Sunday, April 22, 2007

Australia's Water Wars - Introduction

Photo: Daily Telegraph, the dry Edward River, part of the Murray Darling System

The announcement by the Australian Prime Minister John Howard that the taps to the irrigation pipes in the Murray Darling Basin would have to be turned off if there was not heavy rain in the catchment in the next six weeks has certainly attracted media and public attention.

I thought that it might be interesting if I traced the evolution of Australia's water wars as seen through the prism set by this blog. I wil do so. But now I need to declare a personal interest.

Australia's water wars have become personal.

New England is the wettest part of NSW. New England's great eastern flowing rivers from the Hunter in the south to the Tweed in the north rise in and flow through New England.

Of these rivers, the Clarence - the Big River - is New England's largest and by Australian standards a very big river indeed. To put this in perspective for Australian and especially NSW people, the Nepean Hawkesbury system is a minnow compared with the Clarence. The Clarence is also the only major Australian river left without a major dam.

The question of the best way of using New England's rivers to benefit New Englanders has been a steady thread in New England development discussions. From Earle Page in the first decades of the twentieth century to Zhini Buzo, Alex Buzo's dad, in the last half of the century people looked at alternative development paths.

Earle Page argued that the Clarence provided a great resource. One outcome was one of the first hydro plants in Australia.; the first was in fact also in New England near Armidale. Zhini argued that we should consider diverting some of the eastern flowing waters into the Murray-Darling system to help irrigate the slopes and plains of western New England.

There was always an issue here as to how we reconciled the interests of those living in the Clarence Valley. But this was a New England issue.

Some time ago I warned that we were going to see a grab for New England's water because New England is the wettest part of NSW. This has arrived with Minister Turnbull's desire to build a dam on the Clarence to provide water to Brisbane. We must, or so we are told, support this on the grounds that it is in the national interest. To do otherwise is to be parochial.

I am sorry, Malcolm, but this is a New England resource. If the water is to be diverted, then the residents of Brisbane should pay a market price to the residents of New England. This has to be high enough to compensate all those who will lose from the proposal plus those who might benefit from alternatives. I suspect that this might make desalination a rather viable alternative.

In writing on this blog about the water wars I will try to present the issues in a fair way, leaving my partisan arguments to the New England Australia blog. However, you need to be aware of my biases.

In the absence of our own Government to look after New England's interests, we are incredibly vulnerable. I will do the best I can through my blogs to present the New England case, to try to defend the New England interest.


In response to a comment by Lexcen on this post I admitted that my response to the Clarence dam issue was parochial. However, that does not make it wrong. I had a part completed post on the New England blog that I have now completed that sets out my position in a little more detail.

Having had time to think further, I am actually a bit puzzled about the whole Clarence dam thing. The immediate political problems associated with the dam including the National's position in Northern NSW make it unlikely in the short term. I think that the issue really has to be set within the broader politics of the water wars.


Lexcen said...

You'll have to try very hard to convince me your concern for New England isn't parochial.

I think that it is appalling that a nation with a history of drought and flood has managed to sail along during the good times and not planned for the inevitable dry period. There is nothing new or surprising about the climate and ecology of the Australian continent. It's only disappointing to see politicians floundering for short term answers to a long term problem. A problem that should have been foreseen and addressed a long time ago. This underlies my disillusionment with politicians whose policies are only designed to win them the next election.

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, my argument is of course parochial, but it's not without reason.

To set a context, since I started blogging one of my consistent themes has been the neglect of New England, the way in which existing structures work against New England's interests. I have tried to give evidence for this position, arguing that New England needs a longer term integrated approach if the problems are to be resolved. So the water case is just another example.

The fact that Mr Turnbull wraps it all up in those classic political phrases including the charge that those opposed are simply being parochial does not affect the underlying facts of the case as I see them.

Most Government decisions over resources create winners and losers.In the case of the Big River, the immediate losers are the people of the Northern Tablelands and the Northern Rivers who lose access to a resource, the winners are the people of Brisbane and SE Queensland who gain water.

The Clarence is not like the Murray Darling system crossing multiple boundaries with major up and downstream conflicts. It is a much more self-contained system.

Past New England discussions on possible alternative uses of the Clarence water and especially partial diversion west along the lines of the Snowy scheme foundered primarily on economic grounds. No one forsaw today's problems in the Murray Darling system. But there were also environmental problems as well as down stream concerns among some Clarence residents.

Whatever the problems with past discussions, there were clearly definable benefits for New England. In this case there are not. New England loses, Brisbane gains.

