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Water - a byword for waste

By Bruce Haigh - posted Thursday, 14 October 2010


Water is a scarce and much abused resource around the globe. For instance France is using more water on irrigation than is being replaced. Water is cheap in France and supplied to farms through state and commune managed pipelines.

Water is pumped onto crops through pivots during the heat of the day and often in conditions of high wind further adding to evaporation and unproductive dispersal of an increasingly scarce resource. Wheat, sugar beet and barley are among the lower value crops irrigated.

Australian angst over trying to find solutions to water flows and best use of water in the Murray/Darling Basin should not be seen in isolation.

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The management of water resources worldwide should become a priority of the United Nations. Just as we have a United Nations High Commission for Refugees, we should have a United Nations High Commission for Water, engaging in studies and dialogue on best practice and use of water and if necessary bringing pressure to bear on states who abuse the use of water and/or impinge on the rights of neighbouring states through misuse and greed.

The management of water should not be left to markets where the pursuit of profit has water abused, devalued and often powerless with respect to sustainability. Water needs a voice and a value beyond the market. At the moment it comes a very poor second in calculations relating its use - agriculture and industry have the upper hand and water is required to comply.

Putting a higher monetary value on water would help, but the greatest assistance that could be given to water would be a change in attitude. It should be accorded more respect.

When I was young, water in Australia was accorded far more respect then it commands now. Suburban homes in Perth and Adelaide had tanks. Water was protected, the taps on tanks could be padlocked and taps were not left dripping far less running. Australia has no more water than it had then and has three times the population, surely a case can be made to be far more frugal and focused in our management of water and our attitude to it. But we have become profligate with respect to this and so many other commodities.

The system of water licensing and through it transferring water from one location to another in the Murray/Darling Basin defies common sense. I have heard it argued that trading in water will enable water to be used more efficiently, it will not. It will be sold to those with the biggest cheque books and they may not be agricultural industries classified as the most efficient and sustainable users of water and nor might they come into the category of producing essential food stuffs.

In terms of the productive use of water in Australia much of it might be likened to child labour. Water is the cheapest input into the production of export items. It does not have a champion, a defender powerful enough to modify the behaviour of the big exporting agro industries. When we export many of our irrigated products we export cheap water, well below its real value and the damage to the environment that a poorly conceived and regulated licensing system does to the environment. The licensing system is one thing, the theft of water is another, which takes place through poor compliance, metering and inspection.

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For the National Farmers Federation and the National and Liberal Parties to argue that reforms along the lines of those outlined in the discussion paper will cost jobs, is a bit rich. Country towns have been dying the death of a thousand cuts - from the loss of the capacity to deliver babies in the local hospital to poor funding for rural schools, tertiary and trade skills. Rural communities have suffered poor roads, closure of railways and internet access. They pay a high price for air services.

The National and Liberal Parties presided over the slow decline of rural Australia. They had the opportunity to reverse this during almost 12 years of government. They declined to do so and as a result many jobs were lost and economic opportunities that may have come through the provision of better services and infrastructure were not created, but were lost.

This neglect saw the rise of rural Independents who now hold the balance of power. That situation would not have arisen if the lack lustre Coalition had seen the bigger picture and put resources into Australia as a whole rather than disproportionate funding into the coastal city states. To argue loss of jobs is too late for very many rural towns including those in the Murray/Darling Basin.

I stood as an Independent candidate for the seat of Parkes in the 2007 federal election. Following an interview on the local Dubbo radio in which I canvassed many of the issues above, I received a phone call from a person claiming to be the CEO of an irrigation company based in Narrabri. He told me in no uncertain terms to back off. He said Independents should not discuss irrigation issues, he indicated he would be putting money into another Independent candidate in the electorate who would openly support the irrigation industry.

Control and nurturing is required over the use of water. A centrally planned economy is not the answer, but legislation is, in order to sustain a scarce resource and to enable best use in the national interest, which should include land care and environmental sustainability which is basic to sustainable water flows.

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The author drip irrigates olives and grapes at Mudgee.



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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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