The drought hasn’t yet descended on Macquarie Street where food continues to be served, wine spilleth over and the taps flow. But not so for the 82 per cent of our New South Wales which is officially in drought.
Do our elected representatives and public officials engage in table talk about us (the civilians) from time to time, with each sip of champers, each nibble of butterscotch terrine? Or are we an afterthought, irritating interruptions of personal and party agendas, jotted phone messages on the back of white serviettes?
Well knock, knock Premier Kristina Keneally, the civilians are at the door and they’ve worked up quite a thirst!
And the thirst keeps growing as we hear daily reports of rivers and bores running dry. From the Belubula River to the Lachlan River and through to the Murray Darling Basin, Australia’s dire water situation is shaping up to have all the hallmarks of a geography for the next Geoff Mack “I’ve been everywhere man” re-mix.
Late last year the Senate Environment, Communications, and the Arts References Committee released its report The effects of Mining on the Murray Darling Basin (PDF 287KB). It recommends:
- That all governments support the Namoi Catchment Water Study and not take further decisions in relation to the licensing of mining and extractive industries in the Namoi catchment until that study is completed and publicly released.
- As a matter of priority and preferably prior to the release of future Mineral Exploration Licences, state governments establish regional water plans in areas potentially subject to mining or extractive industry operations.
- That the Commonwealth Government investigate the scope of Section 255A of the Water Act 2007 to determine whether it applies to groundwater resources located in ridge country. If this is not the case, the committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government amend Section 255A to include groundwater resources on all land types and that it work with the states to ensure the prohibition of the licensing of mining or extractive industries in the event that a study conducted under Section 255A indicates that the development would have adverse impacts on groundwater resources and the environment.
- All governments maximise use of information and data gleaned from planning and research activities to ensure that co-ordinated analysis of regional water plans takes place, so as to better understand the cumulative impacts of mining in the Murray-Darling Basin.
- Commonwealth Government works to ensure the prevention of new mines or extractive industries in the Murray Darling Basin if their impacts on water resources are inconsistent with the Basin Plan.
The Namoi Catchment Water Study into surface and groundwater resources in the Namoi is intended to provide high quality information to help identify risks associated with mining on water resources in the region, and to inform the NSW Government’s decision making processes. Incidentally this study has been endorsed by mining companies, industry peak bodies and local community groups with funding jointly by the Commonwealth and industry. (For the purposes of this article I will avoid any discussion about industry funding and potential perceived conflicts of interest.)
Water, not coal, gold or any other mineral, is our most precious resource of all, and with global food, oil and water shortages coming home to roost one would have thought the NSW Government would jump at the chance to co-fund the study. Not so: instead, their response has been juvenile. It was reported that in an answer to a question without notice in the New South Wales Legislative Council, former minister Ian MacDonald stated:
I am not writing out any cheque in relation to this matter. The Government has decided, following discussions with Mr Peters and the department on this matter, that it would not be matching the funds provided by the Commonwealth. Just because the Commonwealth has put up $1.5 million for this or any other project does not mean that we should have to follow suit. However, my understanding from discussions in the committee is that adequate funds will be available for that water study.
What a disgrace.
Surely drawing on international experience - such as the findings of the 2009 UK-based Working Group on Mining in the Philippines report, Philippines: Mining or Food? or recent reports from the US about the effects of mountaintop removal mining or even the recent findings of the UN Economic and Social Council contained in the Report of the Fourth Regional Implementation Meeting on Sustainable Development - should generate sufficient concern by the NSW Government to at least satisfy itself that “international best practice” is being followed.
As John P Williams described in his paper "International best practice" in mining: who decides and how and how does it impact law development published in the Georgetown Journal of International Law in 2008:
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