Water Wars

World Science Journalism Conference, Melbourne, April 18, 2007

Water Wars: The challenges and opportunities for a science/environment journalist reporting on water issues.

Åsa Wahlquist

I first became interested in reporting on water in December 1991. A one thousand kilometre long, toxic blue-green algal bloom was infesting the Darling River, Australia’s longest river that runs through western NSW. It made headlines around the world.

I was immediately frustrated in my search for a scientist who could give me baseline information about the Darling River, and who could tell me what a healthy Darling River would look like.

Ten years later, Terry Hillman, the head of the Murray Darling Freshwater Research centre, told me the problem was that there had been very little research into big lowland rivers like the Darling and the Murray. He said scientists needed to, and I quote, “develop a model so that our concept of a river is one that fits reality instead of dreamtime, or the top end of the Thames”.

Terry, I might add was one of those scientists who make journalism an utter delight. For the same article he told me he would die in a ditch for a billabong. He stood for over an hour in the cold waters of a billabong of the Murray river in thigh-length boots for a photograph. Only afterwards did he tell me the boot leaked. But the pic was fantastic, and Terry didn’t die.

The first challenge in reporting water, and indeed agriculture and natural resource issues is that this is not Europe, but most of our conceptions are European. Farming and natural resource management in Australia can be likened to a 220 year experiment, although not a very scientific one, one in which vital parameters are now changing.

Australia’s most important rivers, in terms of population and production, are the Murray and the Darling. They are slow, flat rivers, with irregular flow. The Darling is a pulse river: it has huge floods, and can dry up to a series of waterholes for months.

We have creeks, like Cooper’s Creek in south west Queensland that can be 100 kilometres wide when it is in flood. The land is so flat and the flow is so slow it is hard to tell which way the water is moving. It leaves in its wake an unbelievable profusion of life in a area that was formerly desert.

Australian rivers, under natural conditions, can disappear into reed beds. They have anabranches and flood runners and billabongs. A billabong by the way, is a looping arc of the river that has been cut off from the main channel. It might sound like a sleepy place, but Terry Hillman says there is more biological activity in a billabong than a sewerage treatment plant. Floods that reconnect the billabong with its massive productivity, to the floodplain, are vital to river health.

One of the great difficulties of reporting water in Australia, is that most Australians have no understanding of what I have just told you. Floods are not necessarily bad, nor is the river drying out necessarily a catastrophe, but try telling that to the subs writing headings.

Back in 1991 the rivers were largely managed as pipes to deliver water and take away

waste. Australian science excelled in dam building, at harnessing rivers for production. Until that time, most of us didn’t ask too many questions about it.

In 1994, Australian governments agreed to factor in the health of the river when making decisions about river management. There have been arguments about just what is a healthy river ever since.

The bottom line is that in Australia water management is dictated by political, economic and social imperatives. Science is well down the list.

There are now more water scientists than there were back in 1991. But most work for government institutions like the CSIRO, or various state government departments. This can really limit what they are prepared to say.

Even those working more independently, at universities or as private consultants, are often unwilling to speak freely for fear of losing contracts with the big water managers and suppliers. The problem is most acute when reporting on city water management.

This is quite a challenge for a journalist who has pointed questions and no one prepared to publicly answer them.

They say there is more fight in a pint of water than a pint of whiskey. There are fights between upstream irrigators who take the top off small floods, and downstream farmers who want all the water in those floods to soak their soils and bring years of productivity. There are fights between city and country, between farmers and miners, between fishermen and dam-builders, between upstream and downstream states, between

supporters of recycling and desalination and good old-fashioned dam building.

There are fights between those who want to extract water for cities or farming and environmentalists. Indigenous users also have an important voice. There are fights between the big state-owned water companies and others who would like access to the system.

There are fights between valleys: Sydney and Adelaide rely on water outside their catchment and Brisbane is constructing a grid so it can too.

