New dams may appeal to politicians, but they don’t solve water shortages.
Sometimes the steady drip-drip of melting ice in a warming climate can turn into a catastrophe, as was evident in last week’s video of water, mud and rocks rushing down a Himalayan valley. Two Indian hydro-electric installations were badly damaged and many workers were killed.
Himalayan glaciers have been melting at a steadily rising rate for decades. Meltwater accumulating behind glacier fronts can at intervals break through and cause flash flooding.
Pressure to invest in renewable energy has made dam-building all the rage in the Himalayas. What India is doing in the upper reaches of the Ganges system, China is easily surpassing on Yarlung Zangbo, which flows east out of the Himalayas and across Tibet before crossing into India and becoming the Brahmaputra.
China’s vast “Three Gorges” hydro scheme, currently the world’s largest, will be dwarfed by five Yarlung Zangbo projects, culminating in a planned power station near the Indian border that alone will have three times the generating capacity of Three Gorges.
To put that into perspective, that single Yarlung Zangbo power station will have over 30 times the generating capacity of Tasmania’s entire hydro-electric system, comprising 34 power stations.
Not everyone is happy about Asia’s massive investment in new dams. Indigenous people of the high country see any disturbance to river flow as an insult to their gods, and rice-growers in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are upset over Chinese dams on the upper Mekong, which they say are disrupting the river’s flow downstream.
Australians know a lot about these sorts of disputes. For most of this century our only large river system, the Murray-Darling, has been afflicted by some big flood events and three major droughts, and a lot of squabbling over who owns the water and whether dams capture more than they should.
Last week the Productivity Commission released a draft water reform report which found that while some good things have been done since the signing of the National Water Initiative in 2004, “there is a compelling case for continued reform”. Based on what else the commission had to say about how we manage our water, that’s an understatement.
The commission wants better water accounting “to build trust and confidence in… system integrity”, higher priority for environmental management in response to a drier, more variable climate, more attention to urban water services including waste and stormwater, and stronger recognition of the water needs of Indigenous Australians.
The commission found the $3.5 billion National Water Infrastructure Development Fund had approved grants for major dam projects likely to incur net costs to the communities they were supposed to benefit. It criticised inadequate business cases using flawed assumptions, a lack of transparency in decision-making, and a failure to investigate non-infrastructure options.
Last week the ABC’s Fran Kelly asked federal water minister Keith Pitt about the commission’s assessment that water to be provided from a $484 million NSW dam, yet to be completed, could be bought at a vastly lower cost from local water entitlement holders. His response? “If you want more water resilience, you require more water infrastructure – it’s pretty fundamental.”
Kelly asked Pitt repeatedly about the commission’s finding that the federal government did not do enough to investigate lower-cost alternatives to expensive dams. Admitting that he had not read the report, he avoided the question while repeating his belief in the need for more dams and pipelines.
Much-used by a previous water minister, Barnaby Joyce, the commission called this a “just add water” approach, adding that the ready availability of Canberra money for dams risked biasing states towards infrastructure solutions and away from much cheaper ways to achieve water security.
The muddy patch when a dam runs dry is a quagmire. A quagmire is also what the states, including Tasmania, can land in when federal money for more dams is thrown at them with little or no call for due diligence before construction gets under way.
MPs and other interests continue to press for new dams for the same reason that certain sport or community projects suddenly become important ahead of elections. The power that government ministers have to direct millions into infrastructure projects to win votes, otherwise known as pork-barrelling, will not easily be given up.
As the Productivity Commission report implies, and contrary to what the Pitts and Joyces of this world say, new infrastructure is no catch-all solution. To the contrary, it’s a relatively minor element in sustainable land management. We need government to give a lot more thought to natural water flows, alternative land practices and climate trends. The best options are often the cheapest.