I think the present water restrictions in Victoria are ridiculous: a prime example of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted, just so that the government looks like it is doing something constructive. I’m not the only one who is upset. Denise Gadd’s recent article in The Age describes the plight of gardeners, heartbroken over the loss of plants. When I started to research this post, I discovered that there had been newspaper articles dating back to 2001 about impending water shortages and possible restrictions, but I’m not sure much has been done about it up until now. And I’m guessing the Victorian government is feeling a little defensive about it, if I read between the lines of John Thwaites’ article in The Age today.
In saying this, I acknowledge that Australia has to be wiser about water. We are a very dry country. But I’m not at all convinced that a water restriction regime is the way to go about it. I see water restrictions, plastic bag restrictions and the like as representing an increasing tendency towards “Green Puritanism”. That is, we are encouraged to do without certain resources, but no one looks at the logic of whether we really need to go that far, or whether such measures actually help at all. Maybe we need to look at the bigger picture and fix the fundamental problem instead? But most people accept unquestioningly the proposition that water shortages must be their fault, and that they should have to go without. They deserve to be uncomfortable: human beings are sinners against the environment. Governments are quite happy to pass the blame onto the people rather than take concrete action: it looks like they are doing something but they don’t have to get to the root cause of the problem.
I really object to the Stalinesque way in which water restrictions are policed. Neighbours are encouraged to report those who don’t comply with regulations. It creates a climate of pettiness and unpleasantness. My mother is considering putting a sign up saying that the small strip of flowers in her front garden are still blooming because she lugs sink water and shower water out every morning. Fair enough, too, when you read stories about people being unfairly abused by neighbours.
I also wonder about the legality of water inspectors. Is it trespass if someone comes uninvited onto your land without a warrant? Do they need a warrant to enter your property? What checks and balances are there to prevent abuse of these powers? I can’t find the regulations or enactments which have granted them such powers: I suspect it might be in a Government Gazette somewhere.
As an article in The Australian explained the other day, it is highly arguable that water restrictions are based on a false economy. In Victoria, for example, figures of water usage from the ABS showed that in 2004 – 2005, household water usage only made up 8% of the state water consumption, thus, even if household water usage is cut by 10%, this will only result in a 0.8% saving over all: just a drop in the ocean, although I suppose every bit helps. Further, household water consumption per capita and per household was lower in Victoria than any other State or Territory.
A recent report in the Herald Sun noted that more than 750 billion litres of water are lost annually from irrigation channels (through evaporation, seepage, theft and metering errors). In terms of urban water usage, about 44 billion litres are lost annually because of leaking pipes, burst water mains, metering error and other factors. The infrastructure of our waterways is old and has not been updated properly despite a large population growth in the last 20 years.
Thus, it was with interest that I read the Business Council of Australia’s report on water, Water Under Pressure. I particularly liked the statement on page 21 of the report:
Why do Australian consumers accept water restrictions, when they would not tolerate restrictions in similar essential services such as electricity or gas? Australian consumers appear to have been educated to believe a myth: that water is in a state of permanent shortage rather than a resource that is poorly allocated and managed.
The Report makes some very interesting points. Despite being one of the driest countries in the world, we have some of the lowest water prices in the world, half of the amount of many European countries (see Exhibit 6, page 12). We pay four times as much for electricity as we do for water. If consumers were asked to pay more for water, then options such as repairing leaking pipes and aging infrastructure become possible. Putting a higher price on water would also stop wastage of water by hitting people in the hip pocket. There could be concession rates for disadvantaged people (as there are with electricity and the like).
The Report also makes suggestions for allowing competition between water suppliers, and removing barriers to water trading (eg, farmers in an area with lots of water could sell water to urban areas which need it). It calls for centralisation of administration and better organisation of water facilities. In addition, it also recommends exploring use of recycled and desalinated water.
All sounds sensible to me. I am happy to pay double the amount for water if it means that we don’t have to have restrictions and our infrastructure can be repaired. We pay so little at present, and it seems illogical to treat such a precious resource so lightly. Certainly seems more productive than unleashing neighbourhood water witch-hunts!