Monday, April 23, 2007

Australia's Water Wars - Early Shots

Photo: Gordon Smith, Wollomombi Falls after rain, March 2007.

Note to readers: As part of my normal background checking for this story, I looked at a number of weather maps. I was going to include them, but then decided to run them as a separate post.

It is raining as I write. Somehow that provides a satisfying backdrop to this post.

I said in my introductory post on Australia's water wars that I thought that it might be interesting if I traced the recent evolution of Australia's water wars as seen through the prism set by this blog.

I said this not because I write often on water and drought. I do not. Rather, my posts have tended pick these issues up when something specific interested me, made me curious. So the posts provide kind of a bare bone framework for what has in fact been a quite fascinating process.

The story that follows is by no means complete and is coloured by my somewhat eclectic interests. But I do think that it provides an interesting snap shot.

Early Days

I think it fair to say that when the current drought in South Eastern Australia began it was seen very much as a rural problem. Australia has a long history of recurring droughts and the issue seemed very remote to the people in the metro cities. Again I think it fair to say that the major environmental debate about our rivers related to the question of environmental flows versus irrigation. 

We can see all this in the June 2003 Four Corners interview with then Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson. Asked why it taken a drought for the Prime Minister to get excited about water, Mr Anderson replied:
Well I don't know if that's entirely fair but it probably took the drought to get a really good Australian stoush like the argument about drought proofing in Australia to get a national debate well and truly up and it frankly is time, in fact it's pretty much over time that we had that debate.
In response to a further question about poor water allocations, Mr Anderson said:
Well NSW by both sides of politics. That's the reality and now we've got to clean the mess up but we have to do it in a way that doesn't ruin farm communities. As the Wentworth Group of scientists itself are saying, if we get this right we can see higher levels of investment, more economic activity, more exports because you can switch to higher value production techniques, more sustainable techniques but you've got to have the investment certainty to do it. I think at least at the intellectual level the debate has now been largely won. Now what we need is the collective willpower I would say you know following strong national leadership to get it right for future generations. If we get it right, and I think we're at the point where we'd have to say we'll know over the next few months, if we get this right, I think we will manage a massive breakthrough and we can make a huge difference to those who want better conservation outcomes and I include myself in that but we'll also reward those like me who think that the inland matters and that we're deserving of a share of the national pie and the opportunity to continue to create economic wealth just as the rest of the country has looked to us to do for so long.

I have included these long quotes because they set a context.

At the time Mr Anderson supported by his National Party colleagues had been campaigning for a number of years to make water a national issue, to create a national framework. His problem, and this continued, was that water was seen as a sectional issue and still lacked real political traction outside regional areas, some scientists and environmental groups.

The continuation of drought and the growing threat to metro water supplies began to change these views. I saw this most clearly in Sydney where drought and water suddenly became major local issues, with local concerns affecting broader attitudes. The responses were not always very sensible.

On 17 October 2007 in Water, Drought and the Environment - working from the facts I reported on a conversation that had worried me. Here I said:
Australia faces a serious drought, perhaps the worst on record. Whether this drought is simply a bad drought or a sign of global warming is an important issue. But in the conversation I am talking, about discussion went from drought to water to the need to phase out primary production dependent upon water, especially irrigation crops. Part of the argument was couched in terms of the need for the metro cities to have access to more water, part in terms of the need for the environment to have more water, part on the belief that farming and grazing was no longer viable in many parts of Australia.

The last really concerned me because of the traditional importance of our farm exports. If we had to phase out farming, what did this mean for the economy as well as food supplies to our cities?. So I decided to check the stats to see what the current position was.

I found that the importance of primary products to exports was still high and had in fact increased in recent years. This led me to conclude:
Now I might be wrong in all this, but if the numbers and my analysis of them are in any way right, just at the moment I would be worried about the impact of drought and water shortages on our export performance. To the degree that water is short, and subject to environmental considerations, I would be focusing short to medium term discussions on where we can get the greatest export gains from the water we do have.
Now in all this I had accepted the media line that Australia was in fact experiencing the worst drought on record. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I read a newspaper report that the period October 1996 to October 2006 when averaged across Australia was in fact wetter than the long term average. How was all this to be reconciled?

As reported in my post of 24 October, Australia's greatest drought - or is it our wettest period on record? , I found that there were two Australia's.

