October 20

Water Harvesting and Drought-Proofing Australia


The Neville Bonner Oration 2018

By Alan Jones AO

Australians for Conditional Monarchy 19th Annual National Conference

State Parliament House, Sydney

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Well, my thanks to all of you – and in particular to Professor David Flint – for the invitation to be with you today.

And I’m delighted to be in the distinguished company of a man whom I regard as a remarkable Australian, Tony Abbott, one of the finest people I have ever known to assume public office.

A man who’s not just capable of articulating policy and writing it with great clarity, but also a firefighter and a lifesaver.

The quintessential Australian.

And I can tell you that Tony Abbott never changes – he’s the same to everybody.

And as his courageous stand on energy policy, simply arguing that signing up energy to Paris was nothing more than a national economic suicide note; and likewise signing a global compact on migration was going to visit upon us the problems that we see in Europe, in Sweden, in Germany – we have a lot to thank this man for.

And let me just make one other point.

I notice that the former Prime Minister – and thank God we’re rid of him.

He got there by stabbing a good man, Peter King, in the back to win pre-selection for the seat of Wentworth.

He won the Opposition Leadership by stabbing Brendan Nelson in the back.

He won the Prime Ministership by stabbing Tony Abbott in the back.

And now he leaves Parliament because he argues that if you’re no longer Prime Minister, you should go.

Well, Tony Abbott has chosen to stay – to serve his country with ideas and to serve his electorate.

But Turnbull did throw a hand grenade at the weekend in relation to Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd and argued that these were men were filled with hate.

Well, I can tell you I’ve known Tony Abbott for decades.

I’ve never heard him utter a hate-filled sentiment in his life.

Anyway, that’s a bit of an ego massage for Tony, but these things should be said and I don’t have any hesitation in saying them.

But thank you for asking me to speak.

And this other remarkable Australian, Professor David Flint, an also fertile field for ideas, has asked me to address the issue of water management.

Or, put another way, drought-proofing Australia.

If there’s one aspect of public administration that highlights the incompetence and indifference of government, it must surely be water management over the last any number of years.

Therefore, based on what we know of that period, it’s hard to be optimistic about politicians getting the nation out of the mess that politicians themselves have created.

It is absolutely essential that the national Government take responsibility for a national problem.

But it’s taken us a long time to get to that point.

John Howard, as Prime Minister, said that we’re going to have to pay more for water and by that, he meant a price that reflects the cost of recovering, storing and replacing supplies of water and not just the cost of delivering it.

Well, the public may well be prepared to pay more for water, if they can be guaranteed supply.

And that especially applies to people in the bush.

For example, there is a dishonest argument that we are a nation short of water.

Every day you have nearly four billion litres of water not used in the Ord River system in Western Australia.

And the Fitzroy River is 50 times greater than the Ord.

Only 10 per cent of Lake Argyle’s water is used for the Ord irrigation system.

45 tonnes per second is pushed into the Timor Sea.

Four billion litres a day.

Queensland’s north east has four times the water of the Murray Darling Basin.

The total flow down the Murray Darling Basin is less than 23,000 gigalitres.

In the north east coastal region of Queensland, 70,000 gigalitres flow into the sea.

You have to wonder whether we haven’t left our brains behind.

A gigalitre is a thousand Olympic sized swimming pools.

So north east Queensland has 70,000 multiplied by a thousand Olympic sized swimming pools flowing into the sea.

The Gulf of Carpentaria currently has 130,000 available gigalitres.

130,000 times a thousand Olympic sized swimming pools.

Think of this.

Over 400 billion litres of sewage, much of it untreated, goes into the ocean off the coast of Sydney every year.

90 per cent of Singapore’s water used to be piped from Malaysia, ever since Singapore gained independence.

When it came round to renewing the licence, the costs had escalated so much that Singapore could no longer afford to buy its water from Malaysia.

Almost 20 years ago, Singapore started replanning its water/sewage strategy.

It’s now completed the installation of a brand new sewerage system which, when fully operational, will recycle reprocessed sewage water 100 per cent fit for human consumption.

