Australia must put water security at the head of its priority list, even if it takes mega-projects to make this a reality.
“The question of constructing a channel from the head of Spencer’s Gulf to Lake Eyre has been raised on a number of occasions – the main reason put forward for proposals of this nature is that the maintenance of an inland sea would greatly increase rainfall in the arid interior of the continent,” said Dr H.C. Coombs, Director General of Post-war Reconstruction on April 30, 1945.
The Australian government has spent many billions of dollars throughout Australia on desalination plants, and most have been mothballed and are not being run to maintain their infrastructure. To recommission these desalination plants would require a similar expenditure as to their initial installation.
As the same time, it is agreed that our climate is warming and we have seen an increase in the incidence of damaging bush fires, floods storms and cyclones. So is it time to consider mega interventions to supply water to our dry continent?
Most rainfall in Northern Australia occurs in the three months of the monsoonal and rainy season. For much of the rest of the year the North has very low rainfall.
What would the impact be on delicate natural ecosystems of large water reservoirs connected in a network of interlocked irrigation channels and pipes be? If scientists believe that average temperatures may increase up to two degrees above historical levels, would interventions be capable of reducing temperatures and saving vast areas of natural habitat?
Have we already changed the vegetation and landscape, silted up our water courses such that talking of “natural” systems and water flows is not sensible? What would the impact be on regions where water is diverted, and on marine ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef?
These are some of the questions we must ask, with the knowledge that the great artesian basin, once considered an inexhaustible source of water for the arid interior has begun to be depleted at an alarming rate.
Australia can look to irrigation systems in other arid areas such as aqueducts in Libya or the damming of the Colorado River in the US to understand some of the issues involved in mega hydrological interventions.
That being said, in Queensland reservoirs have been created from the North and inland. In South-East Queensland, many water reservoirs have been connected, although they currently flow toward centres of population and away from the regions.
Advances in technology could allow for a staged irrigation and aqueduct system to connect all Northern reservoirs and sources of water to the South of Australia and even feed into the Murray Darling to improve water flows.
The advances in technology include the use of geothermal power to pump water to the west of the great dividing range where the earth’s mantle is close to the surface, and geothermal technology has proved to be effective and technically available.
Israel, Turkey and China for example, have embraced horticultural production in desert conditions, with vast areas of sophisticated greenhouses. Their produce of flowers, vegetables and fruits reliably producing for large urban areas. Greenhouse production in Australia has grown in terms of profitability at a compounding rate above seven per cent for around a decade, even with little direct government intervention. Considering this rate of increase, is it not astounding that all levels of governments and our finance houses have not prioritised investments in food security, and particularly greenhouse and controlled production for the local and international market?
What other horticultural sector or industrial sector has consistently delivered growth of that magnitude? With dedicated freight airports in Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, we should embrace our role as the food bowl for Asia and beyond.
I believe the money wasted on desalination plants should have gone into an interconnected water grid and pumping stations to drought-proof regional areas. When we talk of sustainability and future urban populations, the major inhibitor of growth outside the current centres of coastal corridors in Australia is water security.
The future of our regions and our population centres will depend on how we manage our limited water resources. Now is the time to embrace the original vision and scope of hydrological interventions envisioned by the brilliant engineer and designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Brisbane Story Bridge, Dr John Bradfield. Time for a renewed effort and embrace of Australia’s “Bradfield Scheme” – a scheme to embrace water security to every mainland state.