Foreground Weekly Review: water wars
Australia’s growing water management crises are dogged by ignorance, incompetence and corruption. However, the newly updated Australian River Restoration Centre website – Rivers of Carbon – offers some reprieve from the gloom, featuring intelligently inclusive projects in a rich, engaging format.
Spring has sprung and with warmer weather on the horizon, utility bodies and authorities are looking at the state of Australia’s water supplies. It’s a troubling picture.
As of September 2019, at the end of winter rains, the Bureau of Meteorology lists more than three-quarters of all regions throughout Australia with water restrictions. Just under half of these are ‘permanent water saving rules’, many of which had previously been level one restrictions. Most permanent rules were instituted during the millennium drought but over a decade later, many areas are drier than at the height of that drought. Significantly, January to July 2019 was the driest start to the year on record for the south of the continent.
Although Sydney Water Corporation Level One restrictions have been in place since June, a three month ‘grace period’ ended on Sunday 1 September, with fines now set to be issued for any individual or business breaches. Queensland’s Southern Downs has just moved to critical water restrictions, with all non-critical uses of potable water prohibited.
Less than a month ago Infrastructure Australia warned that authorities across the country have failed to learn from previous dry periods. We have also learnt little from global experience. Chennai in India – a city of around ten million people – recently ran out of water. In a list of the 10 cities most likely to run out of water, published soon after, Melbourne is listed in ninth place.
Water is big money. In Quantum of Solace, James Bond 007 took on corporate water privateers in a story based on the Cochabamba Water Revolt in Bolivia. The answer to Fortune magazine’s October 2011 headline “Is water the gold of the 21st century?” was “yes”. Apart from Antarctica, Australia is the driest continent in the world, so it is surprising that, until recently, we have heard so little about how our governments are planning – or not – for predictable shortages.
A scarce commodity will attract exploitation and – especially when it is a life-sustaining necessity – the unscrupulous will play on desperation. South Africa’s Cape Town faced the worst water crisis in its history between 2015 and mid-2018. The “fissures that have long plagued South Africa — race, class and economic inequality — were further highlighted by the crisis.” Back in Australia, among the reported $4.4 billion in subsidies needed to make the Adani mine viable, is much-contested access to water. In March 2017, the mine was granted rights to effectively extract unlimited groundwater, while changes to legislation in 2016 meant that communities would no longer be able to appeal such decisions.
The NSW Natural Resources Commission has drawn attention to the need for specific water allocations to Indigenous communities in review of the Murray-Darling river system managed by NSW – the Barwon-Darling. “The health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people is strongly connected to the health of the river. Aboriginal community members repeatedly told the commission that the lack of flows since 2012 has resulted in poor water quality, an inability to swim or fish, damage to culturally significant places, lack of social cohesion and a decline in cultural practices.”
The management and condition of the waters of the Murray-Darling Basin – the largest river system in Australia – has been making headlines for years. In particular, allegations of theft and corruption have circulated since a Four Corners television report aired on 27 July 2017, titled Pumped: Who is benefitting from the billions spent on the Murray-Darling? The findings of a Senate inquiry into the Integrity of the water market in the Murray-Darling Basin were published late in 2018.
Criticisms of government handling of water in the Murray-Darling system are long-running, with various reports investigating claims of poor management, non-compliance and over-extraction, leading to the The Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission. In January 2019, it found that Commonwealth officials committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions. Mass fish deaths near Menindee in December 2018 and January 2019 further prompted an investigation by the Australian Academy of Science and another independent report.
“The Barwon-Darling is an ecosystem in crisis” begins the the draft Water Sharing Plan Review of the Barwon-Darling system, published by the NSW Natural Resources Commission in July. Their Technical Review of the Water Sharing Plan was released last week. The expert report found that a “handful of big irrigators are responsible for 86 percent of water extracted from the Barwon-Darling river system, pushing the lower Darling into drought three years early.” Responding to criticism of the Commission’s review the following day, John Keniry, Chair of the New South Wales Natural Resources Commission, was reported as writing to NSW water minister Melinda Pavey, planning minister Rob Stokes and environment minister Matt Kean. “Never in my time as commissioner have I been publicly criticised by a minister for the quality or process of our work,” said Keniry, adding “I fear you minister are ‘shooting the messenger’ for the failures of the 2012 water-sharing plan.”
Meanwhile, it is not just regulation of private land that is attracting attention. A recent study has calculated that Melbourne loses 15 billion litres of water annually from logging in the Thomson Reservoir catchment. The catchment feeds a reservoir that makes up almost 60 percent of the city’s water storage capacity and is currently just over half full. The study found that 42 percent of the catchment forest has been felled by the timber industry and there were plans to log another 21 percent.
But in good news this week, the Australian River Restoration Centre has updated their website Rivers of Carbon and it contains wonderful stories and extremely helpful information. “Rivers of Carbon is the on-ground component of the Australian River Restoration Centre (ARRC), a not-for-profit organisation that believes rivers and people need each other to thrive.” With optimism, informed empathy and by seeking connection, the Rivers of Carbon initiative is driving a host of grounded projects with energetic good humour. In particular, their interest in Aboriginal knowledge and connection means that the site is a great resource for better understanding of Indigenous work, knowledge and businesses. “Wirlankarra yanama. Yurlu nyinku mirda yurndarirda” [“Go with a clear, open and accepting spirit and the country will not treat you badly”].
Foreground reads: our pick from around the web on water
Drought-hit regions of southern and eastern Australia got little if any relief during winter, with barely half the normal rainfall and the country still posting its warmest start to any year for daytime temperatures.
Australian governments will give $4.4bn in effective subsidies to Adani’s Carmichael coal project, which would otherwise be “unbankable and unviable”, a new analysis has found.
The New South Wales Natural Resources Commission has warned the water minister she is “shooting the messenger” over their findings that water management in the Barwon-Darling river had brought on drought conditions in the Lower Darling three years early.
People caught using a sprinkler or watering their lawn at midday will soon have to fork out at least $220, as new penalties for water use kick in across parts of the state of NSW.