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Environment lost in rush to build dams

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Thursday, 7 September 2006


Since the emergence of the Greens as a political force in the early 1980s and their successful protests against the proposed Franklin Dam in Tasmania, few politicians, let alone political parties, have dared to propose a new dam.

But this Queensland election, the Labor Party is proposing not one, but two new dams for south eastern Queensland and three new dams for central and north Queensland. The Coalition initially proposed three new dams (pdf 360KB)for the south east, a new dam at Emu Creek (pdf 119KB) for Toowoomba  and now four new dams (pdf 69KB)  for central and north Queensland.

No-one mentioned the word “dam” during the last state election. Tree clearing was the big environmental issue in February 2004. The Government will have completely phased out broad-scale tree clearing in Queensland by the end of this year and the Wilderness Society has moved its campaign to Sydney.

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The ban on tree clearing means the federal government is now on track to reach its Kyoto target. Australia hasn’t ratified Kyoto, but the government does report on greenhouse gas emissions and a saving of about a 100 million tonnes is projected due to “land use, land use change and forestry”. This saving has helped offset emissions growth in the energy sector nationally.

The Queensland election was announced the day before the premiers of NSW, Victoria and South Australia launched a blueprint for a proposed new energy industry trading scheme designed to cut emissions Australia wide. Premier Peter Beattie has rejected the scheme and the Coalition is saying nothing.

But Mr Beattie has blamed climate change for our current “water crisis”. Speaking at the Brisbane Institute the day he announced the election, he said we already have climate change and that’s why Wivenhoe dam is nearly empty. Mr Beattie then went on to say because of climate change we can expect more intense storms and more cyclones. Extending this logic, the dams in south east Queensland should be filled some time soon.

It is hard to know what Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg really thinks about climate change. There is no mention of it at his Internet home page where he details his opinion on national parks and a “Graffiti Wipe-Out” policy - to stop visual pollution.

Liberal leader Bruce Flegg has also avoided the issue while former Liberal leader Bob Quinn suggested that the premier should stop blaming the water crisis on climate change and start building some infrastructure. He also said the premier was “flip-flopping” on the issue of waste water recycling.

The Australian Water Association has detailed why water recycling is the most cost effective and immediate solution to the water crisis in south east Queensland - but this solution it is yet to be promoted by either Labor or the Coalition. The Coalition says water should be recycled for industry, but not for drinking.

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Mr Springborg says he supports the mandating of ethanol in our fuel as part of his “pursuit for greener fuels”. Mr Beattie has also promised to mandate ethanol but for economic rather than environmental reasons with his ethanol policy entitled “Ethanol - Cutting the burden at the bowser”. But ethanol is unlikely to reduce the cost of petrol and it’s not environmentally friendly when one counts up the fertilisers, pesticides and water used to grow the crop of corn or cane.

Some local environmental issues have come to prominence including horse riding in national parks and the cruise terminal at the Gold Coast.

But there has been no honest discussion or clever policies put forward by Labor, the Coalition or the Greens to deal with the key underlying environmental issue which is population pressure - locally and globally.

There are likely to be another three billion people in the world in 50 years time with most of this growth happening in Asia. This will put tremendous pressure on the global environment. Queensland is rich in natural resources and currently exports huge quantities of coal, beef and sugar to Asia and beyond.

Even if Queensland’s population doubles by 2056, the state will still only have eight million people.

According to various environmental indices, low population density, economic vitality and quality of governance are important determinants of environmental well being.

Queensland has a low population density, we are relatively rich particularly in natural resources, but I see few signs of good governance. Let’s hope who ever wins this state election doesn’t squander our natural wealth or build too many new dams.

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This is an amended version of a shorter article first published in The Courier-Mail on August 31, 2006 entitled “Environment Off Election Agenda”.

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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