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Blogging the Adelaide Festival of Ideas 2007: water « Previous | |Next »
July 7, 2007

One of yesterday's mid morning sessions that I attended at the 2007 Adelaide Festival of Ideas was Peter Cullen's talk on water and climate change was entitled Drought Proofing Australia: Heroic Fantasies and Sobering Realities, It was in the gorgeous Bonython Hall situated on the gounds of the University of Adelaide, and it was standing room only. Water is a hot button issue in Adelaide.

As Cullen says: What if the Murray goes ---in the sense of the water being too salty or there being no flows due to lack of rain? What then for Adelaide? It's reality --not science fiction, as there is 40% less runoff and river flow into the Murray-Darling Basin. Adelaide only has enough storage for 35 or so days, Adelaide people use more water than people in other capital cities, and the groundwater on the Adelaide plains is being pumped as if there is no tomorrow. Adelaide has a big problem with water, or rather the lack of water.

So do the other capital cities for that matter, and climate change is going to make the situation worse. Though the "National Water Initiative is in place and we know what to do nothing much happens. Why is that?

Cullen argued that special interest groups across the basin act to block and delay reform for as long as possible. Their strategy for doing is follows a particular template. This says we lack knowledge even though we know enough to devise water accounts for the different catchments in the basin; deny the problem by denying the cause (over-extraction); confuse the issue; then threaten scientists who tell the truth so as to stop them speaking; then blame others in a different state.

In tricky times people tend to adopt heroic fantasies and simplistic solutions. They suggest we pinch some one else's water) (eg., the northern rivers), transport water long distances (eg., the proposed canal from Kimberley's to Perth). We tend to assume that we live in a wetter world than we do (drought is always an exception) and so build permanent irrigation (eg., irrigation on the ephemeral Darling at Bourke) in a land of variability. Politicians now turn to focus groups for wisdom and they have run down water policy planning in the agencies that were once based on good science.

By sobering realities Cullen meant that visionary politicians relying on focus groups were no substitute for serious water planning that involved technical, economic and environmental considerations. As it is not possible to drought- proof the Murray-Darling Basin there is a need to accept climate variability, live within our means (eg., accept the Goyder Line) rather than rely on hope, and realize that water is going to become expensive and that a carbon tax will make water even more expensive.

So we need to become smart. We know the way forward, the politicians want to do something and there is money floating around. Being smart is to make sure that water policy drives development and not the other way around.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:06 AM | | Comments (4)


I very much enjoyed this talk. I would have liked to ask a question but being in the middle of an aisle it was a bit awkward for me to get to the mic. Prof. Cullen suggested that we are not managing the resource of ground water in the Adelaide Plains very well, so I would have liked his thoughts on ground water extraction for mining in the north of the state.

yes there is not much time for questions is there? A pity since the questions that come from the audience are informed, intelligent and searching.

Re the expansion of Roxby Downs by BHP/Billiton.I understand that there are looking at getting the water from a desalination plant in the Upper Spence Gulf rather than continuing to mine the Great Artesin Basin as they are doing now with the blessing of the Rann Government.

I drove up from Victor Harbor to hear Peter Cullen, an ex-thinker in residence, and a favourite son of Adelaide. He talks straight

I was impressed with his argument argue that climate change is druing the basin out. We are running out of water and we gotta be smart. He is able to draw lots of threads together.

It looks as if Adelaide is going to need a desalinisation plant soon to ensure an adequate supply of water.

I thought that one of the ways that Cullen used to illustrate being smart---water policy drives development--- was thsa tan urrban developer needs to obtain a water licence for his development, rather than build the new suburb and assume tha the government provides the water after the development has been built.

Smart thinking huh?