Not a syllable out of Canberra on this.

Because Canberra, for years, has been a prisoner of the Wentworth Group who’ll continue to tell you that diverting water is snake oil stuff.

We’re told we can’t use the Ord River surplus, we can’t use the north east Queensland water, we can’t build dams.

When it rains we can’t harvest the water.

But we can build a 3,200 kilometre pipeline to carry gas from Papua New Guinea to Brisbane.

We can build a fairly useless railway line from Darwin to Alice Springs.

But we can’t harvest water, transport water or dam water.

Consider Libya as an example!!

95 per cent of Libya is desert.

They have the largest water transport project in the world.

It cost US 25 billion.

It’s the Great Man-Made River Authority which was launched in 1983.

They’ve moved water through pipes four metres in diameter over 1200 kilometres of desert plains, 700 kilometres of rocky plateaus, cliffs and dry river beds.

The total depth of the wells which have been drilled for the project, 1300 of them, the total depth is more than 70 times the height of Mount Everest.

Some of the 1300 wells have been drilled up to 500 metres deep.

They pump 700 trillion litres a minute to supply 2 million square metres of water a day to Benghazi, Libya’s second biggest city.

The second stage of the project was finished in September 2000, completely watering Tripoli.

The Libyans can do it: we can’t.

There is plenty of water in this country.

We just don’t harvest it.

The late Kerry Packer, Dick Pratt, the late Sam Chisholm, John Singleton and myself, amongst others, started Farmhand in 2002.

We called on the Government to rebuild Australia, to issue infrastructure bonds, to form a National Development Bank and to make watering Australia the Snowy Mountains project of 2004.

We called upon government then to make it their political legacy.

Nothing happened.

The “can do” country that we saw after World War II has become won’t do or can’t do on the issue of water.

Obviously pricing is a key to the sustainable use of any resource.

But we must pay that price.

There’s no doubt that water is used unsustainably in many parts of Australia.

But we oughtn’t to imagine that we’re short of water, because we’re not.

What we’re short of is the courage to get the water from where it is to where it’s needed.

There have been some suggestions that that’s all too difficult.

Well, put simply, our water crisis is man-made through poor management, self-interested politics, ignorance and indifference.

Of course it’s possible to drought-proof our cities.

And it ought to be possible to put our agriculture on a sustainable footing.

But consider this.

As with most things, it is the failure of State and Federal Government on the infrastructure front over the past 30 or more years that has brought us to this impossible set of circumstances today.

Recently I alluded to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing that in the 1960s, State and local governments regularly allocated 2 per cent or more of gross domestic product to capital spending for electricity, gas and water supply.

That’s nearly 60 years ago.

By 1994, capital spending on electricity, gas and water infrastructure was down to .7 of a per cent, half of what it was in the early 1980s.

And that .7 of a per cent included .2 per cent from the private sector.

I can’t get a figure for today!

We virtually have had nothing since the Snowy Mountains Scheme of national significance and in New South Wales only the Warragamba Dam, which was completed in 1960.

Indeed dams fell out of fashion.

Remember the Goss Government in Queensland when Kevin Rudd, I might add, was a senior adviser, decided in 1989 not to proceed with a new dam at Wolffdene.

And the Carr Government cancelled plans that had been on the books for years for a new dam on the Shoalhaven River.

So it’s a double whammy.

Halve the spending on capital works and allow the greenies to run you out of town on the issue of dams.

Then of course there’s the business of rainwater tanks.

Wherever did this loony notion derive that you couldn’t have a rainwater tank in the back yard.

Well, that’s easy.

As Dr Peter Coombes, a man who has dedicated more than 30 years of his life to the development and understanding of urban, rural and natural water cycles, told me on air years ago, there are plenty of solutions to the water shortage but they’re not in the interests of big water.

You see, State Governments created Water and Sewage Acts to force citizens to use mains water.

Ban the tank so that we have to buy from the government system and use this as a revenue stream for government.

That’s why they gave water monopolies wide powers to make profits from selling water and sewage services.

And these water monopolies all have a single shareholder, the Government.

And the State Governments all want dividends, and that’s what they’ve been getting.

