The Guardian 25 April, 2007

The drought: Howard shouts disaster

Peter Mac

Australians face a threefold price increase for fruit and vegetables, if rain does not reach the Murray-Darling river system within six weeks. Without rain, the existing water supplies may not even be sufficient for the personal use of residents of towns and farms along these rivers.

Many farms face physical and financial ruin. The recovery of fruit trees or vines could take up to ten years, even with good rainfalls. One farmer commented: "We are looking into a very big black hole".

Scientists have warned of this possibility for a decade. The Prime Minister, John Howard, has used the crisis to pressure state governments to accept a federal takeover of the Murray Darling system, which produces 40 percent of Australia’s farm output. However, he has failed to indicate how he would make a more rational use of the system.

For example, with respect to long term irrigation projects, Mr Howard has made no differentiation between food crops which can consume minimum water quantities, and the growing of crops which require huge water storage capacity and the flooding of vast areas for cultivation.

Pipes & pipe dreams

The government’s latest scheme, to dam and pipe water from the Clarence River in northern NSW into south-east Queensland, has been assessed as technically and economically feasible by the CSIRO. However, a specialist report concluded that there would be so many unknown factors that the scheme should not proceed.

The Federal Minister for Water and the Environment, Malcolm Turnbull, has complained that the NSW government has failed to back this proposal. However, a state government report has pointed out that the scheme would cause extreme stress to the river, would rob downstream communities and farms of much needed water, and would increase the salinity of the river’s lower reaches.

The revival of this short-sighted scheme, rejected long ago by the Queensland government, has aroused suspicions that the Howard government is not seriously seeking answers to the water crisis.

The government has certainly not been serious about dealing with climate change. It still refuses to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and continues to promote the introduction of nuclear power and the geosequestration of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations, as global warming "solutions".

Last week, amid much fanfare, Howard formally opened the new Opal nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights. Demonstrators outside protested that the problem of disposing of nuclear waste had still not been solved, even after 50 years of nuclear operations. Irradiated water has already leaked into the plant’s fresh water system.

Undeterred, Howard is still promoting the introduction of nuclear power, which among other problems requires huge amounts of fresh water.

Cabinet minister Ian McFarlane openly sneered at initiatives to harness renewable energy sources, such as the Cooper Basin geothermal project on the Queensland/NSW border, and the development of steam generating solar power, utilising heat banks to achieve "base load" power.

What a double standard! The government has belligerently threatened to terminate funding to assist the rapid development of these projects, which are already well advanced and have already achieved partial operation. On the other hand, the government is providing massive funding to the coal industry for geosequestration, for which pilot plants will not be operational for at least fifteen years.

A report to the Victorian government has identified offshore geological sites suitable for sequestration of all of Victoria’s liquefied CO2 waste, with room for deposits from other states as well.

The Howard government will doubtless hail this report, ignoring the astronomically huge costs, in terms of both money and energy, of liquefying the vast amounts of CO2, transporting it to the Victorian coast from all over Australia, barging it over the horizon and pumping it under huge pressure into cavities under the seabed, 2km below sea level.

Meanwhile, back on terra firma, farmers are growing suspicious. Simon Ramsay, President of the Victorian Farmers’ Federation, commented that Howard’s veiled threat to cut water supplies for irrigation appeared to be an attempt to put pressure on the Victorian Government to accept federal takeover of the Murray-Darling.

He’s not alone. The number of people and organisations that are growing suspicious of the Howard crew’s motives is growing daily.

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