rivers is expected to feed the system further south, but it never reaches the NSW border, never mind the rest of the river system.

John Grabbe runs the huge cotton farm he helped to establish. He has licenses to take more than 400,000 megalitres (a megalitre is well over half a million gallons) of water a year. There is little argument that Cubbie needs the massive amounts of water they divert from the rivers. It is estimated that the cotton for an ordinary tee shirt requires over 500 gallons of water.

So we end up with another question: Can a country which is running out of water afford to support water hungry industries?

The private operators of Cubbie seem to think the industry should continue, even though they are in a desperate situation themselves. There is hardly any water left on the place. One dam now holds 400 megalitres, enough to plant about 350 hectares of cotton.

Despite the record drought affecting the country there are no moves at Cubbie to look at alternative crops or even specially developed ‘dry area’ cotton. They are fixed on their own vision of profit maximisation and have invested heavily in it. They are hardly likely to turn around and rethink their business plan, or care about the water needs of the rest of the country. They have the license; but they don’t have the water. (The picture shows the last puddle left in a massive farm dam.)

I’ve got nothing against John Grabbe or Cubbie. They aren’t innovative thinkers and they are working within a culture they grew up with. They have been encouraged and endorsed by the political establishment; no doubt told endlessly what great blokes they are. But these are the people, the mindsets which control private industry. Their goals are not particularly in tune with the concerns of the rest of the country.

We could talk a lot more about water, we could go a lot deeper into the reasons why privatisation is so problematic; or we can just look at the many other examples and see that we really need some fresh thinking when it comes to resolving the enormous issues our societies face.


Kvatch said...

Having been raised in a dry land (20 cm of precipitation/year) that gets most of its water from 1) an almost dry aquifer and 2) a muddy river that is mostly dammed up in the state to the north, I've watched my hometown's population wither for 2 decades. In the end, it's probably a good thing.

The water intensive industries will probably come to an end one way or another--if not gradually now, then abruptly and joltingly later.

Cartledge said...

I guess there is a self resolving aspect froggy. I've found a poster of the frogs of that river system discussed. Been meaning to see if you would like me to send you one. You can email me at cartledge at gmail if you are interested.

GORN said...

Is hard to even imagine what it would be like without water. In the Northwest, we have draughts where we have been limited to sprinkling the garden every second day, and I'm embarrassed to say, we whinge about it.

With all the science and technology, you'd think they'd focus on something so important instead of making talking search engines.

Within the company I work for, bloated with meddling Managers, I can compare why nothing gets done properly to the ratio. Some World leaders and their organizations are no different. It seems we continue to supplicate for Mother Nature's needs, and quite frankly I'm getting fed up with it.

Cartledge said...

GORN, the science and technology on these cotton and wheat spreads is pretty awesome, if misguided.
You would have an inkling of the process of laser leveling each 500 acre block, and the blocks just continue across the countryside.
If they can execute a leveling operation on that scale, to maximize irrigation, there must be equally powerful technology to fit crop needs with real resource availability.
Just the waste, in vast, open farm dams, from evaporation is enormous.