Dry Humour: Washing down the bitter pill of water security

Water, water every where

Nor any drop to drink

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Have you ever drunk fresh water? I mean truly pristine – untouched by the biological footprint of others.

Perhaps. I guess you could do it if you are a technophile with a hydrogen fuel cell in the back garden that you tap to make your morning coffee. The rest of us live in a gloriously messy organic world where water is continually cycled and recycled through biological processes.

The reservoirs and dams that supply our cities are not hermetically sealed plastic tanks – but lakes and rivers with living, functioning ecosystems of microbes, invertebrates, fish, birds – and all that goes along with that.

And more.

When you press flush, I know it’s good to imagine that the contents of the bowl are vaporized or spirited away – lord knows I’ve experienced plumbing emergencies where I’ve wished I could have magically made the returning materials vanish by clicking my heels and saying ‘there’s no place like home’. No such luck – our effluvia may vanish from sight, but they remain an issue to be dealt with – and ultimately return to the environment. And the waterways.

“Because it went into a river,” says Australian National Water Commissioner Chris Davis speaking in the Sydney Morning Herald “people conveniently forget where it started and no one really seems to mind”

This mental dissociation of our water supplies from nature is not a new phenomenon – the brilliantly witty, if alcoholically challenged, W. C. Fields knew he was mining a rich vein of societal insecurity when he quipped: “I never drink water; fish fuck in it”

Mmmm...cool refreshing water. Wait a minute, has this had fish in it?

Mmmm…cool refreshing water. Wait a minute, has this had fish in it?

When I was growing up, the idea of buying a bottle with nothing in it but water would have been laughable – to be written off as a modernistic retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes, or an undergraduate performance art project attempting a subversively ironic comment on consumer society. Today, PET bottles of cool clear water are a ubiquitous element of our cultural landscape – from the supermarket to the multiplex, and all stops in between.

In 2008, Australians consumed approximately 600 million litres of bottled water, spending over $500 million for the privilege, and accounting for the use of an even million barrels of oil in the manufacture, storage, transport, and refrigeration of all those – for the most part disposable – bottles.

This displays something of a curious disconnection with circumstance in a country where clean healthy water supplies piped to the home are a government mandated right. Indeed, a substantial proportion of the bottled water industry in this country consists of multinational corporations bottling our municipal water supply and selling it back to us at a massive premium. Seriously, stand up and take a bow, Coke and Pepsi – your marketing genius at the very least should be applauded.

At least we aren’t alone in this fixation. Zong Qinghou, one of the richest men in the economic powerhouse that is modern China owes his fortune to bottled water. His brand name – ‘Wahaha’ – even sounds like the maniacal laugh of a Bond villain. In light of the debated environmental footprint of the industry, either the man has an admirable appreciation of dramatic irony, or he needs to seriously look at whoever handles his global brand management.

Even out of a heat sealed plastic bottle though, to pretend that what you are drinking is untouched by the complexities of leaking, pumping, squelching biology would be laughable were it not so pervasive a force.

The recycling of water has been brought close to home in public debate recently with the news that Western Australia will soon become the first state in the country to put post-human recycled water into our drinking water supplies, not haphazardly by gradual percolation and leakage, or indirectly through release into the oceans and rivers, but directly, deliberately, and after comprehensive physical and chemical processing to render it safe and potable.

Journalistically, the Murdoch-dominated national press has largely taken a negative editorial stance on this issue. Whenever recycled potable water stories come up in The Australian or The Sunday Times, the term consistently used to describe the water is ‘recycled sewage’ conjuring images of turbid brown water and sulfurous odours. The ‘yuck factor’.

Learning from recent public policy failures in this area in the eastern states, however, the Liberal government are short-circuiting the ability of the popular press to agitate against the policy (and, not coincidentally, engender debate and boost newspaper sales), ruling out public consultation and pushing ahead on the basis of drought-proofing the state. After the success of a three-year trial in which waste water was treated to Australian drinking water standards and injected into an isolated suburban aquifer without incident, the government is signing off on a plan to recharge Perth’s groundwater systems with up to 35 billion litres of treated sewage per year – enough to supply the current needs of around 140,000 households.

Such initiatives look set to become a core element of future water security plans around the nation in coming years, with the Australian Federal Government providing $20 million of funding to prime the pumps, as it were, of the Australian Water Recycling Centre of Excellence.

