Victoria grapples with drought

[Green Left Weekly, #690, November 11, 2006]

Like a large part of the continent, Victoria is in the grip of an unprecedented drought. Across the state, dams are rapidly emptying and river flows are at record lows, cities and towns face drastic restrictions and farmers confront an uncertain future. The water crisis gives the question of global warming and catastrophic climate change a new immediacy and is a major issue in the November 25 state election.

Obviously, the fundamental challenge is to use a lot less water and to use what there is much more efficiently. This means stopping all logging in precious reservoir catchment areas, striving to reduce losses (evaporation and seepage from open channels, leaks from aged pipes), developing more efficient irrigation systems (over three-quarters of the state’s water consumption goes to irrigation) and making some very hard decisions about what types of agriculture are sustainable in a much drier climate.

Industry has to become a lot more water efficient. And while residential consumption is relatively small (Melbourne households, for instance, account for less than 5% of the state’s consumption), here too gains can be made. Wherever feasible, recycling and harvesting of stormwater and rainwater should be pursued.

Confronting the crisis

Various measures to grapple with the crisis are underway or have been announced.

In the north-western Wimmera-Mallee region a huge joint state-federal effort has finally — after years of bickering — begun to replace the incredibly wasteful system of open channel water delivery with some 8000 km of pipes. (Hitherto, 90% of the water going into the system was lost, i.e., of every 1000 litres going into the channels, only 100 litres made it to the end user!)

Waste reduction projects are also underway in other regions. In the Goulburn-Murray Water area, which covers the central third of the state, it is estimated that 400 to 800 GL are lost each year from the open channel system (GL or gigalitre = one billion or a thousand million litres). By way of comparison, Melbourne’s annual consumption is around 500 GL.

Emergency measures have been announced to ensure that Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong don't run out of water but these merely involve piping water from other areas and don't really confront the basic problem.

Compounding Hazelwood folly

As regards ensuring Melbourne's water future, the centrepiece of the Bracks ALP government's plan is the Eastern Water Recycling Proposal. This will replace 135 GL of drinkable water currently being consumed by the cooling towers of the Latrobe Valley power stations with treated waste water from the Carrum Downs plant, currently discharged through the Gunnamatta Beach ocean outfall.

The Eastern Water Recycling project highlights that fact that the Gippsland brown coal power stations not only pump out huge amounts of greenhouse gases each year but they also consume vast quantities of precious water! Last year the Labor government gave approval for Hazelwood — Australia's dirtiest power station — to operate for another 25 years. And now Bracks wants to compound this folly.

Moving to recycle all the water from Carrum Downs and closing the Gunnamatta ocean outfall are worth doing. But instead of making huge investments to build a pipeline to the polluting, water-guzzling power stations why not take urgent steps now towards phasing them out, starting with Hazelwood?

This would necessitate beginning a massive transition to renewable sources of energy coupled with a major program to implement energy efficiency measures across all users (industrial and residential). In order to facilitate these far-reaching changes, the power industry should be renationalised so that the entire system is under public control.

Mandatory targets needed

Another big contradiction in the response of the Bracks government to the water crisis is that it has so far refused to end logging in Melbourne's catchment areas. The government's own reports estimate that ending logging in the catchment area of the critical Thompson dam would save 20 GL annually.

So far the secretive Bracks government has refused to list Victoria’s 200 biggest water users. Next year it has promised to reveal the names — but not their actual consumption! While this demonstrates Labor's big-business orientation it is indefensible. The water crisis affects us all and we need to have everything on the table so we can make an accurate assessment of what is possible.

Although the government has introduced compulsory energy and water audits for the state's biggest industrial users, everything else is voluntary. What is needed is to set hard mandatory targets for reductions in water use by businesses, institutions and other big users. Significant results could be achieved relatively easily. The website of the Smart Water Fund (a collaboration of a number of metropolitan water authorities and the Department of Sustainability and Environment) gives a number of examples:

1. According to the Baking Industry Association of Victoria, an average bakery can waste 72,000 litres of hot water a year. There are over 2000 bakeries in the state so there is a potential saving of 144 ML (ML or megalitre = one million litres).

2. Cadbury Schweppes aims to save up to 21 ML of water and wastewater annually at its Tullamarine plant by removing the water and lubricant system on conveyor belts and installing a different type of belt system.

3. Western Health — which manages hospitals in the western suburbs of Melbourne — plans to save up to 12 ML of water a year by re-using water used for steriliser pressure pumps for toilet flushing.

4. Melbourne City Council has just opened a new office building, CH2 (Council House 2) which is a veritable marvel of energy and water efficiency. It even takes 100,000 L of water out of the city sewerage system each day, cleans it up and uses it for flushing toilets and watering plants. Yet the government's building codes are far from making such designs compulsory.

It has been calculated that 4.2 GL could be harvested from the rain that falls on Melbourne CBD buildings each year. Yet the government has done nothing to make rainwater collection systems mandatory on commercial and government buildings in the city. Meanwhile, city residents are being urged to dob in neighbourhood water cheats on a special hotline!

But the biggest gains will have to be made in agriculture since this is responsible for over three-quarters of the state's water consumption. Reducing waste in the distribution system is essential as is the development of new irrigation systems that more efficiently deliver water to the plants and crops.

But it will also be necessary to consider what we can rationally produce with the water we will have in the drier conditions of the future. According to a letter from a farmer published in the October 12 issue of the Age newspaper, to produce a kilogram of beef takes 40,000 litres of water, a kilo of lamb 60,000 L, rice 1600 L, wheat 3000 L and peaches 450 L. Necessity would seem to be pointing us toward vegetarianism!

Radical solutions needed

Global warming — of which Victoria's water crisis is an expression — places the fate of the human race in the balance. Will it survive into the next century and if so, under what conditions? This crisis has been brought about by the unbridled greed inherent in the capitalist private profit system. Can this same system then be relied upon to confront the crisis and resolve it in the interests of the vast working majority here and in the Third World. Simply to pose this question is to answer it.

At every point, the private interests of the tiny wealthy minority and the corporations they control clash with the needs of the vast majority of society.

Objectively, for instance, we need to make large-scale investments in public transport and to massively reduce the role of motor vehicles in our society. But the giant automobile, petrochemical, rubber and road construction corporations and the governments that represent them stand in the way.

Objectively, we need to phase out the use of fossil fuels but the coal and oil companies and the Lib-Lab governments who front for them have a different agenda.

Objectively, we need to restructure the entire economy and agriculture to make it more water and energy efficient. Big business will drag its heels on this if not resist to the end. And in any case, it will attempt to put the burden of the inevitable economic changes onto the backs of ordinary people.

We will have to go beyond the capitalist market. For a start, the energy and transport sectors should be nationalised and a plan worked out for their reconstruction on the basis of the highest levels of energy and water efficiency.

Climate change will produce wrenching economic and social dislocation. Great struggles lie ahead of us and the outcome will decide our future.