The New Puritans

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!

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10 Comments

Filed under environment, water restrictions

10 responses to “The New Puritans

  1. Brownie

    Bravo! Hear – Hear! Keep It Up! etc etc.

    Of course you are right.

    The petty restrictions on individuals are ridiculous when compared to industrial usage.

    A simple example is supermarket carry-bags: what’s the point when industry shrink-wraps great palletloads of stuff in layers and layers of plastic equal to 100’s of carrybags? Oberve at Bunnings the next delivery of potting mix or similar.

    Down at the fishmarkets the taps run full blast all day. If it was really necessary to save the piddling amount of water my garden needs, then fish markets and shops would/should be shut down as well.

    I recall the big drought of 1981 – there has been plenty of time for our government to put processes in place.

  2. Brownie

    and PS

    my neighbours children had a wonderful time in their wading pool during last weeks extreme heat and I would not dream of dobbing.

  3. hvb

    It actually does get really scary, the whole neighbours-turning-against-neighbours aspect of it. I heard of a lady who was using bore water to keep her garden alive, and had to put a sign up outside the house saying so, because she got dog poo placed in her letter box!

    It is no wonder, though, that we’re quick to believe that we are the culprit when it comes to water restrictions – it has been drummed into us from way back. Remember the “Don’t be a Wally with Water” campaign? I was in about grade 2 in its height, and we had some people come out to our classroom to talk to us about it. We had to do a questionaire about how much water we used, and were then told if it was too much or not. I remember being made to feel so guilty about my water usage – and I was only 7 for goodness sakes!

  4. Patrick

    I agree – the restrictions are absurdly draconian given their minimal impact.

    It is beyond ridiculous to go to stage 4 in rural areas with nary a whiff of an idea as to how we might increase long-term water reserves.

  5. Anonymous

    I disagree with your views about water restrictions, which are perhaps the most equitable policy response to water shortages.

    The BCA report you quote, Water Under Pressure, is clearly misleading when it argues that water shortages are not due to drought and climate change. Try telling that to the farmers, who will confirm that the drought is really happening.

    The BCA’s argument that addtional use of market mechanisms is the appropriate response, such as more developed water markets and increased prices, fails to consider the social impact of blunt ‘price signals’. Water and wastewater services are essential services and access to water is a fundamental human right. You state that you would be happy paying twice the amount for water. Wealthy households will also do this, and it will not result in reduced usage. People will be quite happy to pay more for filling up their pools and watering their lawns. Industrial users will just pass the increased costs onto consumers of their goods and services. Households with limited incomes will feel the signal most strongly, many of whom live in properties with inefficient appliances or with large families, and cannot reduce their usage further. Is it fair to punish the most disadvantaged further?

    You are right in saying that household usage isn’t that much compared to overall water use in Victoria. But this fact is misleading. Water systems are largely not interconnected. In the Melbourne system, household use accounts for around 60% of total water use. We must take responsibility for the systems we live in. There is problems with leaking pipes and channels, and we must pursue Government and other users to be more efficient.

    I think that restriction policies and water efficiency measures are perhaps the most equitable response to water shortages, rather than price signals. Such policies enable us all to share the burden more equally. I also think the beat-ups by the Sunday Age and the Australian are creating the ‘climate of pettiness and unpleasantness’, not the policy of water restrictions

  6. Legal Eagle

    I would agree with you that water shortages are happening as a result of drought, an increasingly warm climate and El Nino. But that’s not a reason for discounting the BCA’s ideas. And I think it is negligent that governments have not been prepared for the drought and warmer climate. Drought and flooding rains are part of the Australian climate. As Brownie said, we’ve been through this before in 1981 – something could have been done to improve the response.

    Your point about raising the price of water is an interesting one. At least if rich households still use a lot of water but pay more for it, this will result in:
    (a) more money to fix infrastructure to prevent wastage;
    (b) more money to develop better desalination and recycled water technologies.
    Where will the money come from otherwise? In my post, I tried to compensate for any impact on low income families by suggesting concession rates (just as there is for electricity and gas).

    That being said, I think it is also good to have a societal consciousness against water wastage, but I really don’t like the “dobbing” mentality as a way to achieve that. And I think you are wrong that the unpleasantness is a beat up – I have had a number of friends and family tell me stories of nasty confrontations.

