Victorian Labor's water plan: business as usual

[Green Left Weekly, #720, August 3, 2007]

In Australia, as in other major capitalist countries, the official response to global warming is to deny or gloss over the utter catastrophe confronting human society and try to carry on with business as usual, making only a few relatively minor adjustments here and there.

The Victorian Labor government's water plan is a clear case in point. The initiatives announced in June, together with those made earlier, are designed precisely to avoid grappling with the necessity of fundamental changes to the way we collect and distribute water, what we produce with it and how.

Juicy contracts in the pipeline

One of the key elements in the government plan to "droughtproof" Melbourne and the main regional cities is a $3 billion, 150 gigalitre (GL = 1 billion litres) desalination plant to be built at Wonthaggi by the end of 2011.

The plant will consume prodigious amounts of coal-based energy, thereby producing large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions which will make a significant contribution to global warming. The government's response is to say that the plant's energy usage will be "offset" by building an equivalent amount of renewable energy capacity. This may or may not happen but in any case it won't help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

The proposed plant has also aroused furious local opposition. On July 12, 500 residents, concerned over its massive environmental impact and the complete lack of public consultation, packed Wonthaggi's town hall to denounce the project.

The other major element of the state water plan is a large-scale effort to cut waste in the Goulburn-Murray irrigation area, with annual savings estimated at 225 GL. A pipeline from the Goulburn River will carry 75 GL — one-third of the mooted savings — over the Great Dividing Range to Melbourne’s water system.

Local residents in Shepparton staged a public protest, saying that their water was being taken to flush Melbourne's toilets. As things stand, it is hard to disagree with this claim. Moreover, it is by no means clear that in the future the water will be there to take. Currently the huge Goulburn-Murray dam system is only about 18% full.

Water bills for ordinary consumers are expected to double over the next five years in order to pay for the estimated $5 billion water plan.

The only positive element in the government plan is the commitment to cutting waste in the northern irrigation system. But even this is an attempt to continue along the same road as before. And big business is already salivating as it contemplates a bonanza of juicy contracts for building the Wonthaggi plant and the pipeline from the north.


A far more rational and sustainable alternative plan would include the following elements.

1. An April 2007 study commissioned by Environment Victoria and two other conservation organisations estimated that installing rainwater tanks on all suitable houses in Melbourne could save up to 84 GL annually. When we consider that Melbourne's current total water consumption is about 500 GL annually, of which 60% (300 GL) is used by residents, we can appreciate how significant such a measure would be.

2. Melbourne has two main sewage treatment plants. The Carrum Downs plant processes 135 GL annually but of this only 15 GL is recycled. The remaining partially treated effluent is pumped out of an ocean outfall at Gunamatta surf beach, thereby ruining it. The Werribee complex treats 177 GL of sewage per year, of which only 32 GL is recycled. When we are running short of water this sort of waste is completely crazy.

3. For some time the government has talked about sending recycled water from the Carrum Downs plant to Hazelwood and other Latrobe Valley power stations. In addition to spewing out stupendous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, together they consume about 100 GL of water each year. Any rational water and energy plan in the face of global warming would focus on working to phase out these dinosaurs as rapidly as possible. Radical energy conservation measures together with energy from renewable sources would replace them.

4. According to the website of the National Water Commission, in 2004-05 16% of Victoria's total water consumption (almost 800 GL) was wasted (through evaporation, seepage and leaks). Big projects in the Mallee-Wimmera and in the Goulburn-Murray area are tackling some of this but there would seem to be a lot more scope for big savings.

5. The NWC website table shows that agriculture accounts for 66% of the state’s water consumption. Looking over the detailed breakdown one can’t help but wonder how much is absolutely necessary or sustainable given the crisis we face.

For instance, grape production consumes 320 GL of water. Even a staunch wine-lover might question the necessity of much of this. How much of the grape crop is used to make wine which is exported to Europe which can perfectly well produce its own wine?

One might ask similar questions about dairy farming (consuming 1710 GL of water), livestock production (156 GL) and non-dairy pasture (622 GL).

The truth is that everything we produce embodies a certain amount of energy and water. Some things are essential to our society, others are not. One doesn't have to be an advocate of feudal localism or a deep green opponent of world trade to suggest that the exporting of particular water or energy intensive products is probably not sustainable in today’s conditions.

Stormwater harvesting

Large-scale harvesting of stormwater should be an important element in any rational water plan.

Recently SBS-TV screened a three-part series on the Roman empire. One segment focused on the Roman city of Timgad, built in 100 AD to settle army veterans in what is now desert south of the Algerian city of Constantine. The wonderful ruins are the most extensive and best preserved in North Africa.

One thing which first puzzled archeologists was the large number of public baths. Where did the water come from in this quite dry area? There were two sources. An amazing (and still partially surviving) aqueduct carried water a considerable distance from the Atlas mountains in the south to the city. Timgad also had a comprehensive system for harvesting storm water. Under every street were drains to collect rainwater and carry it to cisterns for storage.

The Roman occupation of Egypt also left marvellous engineering works designed to trap the occasional downpours that would produce shortlived raging torrents in the dry desert riverbeds and gullies. The water was diverted into large cisterns hacked out of the rock walls of hillsides; it could be stored in these underground caverns for years. There are hundreds of such installations in the Egyptian desert.

Some 2000 years ago Roman engineers developed a sophisticated system for trapping stormwater but despite all the scientific and technological wonders of modern society such a vision appears to be beyond the horizon of Victoria's corporate-oriented ALP government.

End corporate secrecy

The other big element in any rational water plan for the state must be a forced march to water efficiency by industry. There are reports aplenty of quite dramatic water savings by particular companies. For instance, Melbourne Linen Services, a large commercial laundry in Altona, installed new recycling equipment which resulted in an annual reduction of water consumption of 70 megalitres (ML = 1 million litres) and a reduction of waste discharges by 30 ML.

However, at this point we come up against the notorious "commercial in confidence" — that is, business secrecy. The state government has so far refused to publish a list of Victoria’s top 200 water users. Under pressure it has now agreed to reveal the list later this year — but won’t tell us how much water each entity uses!

Recently the government has launched a program — the Top 2100 — whereby water users who consume more than 10 ML of water each year must develop plans to save water by December. The penalty for noncompliance? Wait for it — it's a fine of … $100. That's right — a $100 fine!! And cynics might have thought our government wasn't serious!

In Victoria we are facing an unprecedented water shortage and all projections point to it getting much worse. Residents are expected to make significant cuts in their consumption but we are not allowed to know how much water the principal economic players are using.

We need some real glasnost here. All water usage by industry and agriculture should be publicly available and easily accessible on an official government website.

We need a central plan under which every sector and enterprise would have a mandatory water efficiency target. Persistent failure by a company to meet performance targets would result in nationalisation and reorganisation.

Global warming represents the most fundamental challenge ever faced by humanity. Our very existence is at stake. This crisis cannot be successfully confronted without the community subordinating powerful capitalist interests to the imperative needs of our survival. Private ownership of the means of production cannot be off limits to public scrutiny and control. On the contrary, the public sector must be revitalised and massively expanded, especially in a number of key sectors.

The choice is clear: people's lives or big business profits?