Prominent advisors such as Professor Mike Young are suggesting that parts of the landscape should be sacrificed to the desert so that other areas can be saved. People talk about moving Australia’s agriculture to the tropical north, essentially giving up and walking away from the Murray Darling Basin.
What we are looking at is the mass failure of Australia’s food production. We could well become a nett importer of food.
Two years ago the government faced the choice of evacuating Bendigo, Ballarat and Horsham or pumping water to those towns from the Murray Darling Basin. Now the Goldfields Superpipe speeds up the death of the Murray and Ballarat has been lifted of water restrictions.
Two months ago, the premier, Nathan Rees, and the industry Minister Ian McDonald told journalists that coal is more important than food and farmers of NSW’s food bowl, the Liverpool Basin, were expendable. These statements will resonate historically with Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake.” The only problem is that “Let them eat coal” does not even have the benefit of naïve belief.
In Victoria the options are using recycled water from Carrum, which is politically difficult; building a desalination plant, which takes some time; or taking the water from the Murray Darling. That plan came unstuck in parliament last week.
Teasing out the truth
“Give a farmer a megalitre of water and they will produce food, give a city a megalitre of water and they will produce sewage” said Greg Hoadley, a grazier on the western Darling Downs. It is true, farmers do recapture water that runs off their land and use it again. Compared to the cities, which use water once and then flush it out to sea, they consider themselves as very efficient users of water.
Allen Gale, technical manager for Goulburn Water sees it differently. “Yes, farmers are productive but industry actually produces much more value for each megalitre of water they use and they do not lose water through evapotranspiration. Domestic users account for a very small portion of water use,” he said.
In fact, leaks in urban water supplies use more water than domestic users in some Australian cities. In 2007, Perth significantly reduced the pressure in its water mains to reduce the quantity of water leaking out of the system. Some European cities have such leaky water supplies that they turn them off at night, relying on roof top water tanks to supply people in off-peak periods.
Agriculture uses about 80 per cent of the water that is captured in Australia. Our agricultural use of water has increased significantly since water trading began. Water trading is the ability for a farmer to sell the water that he was allowed to take from the river, or irrigation system, to another user on another farm.
As you can imagine, especially if you have seen the film Chinatown, it is a very complex and highly politicized issue. Many farmers express concerns that water trading allows large companies to buy lots of cheap land in remote areas and buy water rights from better quality land further upstream.
Farmers are selling their water rights because times are tough and it is the one tradeable commodity that they have.
Orchadist and cattle farmer in Shepparton, Gary Godwill, believes this is the beginning of the end for small farmers in Australia. He said that the pattern is identical to what happened with the farmers cooperative over the last two decades.
“The cooperative was set up to provide marketing muscle for local farmers but when it became a public company it opened the doors to any grower and farmers began to sell their shares for extra cash,” he said.
After the two largest fruit processors in Shepparton, Ardmona and SPC combined, the company was bought by Coca Cola Amatil. “Now there are truckloads of imported fruit coming in from China, sometimes in shinys (already canned), and the local farmers cannot compete. We are being driven off the land in the name of globalization,” Godwill said.
What is this thing called modernisation?
Deb Bertalli is a fourth generation grazier in Yea, Victoria about an hour out of Melbourne. She was arrested for obstructing the construction of a pipeline on her farm. “This farm has had permanent water for all of my lifetime and has been flooded two or three times every year. In the last ten years we have had no floods and for two years have not been able to cut hay. I wonder why I had children when I think about the future we face,” she told me.
She has been a vocal opponent to a pipeline that will pump water out of the Murray Darling Basin to supply the city of Melbourne. “Melbourne has options, the river does not,” she said.
The North South pipeline is being built as part of the Food Bowl Modernisation Project a project that will make irrigation in Victoria much more efficient.
The basic concept of the Modernisation project is that better equipment will reduce the amount of water lost in the irrigation process and give the water authorities spare water to decide what to do with. The figures prepared for the Victorian government indicate that up to 225 billion litres of water can be saved each year through this process.
Victorian water Minister Nick Holding has been busy since the government lost the vote to redirect the water to Melbourne pointing out that the plan is to direct one third of the saved water to Melbourne, return one third to the environment and give one third to the irrigators.
There are a number of problems though.
Everyone from the politicians, through the water authorities down to the local farmers accepts that changes to the irrigation system will drive many small farmers off the land. The difference is that some people think that this is the inevitable march of progress, others see it as the destruction of a way of life.
From the river’s point of view, the supposed savings are meaningless.
Victoria’s water minister Nick Holding has fallen for bureaucratic blather, according to lifelong water engineer turned river advocate, Steve Posselt.
“I think he genuinely believes that the Food Bowl Modernisation project will save water but he needs to understand there are no savings. It is all funny numbers made up by water engineers to fund a multi-billion dollar project,” he said this morning.
“The reason that farmers and greenies have united on this cause is because they are on the ground and have applied common sense,” he said.
“You can’t just lose water. It goes into the ground or into the river, where it belongs. What the bureaucrats mean is that they have lost control of the water,” he said.
Posselt has built irrigation control mechanisms and sewage treatment plants for 35 years. He has also traveled seven Australian Rivers from end to end in his unique, wheeled kayak.
“It took me a long time, but I finally understand what a river system is,” he wrote in his recent book, Cry Me a River.
Posselt was galavanised into action after paddling to the mouth of the Murray to find that it does not even reach the barrage built to prevent sea water flooding back into the fresh water Lake Alexandrina. “The river system is dying from the mouth up and now they are proposing to take another 750,000,000 litres out of it each year.”
The Food Bowl Modernisation Project is predicated on figures provided to the state government that lining irrigation channels, replacing simple mechanical metering equipment and preventing water from flowing over the banks of irrigation canals (known as outfall) will save 225 billion litres of water every year. These are the figures referred to numerous times in the media today by Nick Holding, according to Mr Posselt.
“From the river’s point of view, not one of those things produces more water,” he said. “Lining the channel stops the water leaking into the ground, remetering means the irrigation authorities keep a bit more water in the dam instead of giving it to the farmers, and preventing outfall simply stops the water going back into the system to be used by the next person down stream. None of this makes more water, it simply keeps it out of the environment and in the control of the irrigation authority. That does not help the river one bit”
Posselt said that if the authority let all that water go back into the environment then we would be exactly where we are today, “well and truly stuffed.”
“I hate to think where that puts us if any of the independent politicians who voted this down yesterday gets pressured into letting them go ahead,” he said.
With the hard evidence from people on the ground that Australia’s food bowl is drying out and governments are indulging in knee jerk reactions that do not even take full account of the problem, people are desparate for more options.
Farmers like Peter Andrews, featured prominently on Australian Story, or winner of NSW young farmer of the year, Graham Finlayson and many others have adopted practices that return permanent water to the landscape, eliminate the need for expensive external inputs and drought proof the property.
“Farmers only listen to other farmers,” said Deb Bertalli. These farmers who are adapting to the reality of the landscape need to be promoted as heroes.
People in cities need to understand that if they allow their government to pipe water from other areas, then those areas will dry out. Once the landscape changes, it is very difficult to get it back.
In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond describes the demise of the Easter Islands. He writes that they cut down the forests and the water disappeared. Before they evacuated their only source of liquid was sugar cane that caught the mists coming from the sea. The corpses of the last generation of Easter Islanders all show major dental decay from this unsustainable diet.
Australian’s may want to consider how we face the same crisis, before it is too late.
Giovanni Ebono is an author, publisher and broadcaster. His Generator News can be heard on many community radio stations at 12.20pm on Tuesdays.