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