Then there are the wild and wacky schemes, from towing icebergs from Antarctica to improbably pipelines. Just this morning, on the letters page of The Australian, a reader wrote a letter suggesting “a major option – transport of bulk water through the ocean in trains of large waterbags connected like railway freight cars”.

All this is good fuel for journalism, and scientists have an important role.

There are so many vital questions for scientists to answer. Just how much groundwater do we have, and how quickly is it replenished? How much water does a wetland need? How much water will forest plantations use, and what impact will that have on rivers and dams? Why has the rainfall over the Sydney catchment has declined by 25 per cent over the past 15 years, but inflow into the dam decreased by over 70 percent? What happened to the summer rains that used to regularly fill Brisbane’s dams, but haven’t fallen since February 1999? Melbourne’s water storages were last full in October 1996. Victoria has not had a good rainfall year since. Is this climate change, or just a cycle that our records are not long enough to reveal?

And once science answers those questions, what on earth are we as a society going to do about it?

There are a lot of links in this chain, from scientists willing to speak out, to journalists who know what questions to ask, to editors prepared to campaign and support their

Journalists, through to the political process. It is not easy. There are always a lot of issues competing for the newspages, or air time.

The big water issue these days is drought, and reduced water supply.

Most mainland cities and towns are now on water restrictions. Those two great Australian pastimes, putting the water sprinkler on the lawn, and hosing the car, are now banned.

In the city with the most severe water restrictions, Brisbane, residents are limited to 140 litres per person per day, half what the average Australian used in 2001. And the science behind all these restrictions? Well, there isn’t any.

Then there is the question of where will our water come from.

Traditionally Australian have relied on cheap water from dams.

Every election used to bring more promises of more dams. But now that we value our environment, we know that every dam brings with it a huge environmental cost. Scientists’ voices are at last being heard, though not necessarily listened to.

So now we are talking about recycling, desalination and rainwater tanks.

Despite most cities being in wetter areas than their dams, and roofs being impermeable while the dry ground of dam catchments just soaks up water,

rainwater tanks were banned in most cities until recently because they deprived the state-owned water monopolies of revenue.

Recycling is extraordinarily unpopular with politicians, dismissed as drinking toilet water. This is despite the fact that it is a widespread practice around the world and in much of Australia. A number of politicians prefer desalination, despite its huge energy requirement. Which, given most of Australia’s electricity come from coal, raises some interesting questions.

The introduction of recycling is dependent on the public trusting scientists to deliver them safe drinking water. The public are ahead of the politicians on this one: at the end of last year, a survey done for the Australian newspaper found seventy per cent of those surveyed were prepared to drink recycled water.

In rural Australia, the water shortage has hit irrigated agriculture hard. Agriculture used 67 per cent of Australia’s water in the last survey done by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2004/05. It was probably more like 40 per cent last year.

While less than one per cent of Australia’s agricultural area is irrigated, it produces 28 per cent of agricultural production and 51 per cent of the total agricultural profit.

This means irrigated agriculture has some political muscle.

But much irrigated agriculture is environmentally damaging and inefficient. Most city people like aim their criticism at cotton and rice farming.

Now scientists love working for cotton growers, they are enthusiastic adopters of the latest research findings and technology, and next to nobody is growing rice this year due to drought.

In fact the most environmentally damaging use of water is on pasture for dairy farming.

It is also the largest user of water, and it supports a big export industry.

This is one of the debates we are not yet having in Australia: should we be exporting virtual water? Virtual water is the water used to produce products like milk and wine that are exported: for example 360 litres of water are used to produce one litre of wine, and 600 litres of water to produce one litre of milk. Is it worth it?

There are, as you can see, many issues to report on, many stories to tell and much to explain. They are issues that go to the heart of how we live here in Australia.

The challenge is that many Australians are effectively water illiterate: they don’t understand our rivers, our climate, our hydrological cycles, the way we farm, and what the costs and alternatives are.

The ultimate decisions about how water is used are be made by politicians. Scientists and journalists have a profoundly important role in ensuring informed public debate.

The challenge is to get those voices out there.

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