Indeed, around the country State Governments have dragged more than a billion dollars a year from their water monopolies.

But most of the water that monopolies sell comes from dams.

No cost in any of that.

But the water monopolies also regulate other alternative water sources.

They like centralised management and single solutions.

They like to take water from a big dam, treat it to drinking water quality, transport it via expensive and leaky infrastructure across large distances to its users in households and businesses.

As Peter Coombes said, the centralised system also transports urban sewage and storm water runoff, again via extensive pipe networks, and dump it into the ocean.

Then of course our storm water and our sewage having reached the ocean, some loony in government decides that we’ll bring it back onto the mainland and we’ll have to desalinate it first.

Then you’ll fork out 2 billion dollars for the privilege.

Even when switched off, this nonsense costs Sydney Water ratepayers and taxpayers $579,500 a day or $200 million a year.

It costs slightly more, $592,400 a day, when it is operating.

As Peter Coombes said, the bigger the city, the less efficient the system.

The bigger the monopoly the more powerful it becomes.

And their only response is a more centralised solution.

Hence the desalination plant.

We are not short of water.

We’ve got any amount of sewage that can be recycled, any amount of rainwater and stormwater runoff from urban Australia that can be harvested.

The volume of sewage discharged is half the volume of household use.

Add that to the water that rushes down the gutters after even a small rain shower and you’ve got a great untapped resource that means no city should be short of water.

And this can happen everywhere in regional Australia.

The Federal Government should match dollar for dollar every local government instrumentality that implements a recycling plant.

We could make ourselves independent of Warragamba Dam.

But of course that, at the end of the day, is not what government wants.

When did you last hear, as Peter Coombes said to me, a Water Authority explain that roofs were significantly more efficient for harvesting water.

We might be experiencing a water crisis.

But we’re not, and never have been, short of water.

I was interested in a point that Dr Peter Coombes made to me years ago, that the National Water Commission had commissioned a consultant with no experience of rainwater tanks to evaluate the “economic efficiency” of rainwater tanks.

They were talking about taxing citizens who save water by installing rainwater tanks.

That means the economic benefits of saving water at the household area are ignored, because these water savings reduce revenue to water authorities and State Governments.

So anything that big water can’t send a bill for is considered to be an economic loss.

And as Peter Coombes made the point, citizens have to seek approval from a water monopoly to install a competing water source, whether it’s a rainwater tank or any other proposal that will make a contribution to saving water.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that government is about maintaining water revenue rather than securing a sustainable water future.

Then you’ve got the recycling dishonesty.

Successive New South Wales governments have ruled out recycled drinking water.

What the hell do these people think we’ve been drinking in the bush for years?

And we already drink recycled water in the city.

Can anyone explain to us what goes into Warragamba Dam?

What we drink from the Warragamba Dam is a mix of what’s caught in the 9,000 square kilometre catchment.

This includes waste from millions of animals and the inflow of storm water and waste water from Lithgow, Goulburn and other towns, villages and farms that discharge into the catchment area.

So a cocktail of waste water enters the dam every day.

It’s then filtered for consumption.

That’s what the massive Prospect water filtration plant is for.

The nonsense that was rejected in Toowoomba 10 years ago ought to shame every politician.

There they were wanting to recycle sewage, purify it to a quality better than water used for kidney transplants and a scare campaign torpedoed it all.

We’re talking about water that’s treated to the same or better quality than existing water.

At worst, it should be used for non-drinking purposes such as flushing toilets and watering gardens.

But many polls have shown universal support for some use of treated effluent.

That water is used overseas and has been proposed by water experts as a way of ending uncertainty about our water supply.

Adelaide recycles more than 20 per cent of its water.

Sydney 3 per cent.

But of course you’ve got this stupid business from Toowoomba, years ago, where authorities proposed pumping treated sewage into the local dam, then treating it again before supplying it to homes.

The quality of water would have been better than that used in kidney transplants, but a millionaire developer talked about it being toilet to taps and the proposal was torpedoed.

He should be locked up.

As I said, we’ve got a wretched record in the State of doing anything about water.

