To Paradise and beyond - Page 8
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 20: Cities on the Edge
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Peter Meredith
QWI SAYS MOST OF THE direct negative impacts of a dam at Traveston Crossing would be confined to the ‘local area'. Positive impacts – water security and flow-on economic benefits – would mostly be felt at ‘regional, state and national levels outside the area of negative impact'. This is logical, given that all the water extracted from the dam will leave the catchment. QWI predicts increased gross regional product of $244 million by 2013 and increased ‘national welfare benefit' of $3.14 billion as a result of the dam.
Judging by the geographical spread of people I've consulted about the dam, the QWI adjective ‘local' is somewhat imprecise. If the benefits are to be felt only outside the ‘local area', the project would defy one of the WCD's principles on large dams – that ‘affected people in reservoir basins, downstream of dams and in catchment areas should be project beneficiaries'. More than one person I spoke with raised the matter of compensation in this context: would people downstream be compensated if their lives were adversely affected? The question can't be answered while QWI continues to insist that downstream impacts would be negligible.
Putting all this aside, let's assume that the perceived disadvantages of Traveston Crossing Dam are enough to kill the project. How, then, do authorities guarantee future water supply for growing populations?
The answer, according to Stuart White and others, is a suite of measures, some already in use and all cheaper in total than building a large dam. They embrace desalination, recycling and domestic water tanks, together with a far bigger push to reduce water use. This so-called ‘demand-management' approach is key. It includes retrofitting existing buildings with water-saving devices, ensuring new buildings incorporate them, water efficiency standards for water-using appliances and fixtures, and promotion of water-thrifty gardens. New developments might incorporate ultra-high water conservation measures that could save up to 80 per cent of the water currently used in households. The Institute for Sustainable Futures says demand management could save nearly 190,000 ML of water a year in South-East Queensland by 2051. Compare this with the 150,000 ML a year that Traveston Crossing Dam's Stage Two is projected to deliver.
The trouble is, these strategies are still beholden to the principle of perpetual growth. Growth is the problem here – growth of economies and populations, growth and the almost divinely ordained dogma that there are no limits to it. Human population growth is behind the push for ever more dams, in South-East Queensland, in Australia and around the world. Human population growth lies at the heart of nearly all the environmental problems we face today. ‘Decision-makers see more people as a bigger empire for them to preside over. They see the rate of growth as an index of their success,' says Ian Lowe, emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University and president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
In terms of water supply, the standard model has always been that, as a population grows, authorities keep building more dams, Lowe says. ‘I think the Queensland government genuinely believes that population growth is a given, that it's visited upon us by Martians, that it can't control it, or it doesn't want to. And a consequence of a growing population is that you need to supply more water, more electricity, more sewage treatment and so on.
‘To be against growth is like being against motherhood or revealing that you're a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. But the implicit assumption that growth is always good does need to be questioned.'
Logic says there is no absolute need for economies to keep growing, according to Lowe, and many reputable economists acknowledge this.. The question is whether we can stubbornly keep on growing in the face of signs that our civilisation may collapse as a result.
Some economists see the signs but believe that, if the world can somehow have economic growth that doesn't cause environmental problems, all will be well and growth can continue ad infinitum. In his interim report on climate change released in February, economist Professor Ross Garnaut muses on just such matters. He says it is ‘neither desirable nor remotely feasible' to curb growth and deny higher material standards to people around the world. Instead ‘the challenge is to end the linkage between economic growth and emissions of greenhouse gases'.
Commenting on this, Ross Gittins, the Sydney Morning Herald's economics editor, wrote: ‘If the world can achieve such a feat it will rival the Seven Wonders of the World combined. If we can't, the globe will have hit its limits to growth.'
Peter Beattie's take is pragmatic. As ex-premier of Australia's fastest– growing state, he agrees that growth is problematic. But however much he'd like to limit it, he sees no way of doing so. ‘We don't have much choice,' he says. ‘People are moving here – we're getting eight hundred people a week coming from Sydney – but I can't put up a Berlin Wall and say, "You can't come here. Bugger off!" This is Australia, not a different country. It's legally impossible.'
All the state government can do is make sure that newcomers settle in designated areas, Beattie says. The market will eventually ensure, by driving house prices up, that the influx slows. Meanwhile the dam engineers will keep delivering what they have been trained to deliver – big expensive infrastructure.
Heading back towards Brisbane, I detour from the Bruce Highway for a last look at the Mary. A hundred metres or so past Traveston Crossing Bridge, I throw a right and take a dirt track down to the river's edge. There the track disappears into the weak-tea water, to emerge thirty metres away on the far bank.
The water is so clear here that I can see the gravelly-sandy bed all the way across. A little further upstream, the bottom is streaked green with waterweed that waves in the flow. As I take in the scene, some of the things that people told me about the river's ecology come back to me. ‘Just the place for a lungfish,' I say to myself. ♦