There will be those who oppose any daming of the Clarence at all on environmental grounds. My argument is different.

At the first level, my argument is that if there is to be a dam then, just as compensation is paid if a property is submerged, so the people of New England should be compensated.The people using the water should pay the full economic cost.

At a second level, if we want to use the waters of the Clarence then there should be a discussion about alternative uses that takes the full range of New England interests into account

I agree with your point re the political process. Leave aside for a moment real arguments about drought etc, I have been amazed at the way this issue has been handled, at the orchestrated publicity avalanche.

One of the reasons why I think it important to look back at the evolution of the debate is that it provides context and balance to what has becomem, if the Sydney Daily Telegraph is any guide, another example of media feeding frenzy.

Lexcen said...

Fair enough. I never imagined the government would be so arrogant as to shy away from providing compensation.

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, I have to be fair and precise here.

Compensation is usually paid when there is loss of direct personal or vompany property rights. Compensation may be paid where there is direct loss of livelihood.

Broader compensation of the type I am talking about is not paid.

Anonymous said...

This was always a New England issue?
What a strange perspective.
Suggest you take a look at the NSW Healthy Rivers Commission (1999)"Independent Inquiry into Clarence River System: Final Report", before suggesting such a limited view of the water diversion issue.
As to New England getting a fair price for 'its' water - what makes you think that communities in the Clarence catchment area won't block construction of any dam dedicated to storing diversion water?

Jim Belshaw said...

Anon, I will certainly look at this report. But it would help me enormously if you could amplify your comments.

What do you mean by a limited view? What am I missing out? I am not seeking to argue. I really want to understand your viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

Limited view?
Attempting to make the coastal valleys fit into your own perspective of a "New England" region.
If you take a closer look, you might find that areas such as the Clarence Valley may not see themselves as part of your New England.
Go to:
Doesn't show a high level of indentification with New England, does it?

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the links, anon. I had visited the Council site a number of times, but had not seen the blog. I will add it to the list of New England blogs I have been compiling.

I would be the first to agree that linkages have declined. That makes me sad, as does the decline in the importance of Grafton and the Clarence over the last seventy plus years. It has now got to the stage that you are lumped in with the mid north coast for some official planning purposes.

I have to go to a function so cannot respond properly tonight. I also want to really read the blog so that I can really present the views expressed fairly. And I will do so.

But I will also put up a post setting out my points on the changing sense of regional identity, linking it back to Grafton's past.

Anonymous said...

Changing sense of regional identity?
Perhaps, but the rivers are a constant.
I suspect that the traditional owners would see the notion of a perceived seventy-year transition in identity as somewhat strange.
There is a strong sense of indigenous cultural identity connected with the Clarence River and, because place and meaning are universally interwined, in a different manner there is a marked sense of community identity connected with the river for the wider Clarence Valley population.
Cultural and social identity is not about how government's see us for planning purposes, it is about how we see ourselves and what shared references we use to encode our communal view.
Therefore, when the Clarence River and/or its tributaries are being threatened so is the Clarence Valley community.
If one looks back at the other Clarence water diversion proposals, the Valley's response has been remarkably similar for generations - hands off the river.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good points. The changing nature of identity and as part of that the relations between people and their environment is something that has always interested me.

I was part of Isabel McBryde's pioneering pre-history honours class at UNE and did my thesis on the traditional structure of Aboriginal life in Northern NSW at the time of European intrusion. As part of this, I took part in digs at Seelands and Wombah.

At the time Isabel first started working in the late fifties and early sixties archaeologists working within a "national" mindset were attempting to create cross-country cultural sequences from a series of disconnected digs. Isabel did not think that this was sensible. She argued that you had to work first at a regional level to understand the local position before you could sensibly look at continent wide patterns. Her work and those of her students across the broader New England represented the first such effort.

The desire to impose uniform one size fits all solutions independent of variations in local and regional patterns still bedevils public policy, more so.

Turnbull's line that those who oppose his idea are simply being parochial is a sign of this.If you look at the failures in policy towards the Aborigines the same thing, the tendency to impose simple uniform solutions independent, comes through.

The Aborigines were never a single homogenous lot. As a regionalist,I have tried to draw some of this out in my writing on Aboriginal policy. Here I get frustrated because some of the most basic information and especially on the post European history of the New England nations is simply not available on line. In fact, much of it has never been written.

Things change all the time. The traditional simple definition of culture is nuture, not nature. In traditional Aboriginal life, knowledge was preserved in memory and passed oraly.

Woops! I have just looked at the time. I ahve to be at work early this morning. More later.