Stealing the clouds: water politics in the garden state

by Andrew Bock Published The Age, July 20, 2009, Opinion


We are living in an era of energy wars. Nations go to war for energy. Governments and private companies across the globe jockey for control of essential resources including water, oil, gas, electricity and telecommunications.  Utilities are traded at higher and higher prices and basic human rights to services are eroded.


Naomi Klein dubbed the dominant politics of this era, “disaster capitalism”, in her book, “The Shock Doctrine”.  Klein argued that disasters such as terrorism, floods and droughts are used by governments to introduce excessive security, surveillance, taxation, user pays and privatisation measures that would not be tolerated during other times.   


On the back of a ten year drought, the Essential Services Commission of the Victorian government last week announced water price increases to residents of 50 to 64% over the next four years. 


We should resist this attempt to make residential users subsidise future water profits for government, industry and agriculture on several counts.


Residents use only about 10 per cent of the water in Victoria and should not pay a greater percentage than agricultural or industrial users to fund improvements in infrastructure.


Residents have conscientiously reduced their per capita usage over the last decade and now consume less than at any time since the 1940s. We have done this without financial incentives or fines and without the coercion of water police officers who now peer puritanically over front fences in summer.


We can live 40 days without food but not seven days without water. A daily allowance of water is a constitutional right in South Africa and should be one in Australia.  Water is the most essential service and should not cost proportionately more for those on lower incomes.


A user pays system that charges residents more after an accepted monthly allowance is reached is a fairer way to maintain good domestic water habits.


Premier John Brumby argued that increased water rates were needed to fund infrastructure including the north-south pipeline and the desalination plant. But taxpayers are already funding most of the improvements to the state’s irrigation system. 


The Foodbowl modernisation project in northern Victoria will cost Melbourne water consumers $300 million, taxpayers $600 million and the irrigation community a paltry $100 million.


Farmers are the sacred cows in the Victorian water debate. In particular, they are the sacred dairy cows. Irrigators use 75% of the state’s water and the majority of that is used by dairy farmers to flood-irrigate grassland for cows.


The government, in its federated fear of farmers, would rather desalinate the ocean than examine the taps running in the paddock. 


In 2005-06, Victorian agricultural businesses used 22.6% of all irrigated water in the nation. Around 5.2% of agricultural land in Victoria was irrigated and this represented 25.5% of irrigated agricultural land nationally.


The drought in Victoria has substantially reduced the extent of irrigated agriculture but historically we have been heavy irrigators. Moreover, the foods we grow – on fruit trees, vines and dairy farms – are high and long-term water users.


A 2008 “Report on the virtual water cycle of Victoria” compiled for the Victorian Water Trust found the dairy industry used more than four times the total amount of water used by all Victorian households.


The report established an important new framework for analysing water use by measuring the amount of water required to produce food products and bring those products to the table.


The thirstiest agricultural products are rice, milk and dairy products, sugar and cotton in that order.  The biggest real users of water in Victorian agriculture are dairy farms (1928 gigalitres) followed by winemakers (288 gigalitres).


Two thirds of our food produce is exported. This means a substantial amount of our limited water supply is exported in those products that harvest large amounts of water.


The report concluded that Victoria was a net exporter of virtual water by around 1900 gigalitres, or 35% of our water supply. Most of this water is exported in food products.


In the future we will have to decide which industries we should subsidise with water and how much water we can afford to export in food products.


A key feature of disaster capitalism, according to Klein, is that instead of working on ways to distribute energy equitably,  governments and corporations try to make us dependent on new sources like nuclear power or desalination plants that require large amounts of capital and generate large amounts of profit.


Only money runs through fingers faster than water.  The desalination plant is like a casino that will eventually generate income dependency in its (French) operators and the government. It is a supply end solution that will by default remove some of the state’s incentive to reduce demand or redistribute water more fairly.


The government has already given us an example of this tendency by approving the desalination plant at the same time as it dropped a promise to pipe recycled water from the Eastern Treatment Plant to power stations that use clean river water.


The Victorian government would rather let usable water flow into the ocean at Gunnamatta and desalinate it a few kilometres downwind at Wonthaggi than commit to sound water redistribution policies.


There is a Grimm brothers fairy tale in which the moon is stolen by thieves for the exclusive use of one shire. In that tale, God intervenes and hangs the moon high in the sky so no one can steal the moonlight again. 


In a dry climate we need to more carefully limit agricultural and industrial demand and also protect residents’ rights to water because apparently, even clouds can be stolen.   



An edited version of this article appeared in the Age and is on line at http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/residents-use-the-least-water-yet-pay-more-for-lack-of-it-20090719-dph3.html






© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.