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Plug the Pipe! water protest in Melbourne

By Ben Courtice

As South-Eastern Australia's drought wears on, the issue of water is becoming increasingly politicised. The Victorian state government is trying to bolster Melbourne's water supplies with an electricity-hungry desalination plant at the coastal town of Wonthaggi and a pipeline to pump water from the Goulburn River on the other side of the Great Dividing Range. Residents of the Goulburn Valley area picketed the Sugarloaf reservoir just north of Melbourne, where their water would be piped to. The protesters are worried that their scarce water reserves will be taken, whereas they suggest Melbourne could easily reduce its water use.

Plug the Pipe! protest Feb 5 2008 (Ben Courtice)As protest organiser Jan Beer of Yea explained to me, the Goulburn area is already over-allocated in water permits. The Goulburn feeds into the Murray river system, notoriously drained of life by removal of increasing amounts of water for irrigation and, for many years now, a record drought. I wrote in Green Left Weekly in November 2006 "While state and federal governments agreed to return 500 gigalitres to the Murray River over five years from November 2004, this has not yet begun (and it is only a third of the amount recommended by scientists)".

November 2006 saw an emergency water summit called by the Howard government which called for permanent water trading, meaning buying water from rural areas and moving it into cities, or to needier areas. Howard flagged diverting water flows from already drought-stressed wetlands to supply drinking water. At the time, Greens senator Rachel Siewert commented, “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.”

Green Left editorialised along similar lines to Siewert's comments on January 26 2007:
But perhaps the most glaring case of government policy exacerbating the water crisis can be seen in irrigation-based agriculture being prioritised over environmental flow.

While Howard’s plan for the Murray-Darling Basin involves some buying back of irrigation entitlements, a radical change in agricultural practice is needed. The major users of water are export-oriented agribusinesses producing beef, cotton and rice. Whether these industries should exist at all in Australia needs to be questioned.

Export agribusiness, paradoxically, fuels world hunger by bankrupting Third World farmers. Asian rice growers are unable to compete with Australian rice, which is effectively subsidised by the give-away pricing of Australia’s dwindling water resources. Meanwhile, smaller farmers, cash-starved due to the drought, are encouraged to sell their remaining water resources to water-guzzling urban industries. This process, called water-trading, is mysteriously touted as a solution to the crisis.

Clearly, as the campaigners against the desalination plant in Wonthaggi have also pointed out, Melbourne's voracious water demand can and must be curtailed. More water goes into Port Phillip Bay from stormwater runoff than will be gained from the desalination plant and the pipeline. Not all of this may be suited for drinking, but it most certainly could be used for the majority of applications in industry, parks and gardens, flushing toilets, and so on. And of course the piecemeal individual efforts at water conservation could be boosted by increased regulation of industry, forcing water companies to fix their leaky pipes (which apparently lose around 50 billion litres per year), and increased assistance to households to instal water-efficient appliances and rainwater tanks.

The Plug the Pipe group has a website at http://www.plugthepipe.com/ which is worth a visit. And watch Green Left Weekly for further reporting!

One extra resource to check out: Socialist Alliance water policy, adopted 2007. Socialist Alliance opposes the pipeline and desalination plans.

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