Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
No time for dithering as we wake to new eco-terror
Pity the postmodern polar bear, waking famished from months of hibernation only to find the ice melting underfoot, with a hundred-kilometre swim before breakfast and the likelihood then of being too weak to catch it. Australia, too, is waking from its long and placid slumbers to the sudden terrifying knowledge that water and climate -the frail continent’s most critical parameters – have been so long neglected by those on watch that it’s a long Australian crawl to the next solid berg, and no guarantee we’ll make it in time.
This new terror, invisible a year ago, now occupies public consciousness. It is shaping this year’s elections, state and federal, into single-issue jobs, the water-climate change referendums we had to have. This is good, even though it’s bad, since it makes enviro-planning into genuine democratic meat for the first time. The more disappointing, then, that our politicians’ best response is a game of friendly touch footy, drinks in the change room after.
And what a game it is. Neat to the point of collusion. The Howard Government is suddenly so eco-aware it converts overnight to nuclear, which uses vast amounts of water and pollutes the never-never. While Morris Iemma’s mob is so drought-conscious, as exacerbated by the Howard Government’s dinosaur commitment to fossil fuels, it feels compelled to desalinate, consuming vast amounts of electricity – you recall Bob Carr’s “bottled electricity” quip – and helpfully resalinating any oceans diluted by those pesky melted icecaps.
Thus, being green, we pursue power that guzzles water and water that guzzles power, all of it profiting government. It’s the carbon tax you have when you’re not having one. Now that’s symbiosis.
It lets the Howard Government support the lucrative uranium industry, as well as coal, maintaining a crude exploitative mind-set even while water-prophet Malcolm Turnbull purports to save the Murray (or at least its irrigators). And it lets the Iemma mob pretend we in NSW are all so prissy we’d rather waste 900 gigawatt hours a year to desalinate – increasing the chances of Howard’s three-headed crayfish and radioactive roos – than drink water that’s ever been pee. Which is kind of insulting anyway since, as any six-year-old knows, all water is rhythmically premetabolised. And all the while flogging every public asset, including water assets like the Crown Street reservoir, for trash residential.
So the waste continues. A drenching summer rainstorm, once typical but now so rare, can drop 350 billion litres, almost a year’s worth of water for Sydney. An intelligent culture, such as the Roman or Ottoman empire, faced with a serious water shortage and a sandstone city riddled with unused and largely unmapped tunnels and caverns, might capture some of that water. Might even produce something lovely from this exigency; a water culture of arcaded aqueducts and glorious subterranean cisterns, like Istanbul’s many-columned Yerebatan Sarayi.
An intelligent government, after a decade of unprecedented power and wealth and an underused tunnelling machine, might not only have such a plan but be implementing it by now. Might at the very least make rainwater tanks mandatory; not just on new houses when you can, but on every house, now. Yesterday.
But no. Not us. We have dams at record lows but when it does rain, we still wash that year’s worth straight into the sea. So, we desalinate, at vast expense to ourselves and to the planet.
Federally, it’s the same story. Last October the environment minister, Ian Campbell, opened in northern China a new $300 million wind farm, a part-Australian joint venture. Being partly funded under the Kyoto Protocol, though, it couldn’t be built here because we won’t sign. So we go on peddling coal, worsening the drought that has turned the great Murray into a stagnant swamp and necessitating a $10 billion rescue plan.
If plan is not too strong a word. Irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin accounts for 60 per cent – or 12,000 gigalitres – of Australia’s total water use of 20,000 gigalitres. The plan could save 2500 gigalitres a year, giving half to the irrigators, half back to the river, reducing its loss by 10 per cent. Whether this will restore any kind of flow, let alone health, to a river predicted to fall, with global warming, up to a further 50 per cent, is moot. Much less whether rice- and cotton-growing should ever be contemplated in this arid continent adjacent to world-beating rice-producers.
Howard recognises the drought-carbon link, but still wants a market-driven carbon-trading scheme doing the job of government. Turnbull may change the light bulbs but Howard still opposes emission reduction on grounds that China’s will soon outstrip ours.
At state level, too, it’s more hot air than action. Iemma’s desalination plant will cost $1.9 billion, unpowered. Add the $300 million to $400 million for a wind farm to run it, like that already supplying Perth’s 10 per cent desalinated water, and there’s a $1000 rainwater tank subsidy for each of NSW’s 2.5 million households. Without wasting the power, without wrecking Botany Bay.
Recycling and water harvesting may be Peter Debnam’s only intelligent utterance as Opposition Leader, and yet he’s instantly accused of sucking up to the green vote. But, uh, isn’t sucking up to voters what democracy is about?