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Water shortages: It's the population stupid!

By Tom Gosling - posted Wednesday, 15 February 2006


It is now a century since Dorothea Mackellar wrote of her love for the sunburnt country, that “land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of drought and flooding rains”.

Eighty-five years ago, P.J. Hartigan’s Around the Boree Log was published, including that magnificent poem about Australia’s variable climate, Said Hanrahan.

“We’ll all be rooned”, Hanrahan complained to his mates - in the first instance because of the drought, then because of the flood which followed it, then because of the bushfire threat from the long grass, which in spring was “knee deep on Casey’s place” as “happy lad and lass” went riding down to Mass.

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So what has changed? Not much, at least as far as Australia’s climate is concerned: it is still highly variable, thanks to the El Nino effect, with the land occasionally flooded and regularly suffering spells of several hot dry years in a row. Since 1900, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, both our average annual rainfall and our temperature have gone up (by around 100mm and 1C), with the strongest increases in rainfall being in tropical areas and in eastern New South Wales, and the strongest increases in temperature being in the west and at night.

Whether you believe these increases are the result of the Greenhouse Effect or not, well, that’s up to you - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the CSIRO are adamant the problem of human-induced climate change is real, but there are plenty of rogue scientists like Townsville’s Professor Bob Carter who believe Greenhouse is mainly hot air, and are cheerfully resigned to the climate changing because of sunspots, or just “because it is always changing”.

Even if Greenhouse is the culprit, its impact so far has been tiny compared to a huge, dramatic change that is as obvious and hard to argue with, as that good old elephant sitting in the middle of your loungeroom - the number of people.

As Bill Clinton might have said “It’s the population, stupid”. In 1900, when Dorothea Mackellar wrote her poem, Australia’s population was less than four million. In 1921, when P.J. Hartigan published Said Hanrahan, it was six million. Today our population is 20.4 million and still growing at another million every four years. That’s where the water problem lies. Not with lack of water, but with the huge growth in the number of people who are demanding it.

What should we be doing about it? We should immediately stop growing our population. The only reason Australia should ever grow its population is to make life better for the people who are here now. A growing population is terrific if you are a property developer worth $300 million and are intent on becoming a property developer worth $500 million. But for the average person, water “shortages” are just one of the many signs of life getting WORSE with population growth.

Those who stand to benefit from population growth are investment bankers, real estate agents, property developers, and construction companies. They profit from building ever higher-density apartment blocks and the schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, sewerage systems, shopping malls and office complexes - and, of course, water supplies - needed to cater for ever-sprawling suburbs of new "McMansions".

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They are the same people who give generously to support the re-election of the Howard Government and buy influence with the Opposition parties and the State Labor governments, in return for “nod-nod, wink-wink” agreement that Australia’s record high immigration intake will continue, and that pro-growth policies will prevail at state level.

Why immigration? Because, despite admonitions from the treasurer for Australians to patriotically have “one baby for your husband, one for your wife, and one for the country”, Australia’s natural increase is only adding 125,000 people a year to the population. While that is enough to keep the population growing for the next 15-20 years, it is not enough to sustain a really hot property market. So, population growth has to be turbo-charged for easy economic growth - developing properties is so much easier than coming up with clever new products, like Finland and its Nokia mobile phones.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 128,740 settlers arrived at our airports in 2005, 10 per cent more than in 2004 and the third year in a row of double-digit growth in arrivals. This number, however, greatly understates the true inflow. Under a dramatic change to immigration laws, foreign students at Australian universities can now settle here if they can organise a job after graduating. Figures for calendar 2005 are not yet available, but in the 12 months to June, 43,895 people living here were granted permanent residence. That number has been steadily rising, suggesting the number of new migrants last year was about 175,000, twice as many as in the early Howard years.

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About the Author

Tom Gosling is a freelance science journalist with an interest in population and environment. He started in Sydney as a general reporter for ABC News in the early 1970s, and was Editor of The University of Sydney News from 1974-84. He then worked with CSIRO’s national media office in Canberra before moving to Melbourne in 1989 to report on science for the Herald and Herald-Sun. In 1995 he returned to Canberra to edit Australian Innovation Magazine, In 2002 he joined He was formerly CMC Power Systems where he was a Director. It was one of the companies that contributed to the aXcess project.

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