We were supposed to build the Wellcome Reef Dam on the Shoalhaven which would have harvested water.

Bob Carr got terrified by people in two Labor electorates and in 2003 locked the whole area up as a nature reserve.

How much has our population increased in the past 20 years?

High rises all over our city and suburbs.

But don’t imagine there are any answers here.

One day it’s desalination.

Another day it’s recycling.

Another day we’re going to mine the aquifers.

But no serious commitment to rainwater and storm water harvesting.

We are told by government that Sydneysiders don’t want to drink recycled stormwater and waste water, but they want to drink what comes out of the Prospect water filtration plant.

Are these people dumb or duplicitous?

The treatment plant for Warragamba isn’t designed and wasn’t designed to treat waste water to the high quality achieved by the modern recycling plant.

And Warragamba Dam contains effluent before it’s cleaned.

And recycled water is cleaned to a higher standard today than the water we get from the Warragamba Dam via the Prospect water filtration plant.

It’s cheaper and more sustainable than desalinated water.

It doesn’t waste energy.

It doesn’t pump as many carbon emissions into our air.

Contrary to the impression created by government and the so-called experts, water is not scarce.

In a study in 2006, the Business Council of Australia called this “one of Australia’s greatest myths”.

One political hurdle we have to cross is higher prices.

But if we asked the public, hammered into submission by the current catastrophe, whether they’re prepared to pay higher prices, I guarantee if we could secure supply they’d be more than happy to do it.

Australia has some of the lowest prices for urban water in the world.

Below one dollar per kilolitre, which is a thousand litres, compared with two dollars in Britain and approaching three dollars in Germany and Denmark.

The Australian price works out at one cent for every ten litres of water of drinking quality.

Put another way, the average Australian’s electricity bill is four times higher than it is for water.

As I have said often, it does rain in Australia, even during the worst drought in living memory, but we continue to fail to harvest most of the water.

And as I said, the City of Sydney pumps 450 billion litres of once used water out to sea, recycling a mere three per cent.

That’s one thousand Olympic swimming pools worth of water pumped out to sea off Sydney every day.

But rather than addressing this incredible waste, governments have allowed serious attempts at recycling to be sabotaged by ignorant lobby groups as we saw in Toowoomba, and by public utilities as in Sydney Water’s obstruction of private operators who want to recycle sewage.

Recycled water is as clean or cleaner than what we already drink and is drunk in Japan, Singapore, the USA and Britain.

There’s no point in arguing that reversing the mistakes of the past is too expensive, without exploring whether the public is prepared to pay the cost and whether the benefits outweigh the cost.

What is the exact cost?

It surely isn’t just the cost of transporting water, because that cost has got to be weighed up against the benefit it would provide.

How much money do we spend in drought relief, for God’s sake, every other year?

Now we’ve got plenty of energy to talk about the Murray Darling river system.

Don’t start me on that.

That’s an essay for another day.

Who looked after the Murray Darling system before white settlement?

It didn’t need “environmental flows” to survive.

We now interfere with nature at ridiculous cost.

And we keep taking water from farmers, for which they’ve already paid, and which goes into putting food on our table and we call it “environmental flows”.

As I speak to you, a Liberal government is talking about taking another 450 gigalitres, two-thirds of Sydney Harbour of water, from irrigators to add to the almost 2,750 gigalitres, more than five Sydney Harbours, already recovered for environmental flows since 2012.

This is not a joke – it is a disgrace.

Don’t worry about the fact that $100 million worth of farm milk, 500 jobs, $200 million of food production will be lost as water is taken.

It’s called a disgraceful Murray Darling Basin Plan and Liberal and Labor governments sing off the same sheet of music.

I’m simply saying, where is the energy and enthusiasm to do something equivalent to the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme.

I have said more times than I could count that Jack Beale was a Minister in the New South Wales Askin government in the 1940s.

He was also a chartered engineer and a chairman of the Water Research Foundation of Australia.

