MARYANNE SLATTERY.  The only thing as certain as drought in Australia is the stupid call to build new dams (The Guardian, 15 October 2019)

In Australia, the only thing as certain as drought is the subsequent calls by politicians to build new dams.

Right on cue, the prime minister announced a $1bn commitment for new dams on Sunday.

But if new dams can solve Australia’s water problems, why didn’t the government build more dams last time? Or the time before that?

It may seem obvious, but building new dams doesn’t make it rain. Even if it does rain, we already have plenty of empty dams where the water can go.

But with even more empty dams, Australia could hold even more water to last through the next drought, right?

Not necessarily. More important than how many dams Australia has is how we allocate water. Even if a new dam had been built for public use and it had water in it last year, most likely it would have been used for irrigation. Towns like Dubbo and Tamworth would be in exactly the same situation that they are in now.

In New South Wales, where the current drought is centred, water is allocated to towns, irrigators and other users based on how much water is expected to flow into dams in the coming year. Prior to 2014, NSW allocated water based on calculations around the “worst drought on record” and ensuring that high security water licence holders would still have water during the driest years.

The worst drought on record for NSW was the millennium drought from the turn of the millennium to around 2009. Planning for such a long drought and holding sufficient water in the state’s dams was opposed by former NSW water minister, Kevin Humphries, who claimed:

[Water allocation calculations] currently require water to be set aside within a dam, to ensure full or near full allocations for high security licences can be maintained through the worst drought on record. This water-sharing rule was developed prior to the recent millennial drought. When the millennium drought is taken into account, implementation would result in significant quantities of water being taken out of production, and held in reserve just in case an equally severe drought occurs again.

Read that again if you have to. Keeping water in dams “just in case” of severe drought is not good for business. Water in dams is water that isn’t being used for irrigation.

Humphries introduced legislation that removed the millennium drought from water allocation calculations, meaning more water came out of dams for irrigation which would otherwise be available for towns through the drought.

Even without the problem of how we allocate water, the case for building new dams runs up against some serious problems in the Murray Darling Basin Plan, which puts a cap on the amount of water extracted.

If more water is diverted, for example via a new dam, then an equivalent amount of water needs to be taken out of irrigation somewhere else. If that doesn’t happen, the government is reneging on the basin plan and opening itself to potential legal challenges by affected water users, including the environment.

Beyond the intricacies of water accounting, dams are expensive.

One of the projects proposed by the prime minister is the upgrade of the Dungowan Dam near Tamworth. The proposal is to increase the capacity of the dam from six to 22 gigalitres. The additional 16 gigalitres is estimated to cost $480m, or $30m per gigalitre. To put that in perspective, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources budgets $3m per gigalitre for its current water recovery.

Politicians lamenting the lack of new dams somehow manage to overlook the 20 to 30 new dams that have been built in the last few years. These dams are several square kilometres in size and many can be seen from the road between Griffith and Hay, NSW. They were even subsidised by the taxpayer.

The reason politicians don’t like to talk about these dams is they do nothing for drought-stricken towns and struggling communities. Instead they are on private land for the exclusive use of corporate agribusiness.

Dams on private land like these face far lower requirements in terms of public consultation, environmental and economic assessment. By contrast, public dams can be stopped by frogs, snails and people wearing kaftans, according to former water minister Barnaby Joyce.

What Joyce means is that governments know new dams face problems with environmental approval and community opposition. In response, The NSW cabinet is considering new legislation that will remove requirements for comprehensive environmental assessment and proper cost-benefit analysis.

One billion dollars, watered-down environmental assessment and no cost-benefit analysis. What could possibly go wrong?

