Summit fiddles while drought burns Australia

November 10, 2006

As the November 7 emergency water summit of federal and state parliamentarians was told that the current drought is the worst in 1000 years, the opposition parties criticised the governments for fiddling while the drought worsens. Greens Senator Rachel Siewert claimed the summit "shied away from making the tough decisions at a time when urgent action was sorely needed".

The summit has called for permanent water trading, meaning buying water from rural areas and moving it into cities, or to needier areas. Prime Minister John Howard has already flagged diverting water flows to wetlands to supply drinking water.

Siewert condemned Howard's short-sightedness. "You need a healthy environment to support people", she said, adding, "Trading and the market is not going to address this crisis; we have over-allocated our water system. We need hard decisions by government to address the issues of over-allocation to buyback leases."

While governments are implementing restrictions on home use of water, large industrial and agricultural users are being propped up. The Australian Conservation Foundation has called for the government to buy back water entitlements from willing farmers. Executive director Don Henry said that environmental needs "mustn't be compromised as we struggle through these tough times". However, agriculture minister Peter McGauran has ruled this out.

Siewert pointed to those irrigators using the most water, commenting: "The real issue is whether we should sacrifice the long-term health of the water supplies of our cities and towns and cause irreversible damage to our ecological assets so that irrigators growing cotton and rice can squeeze out a few more years."

Water has become a key issue in the Victorian state elections as the state Labor government has implemented stage two restrictions for Melbourne. The Liberal opposition wants a new dam built on the Maribyrnong River in Melbourne's west, and the Bracks government has announced its "Eastern Water Recycling Proposal". This will replace 135 giga-litres of drinkable water, currently being consumed by the cooling towers of the Latrobe Valley power stations, with treated waste water from the Carrum Downs plant that is currently being discharged through the Gunnamatta Beach ocean outfall. Little is known about the proportion of water used by large industry, such as power plants, but this gives a glimpse.

Sue Bull, the Socialist Alliance upper house candidate for the Western Victoria Region, criticised the government's "stop-gap measures". "This government is happy with trading water, something that is sure to lead to household users being charged more in the longer term", she told Green Left Weekly. "Such measures do not address the problem of how much water is being wasted. The enormous waste of water from industry and large-scale agriculture needs to end. We can also secure supply if we safeguard catchments, such as the Otway Ranges, from logging."

The Socialist Alliance argues that water use can be reduced by steeply increasing prices to big companies, mandating the use of recycled water for all industrial purposes and phasing out agribusiness farming in the Murray-Darling basin.

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