Over 40 years ago, he proposed the development of the Clarence Basin in northern New South Wales to create a giant water and power project that would dwarf the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Under the plan, 14 storage dams linked by cuttings, tunnels and pipelines would divert inland some of the five million megalitres of water or ten Sydney Harbours that flow out to the sea from the Clarence each year.

Beale wrote, “Surplus coastal water is the logical future source for arid inland development and electricity generation”.

He said the water captured under the scheme could be diverted to Queensland and into the Murray Darling, doubling the flow of the latter and minimising its salinity.

He said “A nation can’t afford to let resources remain idle, even if it has to build pyramids.”

Beale argued that with sufficient will, all this could be under way by 1988 and completed by 2001, the centenary of Federation.

Well it’s now 2018 and not one syllable of that proposal has been addressed.

In 1983 the Fraser Government approved four million dollars to investigate Beale’s idea.

The incoming Hawke Government cancelled that approval.

The only redeeming feature is that the public are not stupid.

Back in 2007, Greg Mansell of St Leonards wrote a letter to the paper which said “Worried about a voter backlash, Mr Iemma” (that was when Mr Iemma rejected the use of recycled water).

Greg Mansell said “Then note that I’ll only vote for a party which promises to seriously investigate recycling our water and make a decision based solely on the scientific and economic evidence.”

Another, a Liza Twaddell of Willoughby wrote, in a letter I have kept, “Why do so many people fail to notice that all water is recycled, whether through nature or a recycling plant, we could all be drinking Napoleon’s recycled sewage at any moment.”

Or as Hugh Rose of Nimmitabel wrote “The water we drink could have been poured from the goatskin bag of Socrates. It could have drowned the gunner’s mate on the Revenge. Indeed it could have flushed the bidet of Simone de Beauvoir.

“You’ll be drinking history, Queenslanders. Lighten up.”

The Australian newspaper got it right when it editorialised on December the 26th 2006, “The real picture on Australia’s water shortage is now clear and it has little to do with changing weather patterns or the drought.

“In short, State governments have spent decades avoiding their responsibility to invest in water security. Instead of proper planning, water authorities have squeezed the supply of water to consumers through restrictions to allow State governments to pocket hundreds of millions of dollars a year in dividends.

“The monopoly position enjoyed by water utilities has allowed State Governments to get away with it. Consumers, who’ve been banned from washing their cars and are now forced to water their gardens by bucket on selected days in some major cities, have been denied the choice to pay for the water they want to use to preserve their lifestyle.

“As a result, per capita water consumption has been squeezed to the same level as five decades ago. Much of the water use reduction has been justified by the glib waterwise mantra of environmental responsibility. But in truth the figures show it has more to do with State Government greed.

“Water recycling technology has been available and widely used around the world for decades … consumers are overwhelmingly prepared to accept recycled water for domestic use. 69 per cent of poll respondents accepted the idea of drinking recycled sewage. 29 per cent said they’d be prepared to use it in their homes for non-drinking purposes such as flushing toilets and watering gardens.

“Of the 1200 surveyed, only two per cent were against both options and only .5 of a percent didn’t have an opinion.”

The editorial ended, “State Governments should forget about referendums on whether water should be recycled and just get on with it. A market should be established in waste water to break the State monopoly on supplies, injecting much needed competition into the domestic water supply market.

“Only then will water resources be properly priced and consumers not have their lifestyles frustrated and expectations let down by the short term thinking of politicians exploiting a captive market.”

But none of this will succeed while ever we persist in crocodile tears about how we are a dry continent.

We’re anything but.

There’s plenty of water.

We just lack the guts to harvest it, recycle it and take it from where it is to where it’s needed.

And by the way, you’d expect me to offer a post script.

Prime Minister John Howard made Malcolm Turnbull our first Minister for Water.

What did he achieve?


Then he was Minister for the NBN.

What did he achieve?

A growth in waste and a telecommunications nightmare.

Is there a leader who can grasp reality?

One thing is for certain – you won’t find one on the water issue on the Labor side of politics.

The challenge for the Morrison government is enormous.

We can’t wait any longer.

In 1974 and ’75, a horse called Think Big won successive Melbourne Cups.

The challenge for us all is to think big.


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