There was one in the far south, south east and south west suffering severe drought, while the rest of the country was experiencing average to above average rainfall. The concentration of population in drought affected areas explained the media focus on Australia and drought.

Apart from finding it all very interesting, the main conclusion I drew at the time was simply the need to check to my facts. However, the analysis did point to an issue - the relative wetness of Northern Australia - that is starting to emerge as an issue in the water wars.

Stern Report and National Policy Settings

The Stern Report was released on 30 October UK time, although it was well leaked in the days before. I did not comment at the time because I felt that I had little useful to say.

This is not a post about climate change, nor about the policy responses to that issue. However, because the water wars and the climate debate are so linked I think that it helps to understand the policy framework. The views that follow are my own interpretation.

The Australian Government's position on climate change is quite complex because of the range of forces at play inside and outside the Government system. However, the main threads can be summarised this way.

Scepticism. While the Government accepts that certain elements of the climate change argument, there is a continuing degree of scepticism about the scale and timing of change. This reflects the spread of views within the Government.

Over the last two decades the Liberal Party has moved to the right in conventional political terms. Views within the Governing parties and those aligned to them range from the mainly Liberal Party radicals who are generally climate change sceptics and are in any case sceptical about anything that appears to conflict with market forces, to those supporting the climate change hypothesis and the need for intervention.

Economic development and the national interest. 

Economic growth and the management of the economy is one of the main pillars that have kept the Government in power. Australia's economic performance depends critically on resource and especially coal exports.

Leaving aside climate change itself, Australia is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to the potential economic impact of the international debate on climate change. In the worst case, we could face a double whammy of increased domestic costs combined with a sharp decline in export incomes, leading to a major fall in national standards of living.

The Government's policy response reflects these considerations.

We have refused to sign Kyoto on the grounds that it is inadequate, while also arguing that we are in fact one of the few countries meeting the Kyoto targets. We are playing an active role in discussions on post Kyoto arrangements focused on trying to get a uniform level playing field. We have been trying to set up new institutional arrangements that draw in major developed and developing polluting countries. We are investing in clean coal technology because this helps protect a major national interest.

The uranium debate slots neatly into all this because if we lose coal then uranium provides another source of energy related export income.
The Government Initial Response to Stern

The Government's first response to Stern was somewhat muted and reflected its policy framework.

On 1 November Prime Minister Howard spoke at the launch of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate 'Partnership for Action 2006'. There was no mention of Stern.

Then in an interview the following day Mr Howard essentially restated the Government's position:
It is natural with all the focus of the last few days on climate change that everybody when asked say oh yes, we've got to do more. We are doing a lot and it's very important that we don't over-react to the Stern report. The Stern report says what most people believe and that is that the science says climate change is a problem. Whether the doomsday scenarios painted in the Stern report are right or wrong I don't think anybody can assert with great confidence. I agree that the science says that the globe is getting warmer, I agree that over time we've got to take measures in order to tackle that problem and I think the best way to go in the short term is to clean up the use of fossil fuel and that's very important for Australia. That means investing in clean coal technologies and things that will ensure that we maintain the natural advantage we have as a country. We mustn't throw that away, we mustn't by over-reaction and panicky reaction impose burdens on industries that give Australia enormous advantage.
A little later:
Well I reserve judgement on whether the predictions of the scale of the crisis are accurate or not. I accept that the world is getting warmer and I accept that we do need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it is possible to simultaneously agree with that but be a little sceptical or reserved about the dimension of the disaster that's being spelt out. I mean, Mr Beazley's embraced it all and say's it's absolutely 100 per cent correct, well what is his plan to do something?

Then on carbon trading:
I would be willing to look at an emissions trading system around the world of which Australia were part, but it would have to include the nations of the world. It's no good us subjecting ourselves to a carbon pricing system that is not matched by our competitors, we only then run the risk of investments going to other countries.

Even as Mr Howard spoke it was clear that this simple restatement was not going to work in political terms.

Water, drought, climate change and Stern all mixed together in a melange of media and public comment. The stage was set for the water wars.


Anonymous said...

Its been raining for a few days now, hopefully some of it will drop in the catchments.


Jim Belshaw said...

In fact it has, Alex. Hopefully there will be more, a lot more!