Residents use the least water, yet pay more for lack of it

The Age

Monday July 20, 2009

ANDREW BOCK - Andrew Bock is a freelance writer.

Farmers and industry seem to be untouchable when it comes to water. IT WAS the sight of council water police peering suspiciously over suburban front fences that made me realise I could not trust governments to look after my personal water rights. Then the Essential Services Commission announced water price increases to all Victorian residents of 51 to 64 per cent over the next four years, starting this month.Premier John Brumby argues that increased water rates are needed to fund infrastructure including the north-south pipeline and the desalination plant. But taxpayers are already funding most of the improvements to the state's irrigation system.The food-bowl modernisation project in northern Victoria will cost Melbourne water consumers $300 million, taxpayers $600 million and the irrigation community a paltry $100 million. Residents use only about 10 per cent of the water in Victoria and we have conscientiously reduced per capita use in the past decade.Farmers and irrigators protest loudly when they are threatened by drought or price rises, but there is no lobby group to defend the water rights of residents.We should not be taxed more or be expected to reduce our consumption of water proportionately more than agricultural or industrial users. Governments and taxpayers instead need to look more closely at the taps running in Victoria's paddocks and industries.Farmers are the sacred cows in the Victorian water debate. In particular, it seems that dairy cows are sacred. Irrigators use 75 per cent of the state's water and the majority of that is to grow grass for cows to eat. Dairy farmers have recently suffered two major financial setbacks. Milk prices have again dropped below cost, to 27 cents a litre, and the US announced it would extend subsidies for dairy exports by another year.And so, many of Victoria's 7000 dairy farmers face operating losses that threaten them with closure. Dairy farmers, the Victorian Farmers Federation and the federal Coalition are asking for more government aid. It is a bitter time for dairy farmers but that shouldn't stop taxpayers asking how much they should subsidise water-intensive industries.In 2005-06, Victorian agricultural businesses used 23 per cent of all irrigated water in Australia. About 5 per cent of agricultural land in Victoria was irrigated - equal to a massive 25 per cent of irrigated land nationally.While drought in Victoria has substantially reduced the extent of irrigated agriculture, historically we have been heavy irrigators. Moreover, the foods we grow are high and long-term water users.In 2008 the Report on the virtual water cycle of Victoria, compiled for the Victorian Water Trust, found the dairy industry used more than four times the total amount of water used by all Victorian households.The report established an important new framework for analysing water use by measuring the amount of water required to grow food products and bring those products to the table.The thirstiest agricultural products are rice, dairy products, sugar and cotton in that order. The biggest real users of water in Victorian agriculture are dairy farms (1928 gigalitres) followed by winemakers (288 gigalitres).Because two-thirds of the state's food produce is exported, it follows that a substantial amount of our limited water supply is also exported. In the future we will have to decide how much water we can afford to export in food products.It may seem parsimonious to complain about $300 increases, on average, in residential water rates but water is the most essential service and should not cost proportionately more for those on lower incomes.A system that charges residents higher rates after a monthly allowance is reached is a fairer way to maintain good domestic water habits.A 10-year drought and long-term climate change only accentuate the need to distribute water equitably between public and private interests.In her book The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein dubbed the dominant politics of this era "disaster capitalism".She warned that disasters such as terrorism, floods and droughts were used by governments to introduce excessive security, surveillance, taxation, "user pays" and privatisation measures that would not be tolerated during other times.The Victorian Government wants to dramatically increase water rates, build a privately funded desalination plant and renege on a promise to pipe recycled water to power stations that now use clean river water.These policies ignore two simple principles.Residents have rights to water; and in a drying climate we need to look more critically at agricultural and industrial water uses. Otherwise, the clouds might be privatised.Andrew Bock is a freelance writer.

© 2009 The Age

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