By Tracy Sorensen
The conservative Northern Territory government has lashed out at the federal government, Aborigines and environmentalists over Aboriginal affairs minister Robert Tickner's intervention to halt a proposed flood mitigation dam near Alice Springs.
"Any damage to property or death occurring as a result of future flooding in Alice Springs will be on his [Tickner's] hands", NT Chief Minister Marshall Perron claimed. Local activists say that a dam is unnecessary to protect lives, and that the issue is being cynically exploited for electoral purposes.
Tickner used federal Aboriginal heritage powers to stop the $20 million project on the Todd River on May 17. A report put together by Hal Wootten, QC, former commissioner of the inquiry into black deaths in custody, found that the dam would have destroyed sacred sites, causing "great anguish and deep affront" to many Aborigines. The sites in question are of particular significance to Aboriginal women.
While Tickner's decision was made purely on an Aboriginal heritage basis, a smaller section of Wootten's report noted that the dam would have damaged the ecology of the Todd River.
Perron said that it was now up to Tickner to protect Alice Springs "because I will not commit territory taxpayers' funds to the second-rate solutions which he appears to favour".
Arid Lands Environment Centre spokesperson Angela Brennan told Green Left: "It's been proved that we don't need a dam. But it's of great benefit to the NT government to keep offside with Aboriginal people and with environmentalists and with the business sector that is looking to a more sustainable system working in this area.
"By advertising that the greenies and the Aboriginal people are stopping progress, halting development, they basically win votes."
She said the NT government's handling of the issue had been "a study in disinformation". The people of Alice Springs had been led to believe that they were getting a lake for boating and fishing, and yet it had been documented — but not publicised — that the dam would normally be three quarters empty.
Flood mitigation measures were essential, Brennan said, because Alice Springs had been built on a flood plain. But the government had ignored alternative proposals, favouring only studies that led in the direction of a dam.
She noted that the government's penchant for flood mitigation was ironic, in that it seemed quite prepared to waive building regulations that would protect property from flooding.
"They haven't enforced laws to make sure houses and streets
are flood-proofed, that storm drains work. They've put causeways across the river that act as dam walls, and they've allowed hotels to be built without the 35 mm rise off the ground."
The regulation system as it related to flooding was "bizarre", Brennan noted, because "Alice Springs planning comes from Darwin, which is the tropics, and we are in the arid zone. Modern housing here is cyclone proofed but not flood proofed. The whole thing is crying out for a comic book."
The proposed dam would have caused downstream scouring — the removal of nutrient-rich sediment that feeds the red gums growing in the sandy river bed. The government's proposed solution to this problem was to use trucks to cart sediment from one side of the dam wall to the other — an activity it would have had to keep up as long as the dam existed.
The government's attitude to the Aboriginal peoples of central Australia was cruelly spelt out in a 1990 environmental impact statement (written by the same government department that was to construct the dam) which proposed that if Aboriginal people were concerned about their sacred sites they could send a scuba diver down into the dam and vacuum them to keep the sediment off!
The sacred sites involve the "dreaming track" of two women travelling from the south to the north. Aboriginal women's ceremonies — the details of which are kept secret from men — involve a kind of spiritual service to the geographical places associated with the ancient story. Damage to these places, Aborigines believe, would cause catastrophe.
In an article in the April 18 Melbourne Age, Margaret Easterbrook suggested that Tickner's motives for intervention could also be politically inspired. She pointed out that the federal government was backing "other projects in Labor-held states involving sacred sites such as the Marandoo iron ore mine in Western Australia".