"Desalination must be a last resort, not a first resort"

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 - 11:00

Watershed Victoria is an environmental organisation dedicated to the campaign against the proposed desalination plant at Wonthaggi in Victoria, and for a sustainable water policy. Watershed's Chris Heislers spoke to Green Left Weekly's Katherine Bradstreet.

What lead to the formation of Watershed?

Watershed was formed in response to State and Federal Government's arrogant silencing (via Federal Court action) of Your Water Your Say, a community environment group that opposes the construction of the world's largest desalination plant on a wild and magnificent part of Victoria's coastline.

The disenchanted community needed a voice to raise wider community awareness of the fact that unequivocal international expert opinion is that desalination must be a last resort to water security, not a first resort.

Water recycling, rain water tanks, storm water collection and water efficiency improvements can deliver over three times the volume of water as the proposed desalination plant at a fraction the environmental, social and economic cost.

Watershed's education, media, political and direct action campaigns are intended to exert the political pressure to force the [Victorian Premier] Brumby Government to follow due diligence by replacing its reprehensible water plan with one that is responsible and sustainable.

What campaigns are your group currently involved in, and why?

Watershed's prime aim is to stop the proposed Victorian desalination project; not just on the Bass Coast but anywhere in Victoria. The project will cause massive marine environmental degradation via the discharge of 7000 litres of brine and toxic effluent every second.

It will drive the cost of water up five times over the traditional catchment supply. It will be socially destructive by industrialising a rural coastline.

And it is incongruous with Government's rhetoric on fighting climate change. There are better and cheaper alternatives.

Watershed is concerned about the environment and our future; hence its opposition to numerous projects such as this one that have a common theme: the lack of due diligence to a sustainable future.

Watershed is part of the Victorian Water Forum that aims to promote a sustainable alternative water policy, and is directly involved in climate campaigns (via Climate Emergency Network) due to the close link of water to the climate change issue.

How important is the question of climate change in activism around water issues?

Climate change and water issues are closely linked. Climate change is altering weather patterns and reducing rainfall in many parts of the world. A common response to the threat of water security world wide is seawater desalination.

This response is driven by big businesses who make massive profits from water, and by governments seduced by this short term, band aid, centralised engineering-based response to the environmental problem.

Seawater desalination is the most carbon-expensive way to supply water. For example, the proposed Victorian Desalination Project will use up to half the power generated by the proposed HRL Coal Power Station [in the LaTrobe Valley].

Thus desalination actually perpetuates the problem it is intended to solve.

Furthermore, desalination gives the superficial impression that water is a limitless resource. This reduces the perception of the intrinsic value of this natural resource, thus promoting water consumption beyond what nature is able to deliver.

The effect is a dramatic cumulative effect on climate change; an effect we cannot afford if we are to aim for 450 parts per million (ppm), and preferably 350 ppm of atmospheric CO2 equivalent.

Commitments to "carbon neutrality" by proponents of desalination are a hoax argument; they are using carbon offset and carbon trading schemes as a kind of permission to pollute.

What are the next steps forward for the climate movement overall, in your view?

It is important the climate movement continues lobbying governments to make responsible targets that give the planet an opportunity to avoid reaching catastrophic tipping points.

As part of that, continuing to argue against new fossil fuel power stations, and for the rapid replacement of existing stations with "green power" is vital.

However those arguments will be fruitless if the climate movement does not quickly start to lobby against non essential individual polluting projects such as Victoria's desalination plant and the east-west road tunnel [in Melbourne].

We need to tackle the problem from the root cause; reducing the state's energy demand reduces the necessity for new coal power, and it increases the ability of using green power to replace current coal power.

The climate movement needs to become cooperative and coordinated in individual campaigns to increase its chance to achieve the goal of a climate safe future.

What is wrong with the Rudd & Brumby government's response to climate change?

The "response" lacks visionary leadership, presumably due to fears of upsetting established politically powerful industries and fears for their own political future.

The response is not based on an emergency situation.

Governments have demonstrated an ability to respond rapidly and aggressively when they choose, such as with the recent "financial crisis". An equivalent response is necessary in order to secure the future for our planet.

The response took a massive backward step when [Federal government climate change advisor] Ross Garnaut announced 550 ppm atmospheric CO2 equivalent as the achievable aim. This is essentially admitting defeat and that is becoming more apparent, such as with recent CSIRO predictions that 450 ppm is the tipping point of acidification for the Southern Ocean.

Due diligence from governments means setting bold targets. That means a reconsideration of our reliance on coal, and a reconsideration of every polluting industry.

It means choosing more sustainable responses when that opportunity is present. At the federal level it also demands a low Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act trigger for carbon emissions (an undelivered promise from the previous election) so that every new polluting industry must justify its necessity and prove that it is as carbon efficient as possible.

For more information on Watershed's campaigns visit For more information on Watershed's campaigns visit www.watershedvictoria.org.au

From GLW issue 777