  • Maryanne Slattery is senior water researcher at the Australia Institute
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7 Responses to MARYANNE SLATTERY.  The only thing as certain as drought in Australia is the stupid call to build new dams (The Guardian, 15 October 2019)

  1. ANDREW FARRAN says:

    Surely the starting point for any discussion on national water should recognise the fact that the run off (that is, the loss or waste) of water in this country far exceeds the water captured and consumed for any regulated or controlled purpose. Admittedly a lot of it is not situated in easily recoverable locations. So the challenge is to harvest, keep, and get it to where it is needed (whatever the purpose) in the most cost-effective manner possible.

    Given the transcending value that water is to Australia (indeed to the world) the doing here cannot and should not be constrained altogether by cost alone. It is as serious an issue as national defence. The latter consumes enormous amounts of unproductive and ultimately wasted resources but we don’t get too upset about that (though, frankly, we should).

    To po po dams on experience to date is to overlook their random deployment and the disproportionate weight given to vested interests. The assumption that dams won’t nearly service towns because the water required will have been lost by evaporation or other causes (irrigation, etc.) is false if towns had their own water holding enclosed facilities that would be good for several years or more (think of silos everywhere). But overall the sources of the huge amounts of water lost to run offs or misdirection must be brought into or retained for the system. Bradfield’s pre-WW2 ideas for turning back the waters of Qld and NSW would have got off the ground if wasn’t for the war. Menzies was preparing to support it until the war came. Vested interests took that lapse to discredit the idea soon after and have done since.

    The failure of water preservation/conservation will kill this country, as it will for others, unless we address the issues factually and objectively. There is enough water around for human consumption, the environment, and for farming into an indefinite future if we get it right. Given my age I won’t be around to see it. But my age tells me that if it isn’t done it will be a screaming shame.

  2. Peter Sainsbury says:

    Seldom explicitly stated or factored in to discussions and decisions is that irrigation (whether for food or fibres) transfers water from the environment and from rural communities to the cities.

  3. Ted Egan says:

    I am 87 and have observed so many droughts during my lifetime, bewildered by the ineptitude of government to come to practical long-term planning. I am also a proponent of a 500 Year Plan Committee, whose policies are binding, regardless of who is in government. I wonder if Maryanne Slattery would like to contact me 0427 849 555?
    I have opinions that seem to induce a glazed-eye response from most quarters. But somewhere, there has to be found a solution.

  4. Lorraine Osborn says:

    More preposterous policy decisions from a preposterous government that is not being held to account. Meanwhile, those on the ground are begging for some action to face the destruction and disaster posed by fire all over the country. Bellingen Council on the mid north coast of NSW has belled the cat on this. Urgent attention to planing and allocation of resources both human and material is needed now. The empty dams won’t put out the fires and catastrophic conditions are ahead for many places. The massive destruction seen in the recent fires in northern NSW and Queensland are a stark warning.
    Fiddling while the country burns will be the legacy of the LNP.

  5. Graham English says:

    There was a Current Affairs Bulletin about 1967 arguing that if the Snowy Scheme were being contemplated then it would probably not be built. I have long forgotten the arguments but as various folk have pointed out more dams don’t mean more rain nor do they mean people will be sensible or fair in their use of the water in the dams. Someone will still want to argue that Australia the driest continent is a good place to grow cotton.

  6. Michael Keating says:

    As this article points out, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has capped the amount of water that can be extracted from that river system. That means that building more dams, at a huge cost, doesn’t even add to the amount of water available – it merely diverts that water from somewhere else.
    Frankly, a much simpler and much cheaper solution for the provision of town water would be to allow the towns to meet their water demands by buying water back from the irrigators. The price of town water is way above the price of water paid by irrigators, so the towns could certainly afford to meet their supply needs this way, and there are irrigators who would be willing sellers of the required water if the price is right.

    • Charles Lowe says:


      Town’s residents have the right to have the water they need.

      Irrigators do not.

      Irrigators are secondary to towns’ residents.

      Towns’ residents should not have to buy water from irrigators.

      Irrigators should be buying water after it has been properly allocated to towns.

      How many carts are being put before how many horses here?

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