In early November a group of environmental scientists, the Wentworth
Group, released a Blueprint
for a Living Continent. The blueprint received extensive media
coverage and consideration at the highest levels of government. What
weight should be given to the Blueprint? Have the scientists got it right?
Where is the debate?
Sensibly, the Wentworth Group is building on the back of the
drought-induced public awareness of the state of our environment. However,
the Blueprint needs to be critically reviewed. It should be the beginning
of a public debate, not the end of it.
Scientific reductionism is alive and well
The Wentworth scientists, like moths to a light, promote a fatal
reductionism. They advocate a water policy isolated from considerations of
the economic, social, spiritual and biophysical realities of our
ecosystems. The lessons of history - even our recent history - are
forgotten, not learned. We struggle with the narrowly conceived national
program on salinity. We forget the lack of impact of the equally narrowly
conceived tree programs of the 1980s. Most astoundingly, we forget that we
are now wrestling with the aftermath of the father of all reductionist
programs, the Snowy scheme.
Surely the lesson is that there are grave risks in dealing in isolation
with one part of the ecosystem. There is no recovery from such a
reductionist position. The total ecological jigsaw is greater than the sum
of the bits. Once the elements become packaged separately - into their own
administrative and policy boxes as is proposed - wild horses will not pull
them back together.
The Wentworth Group puts its considerable weight behind the runaway
train that is the alleged need to better define property rights. Although
the Group sensibly defines the water right in terms of it being "a
right to use a proportion of available water for a finite time" just
how this removes the uncertainty allegedly limiting investment,
development and environmental flows is far from clear. And in any event,
has the certainty of land rights prevented land degradation? Quite the
contrary one might attest.
The reality is that water rights are vested in the State. What we are
looking at here is a claim on public resources reminiscent of the squatter
claims on land. We need to examine the basis for these claims and what
might be the national benefit from meeting those claims. As the Group
says, there is only one cake and for every allocated litre there is one
litre not available for an alternative allocation.
In a novel yet bizarre twist, the Group suggests that uncertainty about
water property rights flows through to uncertainty about the obligations
associated with water use. One might have thought that the water user
plagued by any such uncertainty might take surety from a clearly regulated
need not to pollute.
For over two centuries Australian agriculture has operated within
institutional arrangements that have defined land rights and enabled
market-based transfer of those rights. Over the same period we have
extensively degraded our land resource. However, this has not deterred the
Wentworth Group and others from the notion that applying similar
arrangements to water will markedly improve the environmental impact of
how we use water.
The Group acknowledges the self-interest of large water businesses
("the history of water development in Australia is a history of
articulate interest groups seeking to have water used for their
advantage") yet it promotes the establishment of a market mechanism
to give expression to those interests.
Curiously, the Group advocates that "from 2006, water trading
could be limited to those with water".
The point to be made here is that although the market can be a useful
tool to give expression to the values of a community, the market does not
establish those values.
Furthermore, there are values that lie beyond commodification, beyond
the ability of markets to sensibly price resources for exchange.
Environmental flows fall into this category, as do many landscape
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