Underlying such strategies and the massive engineering feats they entail at the State level are the findings of the Western Australian Government’s ‘Water Forever’ report into long term sustainability of potable water. In the face of a trinity of declining rainfall, decreasing groundwater yields, and increasing population, this study forecast an annual deficit of 120 Gigalitres by 2030, blowing out to a massive 265 Gigalitres by 2060.

Looking at those figures, you either bury your head in the sand (and hope it’s the free-flowing, well sorted, highly permeable sand of a previously untapped aquifer), or you face up to the reality that the water we use so liberally actually has to come from somewhere – and if Premier Colin Barnett’s earlier and much slated vision (to call it a pipe dream is really too cheap a metaphorical shot to even bother with) of a canal to carry water down from the Kimberley region in the more hydraulically endowed north of the state is a non-starter, there are only so many other options.

Desalination? Highly energy intensive unfortunately – and what do we do with all the extremely saline brines produced? All that salt still has to go somewhere, after all. What’s that you say? The Perth Desalination plant uses green energy? Hmmm…only if you believe accounting can save the world. Although the Western Australia Water Corporation proudly trumpets electricity for the plant being generated by the Emu Downs Wind Farm in the state’s Midwest, the relationship is really only an indirect one of power use offsetting – with the Kwinana plant actually plugged directly into the State grid to guarantee base load supply. Kind of what you’d want for a critical piece of infrastructure, to be fair – but not the clean green closed circuit you might expect from Water Corporation press kits. More desalination would inevitably mean an increased load on the power infrastructure of the state already stressed by industrial and population growth forecasts.

What about the old standby of co-opting natural systems to supply our cities? Again, regrettably that well is already dry – with the state Economic Regulation Authority recognising that all divertable surface water resources in the Perth region had been tapped by 2004, and groundwater production by some estimates already exceeds long term recharge capacity.

So what are our options outside the planned water recycling scheme?

Curiously, the simplest solution – to my mind the obvious one – of reducing water use and increasing efficiency struggles to gain traction in this debate. This principle of moderation is, to give the Water Corporation their due, one of the planks in their vision of water security, but seems to resonate with no-one…possibly because it touches the hot button issue of asking us to as a society exert some self control and pull our heads in, instead of catering to rapacious consumer desire like an insecure step-parent trying to buy our affection ahead of a family court hearing.

Fundamentally Australia is not actually that short of water.

We just do stupid things with it.

The worrying shortfalls forecast in the ‘Water Forever’ report assume business as usual…with Australians using an average of 70,000 litres of water per person annually – the highest consumption of any nation on Earth. Hang on to that idea for a second and swirl it around the bowl one more time – we Australians, with a national psyche rooted in sunburnt desert landscapes and an inveterate fondness for trumpeting our credentials as occupants of the driest inhabited continent on Earth, piss away (literally and figuratively) more of this precious resource than anybody else on the planet.

It’s not too hard to see where a lot of that water goes. For anyone not familiar with the lovely city of Perth (for which, I should add, that annual consumption figure climbs to a jaw-dropping 106 kilolitres per person), the metropolitan area includes a lot more verdant green lawn and swimming pools than you might expect for a dry Mediterranean climate.

In essence, we still suffer the cultural hangover of trying to recreate an English idyll in a landscape singularly unsuited to it – and it would be career suicide for a politician of any stripe to suggest cutting back on any of the well watered sports fields that dot the suburbs.

Lawn sprinklers keeping Perth's verdant green municipal carpet healthy all year round - really the best use of our limited resources?

Lawn sprinklers keeping Perth’s verdant green municipal carpet healthy all year round – really the best use of our limited resources?

If we reduce this over-consumption to a more moderate level though – say the Dutch average of 55,000 litres per person – or better yet the French 40,000 – the problem goes away for the forseeable future. Okay, for anyone who’s ever been in the Paris metro when the wind is blowing the wrong direction, there are still some potential downsides to that scenario – but we’re not talking about converting to the lifestyle of Bedouin nomads here.

At the end of the day, there really is no such thing as a free lunch – even if, like a catwalk model going through a period of low self esteem, all you order is water. With a Malthusian resource ceiling looming, current trends of water consumption in Australia – profligate Western Australia in particular – clearly cannot continue into the future. All that remains is for us to decide which version of our medicine is the least bitter.

At a fundamental level the range of solutions to this resource ‘crisis’ are probably no different to those of any of the other maladies of over consumption afflicting our society in the 21st century. We can take the engineering pathway – working more overtime to pay for the diet pills and exercise machines we know we’ll never really use properly…or we can just collectively put down the cake fork and get off the couch.

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