Water scientists thrash out the future 


More than 60 water experts and scientists from around Australia gathered at Parliament House last week to determine the future of northern water resources.

The scientists warned about complacency in regard to the abundance of water in the north, dismissed as fanciful those visionary schemes of piping water to the south and alerted Darwin residents to higher prices for water in the future.

The Northern Water Use summit was organised by Charles Darwin University and the NT Government’s Department of Natural Resources, the Environment and the Arts.

In opening the summit Environment Minister Marion Scrymgour set the questioning tone for the summit by warning that the presumed abundant water supplies of the north could be easily tipped over into exploitation and over-use.

She said the ‘game was on’ to use the water resources in the north on the back of their presumed riches, and that it was the responsibility of water strategists to get their planning right.

Indigenous people also needed to become party to the conversation about rivers and water use.

In the first keynote speech water research consultant and National Water Commissioner David Trebeck took up Ms Scrymgour’s theme, explaining that, unlike traditional irrigation areas, northern Australia was characterised by a reliable, but quite short wet season and a hot and extended dry season.

‘Regrettably, for most, if not all, the northern rivers, our knowledge is far less than we would like,’ Mr Trebeck said.

‘The science of water, water planning processes, water markets and water policymaking, are all immature right across Australia.

‘The quality of our data is poor, or the data we do have contains crucial gaps.’

He said that across the three jurisdictions of the north – Queensland, Northern Territory and WA – faced increased pressures to free up water for development.

‘But the risk is that they lack sufficient knowledge of their rivers and groundwater systems to respond with confidence,’ he said.

Mr Trebeck had a special warning for Darwin residents, saying that there was determination to make the city look like a wet tropical paradise.

But this view that there were unlimited supplies of pristine water was a misunderstanding of climatic conditions.

He said the price of water did not recover the full cost of providing it. In the future, Darwin residents would have to pay much more for their water – in line with the Territory’s obligations under the National Water Initiative.

He foreshadowed that the price increases – possibly doubling or trebling the price to bring it in line with other cities – could begin within two to four years time.

Paul Frewer, the acting Director General of the Department of Water in Western Australia, told the summit that such visionary yet ill-fated schemes as the plan to build a canal to pipe water from the Kimberley to Perth were now ‘off the agenda’.

Such a canal scheme would have cost $14.5 billion and resulted in consumers paying far too much for their water.

Mr Frewer said planning and introducing effective systems of water management took years to develop and needed genuine engagement with Indigenous and community interests to succeed.

Dr Peter Cullen, one of Australia’s leading experts on water, said one of the big challenges for the north was how to capture and store water. Much of the terrain was unsuitable for dams and the temptation had to be resisted to rush into inappropriate infrastructures. There was also the problem of evaporation to be considered.

He said the south failed to understand conditions in the north and had developed a misplaced belief in a tropical bounty that could be harnessed for their own use.

This view was being fuelled by the radio ‘shock jocks’ who had no idea of the problems that would occur in carting northern waters for southern use.

‘Southerners refuse to accept that their own profligacy in water use, and some of the myths about the north still persist, which does put the north at risk,’ he said.

After a day-long exposure to keynote speeches the summit delegates spent a further day on the weekend workshopping ideas about strategies and management planning that will be summarised into an action plan.

This plan will be tabled for consideration by a meeting of State and Territory Ministers responsible for northern waters next year.