In the game of state politics, grass roots pressure can still change a government's mind. So much was demonstrated when an accidental coalition of citizens groups, local government, scientific and technical advice and media analysis defeated the plans by the New South Wales Government to impose an expensive and environmentally damaging desalination plant on the city. In an age of managerial government, it was a victory for democracy.
Ever since retiring NSW premier, Bob Carr, announced plans for the desalination plant on Sydney's Kurnell Peninsula, opposition had been building. Scientists pointed out that meeting the energy demands for the plant would boost the state's contribution to global warming.
There were other objections. The cost of water would increase. Saline discharge from the plant would damage the marine environment. And most importantly, since the cross-city tunnel put such arrangements on the public nose, the project was to be of the public-private type (PPE).
Combined, these factors took only a few months to turn what the government had trumpeted as a final solution to the city's water woes into an electoral nightmare. Significantly, Premier Morris Iemma said as much in “shelving” the plans. Now, they are only to be revived if the city's water supply falls as low as 30 per cent. At the time of writing levels have risen to 45 per cent.
This is how democracy is supposed to work. When a government demonstrates its disinclination to heed public opinion, lobby groups and the general public have to put their message in a form that most governments readily respond to - that which threatens electoral survival. Iemma read public opinion.
Already smarting from blows exposed in the city's media about questionable arrangements made to build the cross city tunnel, and by claims that it had instructed police to go easy on Lebanese youth even before the Cronulla riot and the subsequent mini-Interfada (a term inscribed on a road by vengeance-seeking Lebanese) of the revenge attacks on the city's eastern suburbs, Iemma cancelled what had so unexpectedly become a liability.
Now the government is belatedly paying attention to what critics of desalinisation have said all along - that there are significant gains to be made in conserving the city's rainwater and in processing wastewater to a standard fit for human consumption.
In a country in which around 34 per cent of our fresh water is used to irrigate gardens and a further 20 per cent goes to flushing toilets, there is clearly a potential to utilise second-grade water for those purposes. Sustainability advocates have been saying this for decades and a few householders have experimented with the reclamation of household kitchen and laundry water.
The demonstration reedbed greywater systems installed at the UNSW Ecoliving Centre and a similar scheme at Beelerong Community Farm in Brisbane and at the CERES environmental park in Melbourne show the usefulness of the technology for cleansing wastewater prior to release into the environment or for further use. Scaled up, the idea is being implemented at Sydney's new Rouse Hill development where households are equipped with a dual water supply - drinking water only in kitchens and bathrooms, recycled water in laundry, toilet and garden.
More contentious in the government's revised plans is the idea of pumping from the aquifers below the city's sandstone during drought periods. Scientists have pointed out that the true extent of the reserves are not known and that over-pumping could affect rivers and bring other consequences.
State Upper House MP, Ian Cohen (Greens), was assertive in promoting conservation and reprocessing as the solution for Sydney. Never a man to avoid controversy, Cohen asserted that increased government education and incentives would further reduce water consumption and claimed overwhelming public support for the imposition of either summer or year-round water restrictions. He claimed that between 80 and 95 per cent of people are willing to limit the time they spend in the shower and to install water-saving devices, such as shower heads, tap fittings and dual-flush toilets in their homes.
Boosting the notion that recycling and conservation are the most cost-effective means of reducing Sydney's water consumption was the recent court decision allowing the private company, Sydney Services, access to the city's sewage and wastewater for processing and recycling. The company has campaigned for years to access what it sees as a valuable resource, rather than a problem.
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