Australia's water situation worsens
Peter Mac "Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink. Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner Australia seems to be becoming more and more like the ancient mariner's ship, surrounded by water but with its inhabitants menaced by a desperate shortage of fresh water. Several months ago rains generated crops from seed sown by Australian farmers as a last-ditch gamble against a long drought. However, the rain was not sufficiently heavy or prolonged to penetrate far below the parched surface of the earth. Large areas of the country are slipping back into their former arid state, and the nation is now faced with the terrible predicament of "back-to-back" drought. Nor is the dilemma confined to rural areas. Sydney's Warragamba dam is now down to about 48 percent of its total capacity, and reduced flow is exacerbating salt pollution of river water to the point where Adelaide's water supply is under a critical threat. But unlike the ancient mariner, the nation is not dependent on divine intervention to rectify these problems, which are the result of global warming and criminally wasteful use of our desperately precious water supplies. The phenomenon of global warming is a result of man-made activity that results in the emission of large amounts of gases, whose presence in the atmosphere prevents the sun's rays from being re- radiated back into space. This in turn results in a gradual build-up of the atmospheric temperature (the so-called "green- house effect"). The very first and most basic step that Australia needs to take in order to deal with this world-wide problem is for the government to sign the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement on measures needed to curb global warming. However, the Howard Government has stubbornly refused to do so. The arguments they cite to justify this stance reflect those used by many members of the business community, who still deny that global warming is taking place. Some organisations have elaborated plans and strategies to deal with the water crisis. The latest is the Farmhand Foundation. This group has outlined a number of steps that are well worth supporting, for example the capping of old artesian water bores, which lose large amounts of water each year. However, it has also recommended collection of water at source and its distribution by means of a national grid. This scheme appears to exacerbate the problem of inadequate water flows in the natural river systems with consequent devastating impacts on wildlife and small farming. In other parts of the world, global warming may result in catastrophic floods, such as those seen last week in Haiti, while in Australia it manifests itself in periods of prolonged drought. However, the resultant water shortage is being compounded here by the massive extraction of river water for flood irrigation purposes. The worst culprits in this respect are the huge irrigator agribusinesses such as those that run Cubbie farm and other cotton-producing properties in Southern Queensland. Their extraction of water from the local Culgoa River has resulted in the loss of massive amounts of water that would otherwise have reached farmers in Brewarinna and other parts of Northern NSW. And once again these businesses have a critical influence on the elaboration of water policy, and even on the extent of public discussion on critical aspects of national water use. This was highlighted last week by ABC TV's Mediawatch program. The presenter drew attention to the withdrawal from ABC radio's Country Hour of an item that contained criticism of the Cubbie Station "water guzzler" irrigators. The program was particularly critical of the role of cotton grower Leith Boully in this respect. The program noted that Ms Boully combines her business interests with heading two government advisory boards concerned with water use — and is also a member of the ABC Board! It's hardly surprising, then, that the Country Hour segment on irrigation water use was dropped. As Mediawatch revealed, the segment contained an interview with Brewarinna farmer Ed Fessey. He described the huge vested interests that irrigators like Ms Boully have in preserving their almost unrestricted access to river water that are of concern to the southern Queensland irrigators: "[they've] got pretty big investments in water up there and also the ability to extract water at very low dollar rates. And also there's no system of measuring many of the extractions of the water out of the rivers up there. I think there's only 20 or 25 pumps that have metres on them. The rest is reported in on an honour system! It doesn't augur well for a visible and transparent system of water sharing." And that's an understatement!