water northern australiaThe Coalition wants to build more dams, especially in northern Australia. It has set aside $500 million for the purpose. In the May budget there was further provision for a $2 billion facility to give state and territory concessional loans for water infrastructure projects so they can join in as reported by The Brisbane Times.

Barnaby Joyce, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Natural Resources, says “water is wealth and a dam is a bank”.

“We are a government that has the ticker to build the dams,” he said in Rockhampton with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in May to announce $150 million spending on a network of 14 dams across Queensland. By contrast Bill Shorten was more circumspect in April, saying Labor was “not against building dams” but wanted to see “well researched and scientific-based argument” in their favour first.

Should we be weary of any politician bearing dams?

The usual justification for building them in Australia is as a water supply for agriculture. The federal government is putting aside some $50 million for studies into the economic and environmental feasibility of proposed dams. But historically such studies have tended to overstate the economic benefits and understate the environmental costs.

Dam building has dropped dramatically in most developed countries since the early 1970s. In the USand Europe it is almost at a standstill. Since 2000, the US has dismantled almost 900 dams, for mostly environmental reasons but also for safety’s sake. Most dam building now happens in the developing countries of South America and Asia, especially China, for the purposes of cheap electricity and flood control.

Should we be spending money on smarter solutions for managing water and drought? Can we develop crop varieties with lower water needs, use more efficient water application (drip instead of spray), improve irrigation layouts (pipes not canals), improve on-farm data collection and interpretation and increase education and training in agriculture. Should we be more embarrassed that although we inhabit the world’s driest continent, our water usage and wastage is among the most profligate in the world.

Dams are handy to announce in marginal electorates on the “wombat trail” trodden by regional MPs, but they are a 1970s answer to a problem that by now, has smarter solutions. To read more click here.

The Developing Northern Australia Conference Above the Line – unleashing the north’s potential takes place next week 20-22 June 2016 at Darwin Convention Centre.

The Conference continues the dialogue which began in 2015 following the release of the Australian Government’s White Paper on Developing Northern Australia.