Is the Water Shortage another Furphy?

A ‘furphy’ in Australian parlance is a tall story, something which passed along the grapevine but lost shape along the way. These old cast iron water tanks were (and still are possibly) useful on the farm and in war time were a great way to water the troops. I guess the water carriers also traded news and gossip and with gun fire in the background a lot may have been woefully mis-directed…yet another ‘furphy’ unfurled on the battlefield.

Another whopping furphy in circulation for at least the last twenty years is the water shortage. Watching beautiful gardens whithering into dust under the mandate of ‘drought’ and ‘climate change’ is a big pill to swallow. Australians may not be fully versed in permaculture at home but publicly pursed propaganda campaigns convincing the Aussie battler to give up on the dream seems a bit dire when we look at the facts.

One thing Australian governments are short of is honesty and factual reporting and in relation to water I will explain why. We wake up, we drink our tea, eat our cornflakes, butter our toast and then visit the long drop (or used to) read the paper and then start the day. Human life per se is not particularly water intensive, there is enough to go around and certainly enough to flourish our gardens and parks and to keep our nature reserves blooming with life.

And then barely without notice our lives changed and barely were we given any notice about the impact of this change or whether it is in our better interests. In recent decades we have become less connected to the community garden and more connected to the global dream…a dream sold to us in no uncertain terms by a relentless media and by important milestones in our history such as the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Cheaper oranges from South America, a torrent of cheap consumables from China, less and less from here…more and more from there…all good for our prosperity and all serving the false god selling ‘economic growth’. In Australia, this period accelerated after the second war. Soldier settlements, land clearing, dam building, turning great rivers inland to make real the promise of Australia becoming the food bowl of the world. And for a short second of historical time it appeared to work. Australia was riding successfully on the sheep’s back and the silos were more less full of grains destined for distant parts of the world. As succesive governments raided the cookie jar they became less excited about food and more excited about minerals and energy…the China boom, with its massive appetite for raw materials, was the new sheep to ride and they would buy everything we have to offer under the sun.

Decades later we wake up, drink our tea, still eat our cornflakes but are less inclined to read the paper. We are told we are using too much water and must sacrifice our gardens and parks while the government tells us we are in drought and need to address ‘climate change’. Well and good but what the government is not telling us is the exact truth about how government policy and privatisation of assets has played a significant role in the situation we inherit today:

Specifically, we are not told how much water there was, how much water there is, where that water is used, and why this water is being sold to the highest but not really the smartest bidders.

Once upon a time the CSIRO was commissioned to provide useful science and facts for the people of Australia, part of the reason it was established by the Commonwealth. One of the more interesting revelations of the CSIRO is contained in the ‘Future Dilemmas’ report of 2001. Auspiced by the Department of Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs and conducted by CSIRO scientists using a econometric model used productively in Canada. How would the Australian people respond to different population projections toward the middle of the current century? The model used would analyse the physical economy and all the inputs of energy and materials spanning back decades. The premise being that if we understand how we use energy and materials we can understand how to manage them and furthermore we can develop sustainable policies to support the current and future populations. Simple task? Not really, the study spanned 10 years and involved scanning all layers of the economy to enable them to put in relative perspective. The ABC Four Corners covered the study and its impications for Australia :

Its key message: Australia undervalues its resources. The foods and other products that Australians consume and export are all part of the envied lifestyle – but are heavily subsidised by the environment.

Each year this arid country effectively exports more water than is used in its cities and its towns – without getting paid for it. Meanwhile rivers and creeks are choking. When a grain shipment is sent overseas, no one pays for the wear and tear on fragile topsoils, let alone their repair.

Richard Dennis of the Australia Institute used the term ‘Perverse Policy’ to describe the phenomena of such policies which ignore positive economic and social outcomes. With regard to water usage the country is effectively sold off to the highest bidder regardless of the damage this does to the environment and regardless of the bankrupting effect this is having on the natural assets of the country.

In relation to water usage people should be outraged by domestic water restrictions that dont apply to corporations which are effectively getting a free lunch with regard our scarce resources. When we drill down into the details of the report we are forced to ask the question why? Why is our government allowing this plundering to occur and why are Australians being treated as the cause when quite simply the evidence does not support this? The table below shows that domestic water use is less than ten percent of the total and this figure would be reduced again if the mining boom figures of the last ten years were included in the latest account. Using drip irrigation, appropriate plant species and grey water collection would have further reduced the domestic impact. Australians on this evidence should continue to enjoy lush gardens and cities and our politicians need to explain why our economic policies have been geared toward environmental decline for so long. The full report reveals that our export program is ill-conceived and literally sapping the country dry:

A nation with a long-term strategic view would know the extent to which water, precious to its people, its industries and its environmental integrity, is embodied in each good, service and product that it produces for domestic consumption, for export or that it imports. Such analyses could form the basis of understanding which allows water use to be aligned with the values for physical production, monetary return, labour generation, energy use, export trade and environmental externalities. Equitable decisions could then be made on the integration of economic, social and environmental considerations.