    Access to clean and fresh water is something everyone should have. And it costs money to create clean and fresh water. I think that sometimes in Australia we forget how bloody lucky we are to have it. We are privileged. By increasing prices, it might remind people that it is a privilege to have such good and clean water (unlike much of the rest of the world, which doesn’t have clean water).

  7. Anonymous

    Well, the other reason that I discount BCA’s ideas is that they are clearly self-serving. The reason that it wants prices to increase is to make more money and to pay the top executives more!

    I agree that infrastructure must be improved to reduce wastage. And research needs to be undertaken so desalinisation can begin to become economical and environmentally sound (to date, it would push up the costs of water services dramatically, not to mention the cost of carbon emissions from the energy-intensive process). However, I believe it is government’s responsiblity through general taxation to provide adequate, fair and equitable water services. It owns all the water businesses in Victoria, and it is its responsibility that an efficient service is provided. Currently, the water businesses rack in millions of dollars of dividends that go directly to consolidated revenue. Some of this should be directed to water infrastructure projects, and it is. The Central Region Sustainable Water Strategy (check out http://www.dse.vic.gov.au) has a number of actions to improve infrastructure. I still maintain it is hardly fair to tax the vulnerable and low-income to pay for the infrastructure costs – this is what would happen if water prices increased. The burden should be shared equally.

    Compensating low income families through concessions is a start. But not all vulnerable consumers can access these benefits. Think of an average working family with perhaps 4 or 5 children? They won’t get concessions and will be burdened by increasing water prices and an inability to reduce their usage. Increasing prices will not remind people that clean and fresh water is a privilege – it will just cut off access to it for some of society’s most vulnerable.

  8. Legal Eagle

    I agree that the BCA’s Report certainly reflects a “business” bias. I’m not convinced by the suggestion that privatising water facilities is a good idea, for example. Doesn’t seem to have made public transport any better! And, as I’ve said, I do think the water shortage is in part caused by drought, climate change and el Nino.

    Nevertheless, the fact remains that the money to fix the water infrastructure has to come from somewhere. But where?

    You say the money should come from general taxation. This either means:
    (a) an increase in taxes to cover the cost of the infrastructure improvements; or
    (b) taking money away from an existing government service; or
    (c) borrowing a large amount of money.

    Option (a) – which tax do you think should be increased? How do you stop higher taxation from hurting the vulnerable?

    Option (b) – which government service/s do you nominate to have budget cuts so that infrastructure can be improved? which sector of society has to suffer because of need to improve water restrictions?

    Option (c) – how does the government pay the money back? Of course, the lender will charge interest rates – do we really want society in general to be paying lender’s interest rates?

    I share your disquiet about massive executive salaries in corporations these days. But I think it’s unfair to say that a desire to increase executive salaries is “the reason” behind the BCA’s Report. I think there are some good intentions there, and a desire to fix a system which is clearly flawed. That being said, of course they wouldn’t suggest anything that didn’t have advantages for business. So I don’t swallow the report whole, but nor do I totally discount it simply because it’s from “business”.

    As I’ve said above, the BCA’s proposal isn’t perfect. But the money has to come from somewhere. As you can see, there’s no easy answer. All the answers potentially hurt the vulnerable in society: increasing taxes, cutting other government services, paying interest to a lender. Increasing water prices is at least a straightforward answer that leaves everyone knowing exactly where they stand, and understanding the economic value of water.

  9. Iain Hall

    Being responsible for my own has been my lot for the last twenty years so I can only get marginally interested in this issue When you actually run out, as I have on occasion, you do understand why water restrictions are not such a cross to bare.

    If you have the space please consider putting in a rainwater tank besides giving you a measure of independence rainwater makes a much nicer cup of tea and when it comes to washing your hair…

    We have a total storage capacity of 13000 gallons and this is enough when used wisely to service a family of four you would not have room for that much but even a 2000 gallon tank could make a big difference.

    Best wishes
    Iain

  10. missv

    Rainwater tanks are a great idea. My grandmother is an avid gardener with a big garden and she uses a water tank. She’s also a big fan of native and indigenous plants – plants that are designed to withstand our Australian climate.

    Just on the issue of plastic bags, I’m curious Legal Eagle, what do you think needs to be done here at the bigger picture level?

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