During the height of the millennial drought, I was peripherally involved in one of the side skirmishes of the “Water Wars” playing out across rural and urban Australia. Some of my talks, teaching and writing1See for instance Gardening Australia with Josh Burn at Melliodora in 2007 and ‘Garden Agriculture: a revolution in water use efficiency’ (2005) focused on introducing water allocations for suburban residents instead of the selective restrictions that allowed spa baths but prohibited food growing. At the same time, the bigger battles were being waged over the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) controlling 70% of Australia’s irrigated agriculture.
With a couple of colleagues close to the frontlines I was vaguely aware of the massive human and other resources being expended to guide and justify the decisions under the regime of “administrative rationalism” that required the Plan to be guided by the best science. Retrospective evaluation by the South Australian Royal Commission showed that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was negligent in ignoring climate modelling of a drying climate in favour of using the 114 year historical record of river flows as a basis for the plan. After spending $13 billion dollars of public money, the public got a corrupt plan made law by the federal parliament.
Maybe my sense of this dysfunction at the top contributed to my own back-of-the-envelope plan for not only the Murray-Darling but the whole nation’s water resources. In some presentations I jokingly referred to how I would solve the national water crisis when I became dictator.
For me this tongue-in-cheek exercise illustrated Bill Mollison’s assertion that “while the problems of the world are remarkably complex, the solutions are remarkably simple” might be true, at least in some cases. On the other hand, my follow up point was that the rapid implementation of my plan under dictatorial powers would inevitably have both predictable and unpredictable consequences, capable of generating chaos in psycho-social, political, economic and ecological systems more intense than the grinding dysfunction of current notionally democratic governance systems.
With the wisdom of hindsight dissecting the dysfunction of the MDBP, I’m now putting “Dictator Dave’s National Water Plan” on the record.
In contrast to the MDBP, which managed to ignore the consensus climate modelling, my plan is predicated on my long-standing assumption of Energy Descent Futures2See for instance futurescenarios.org; for a more concise and updated essay see ‘Futures framework for RetroSuburbia: limits to growth, energy futures and energy descent scenarios’ at retrosuburbia.com that incorporate climate change, resources depletion and other critical limits to global growth economies articulated in the seminal Limits to Growth Report of 1972.3Meadows et al Limits to Growth Report (1972)
Agriculture uses 70% of Australia’s impounded and diverted water while residential use is about 12%, so agriculture, and land use more generally, is clearly the focus of my plan.
Much of agricultural use goes to exported products, which allows Australians in turn to buy imported widescreen televisions and cars. We could thus reduce the need to suck the country dry by being more frugal in our demands for imported products. Let’s assume about 50% of water is used in this way, and could be saved by changing our consumption patterns.
If the other 50% of agricultural use is for our Australian food supply, then changing our eating habits could have a much bigger impact on water demand than showering times and frequency.
Irrigated pastures and fodder crops for livestock consume 35% of Australia’s water, so eating less dairy and avoiding feedlot beef could have a huge impact on water use.4Grazing livestock on rainfed pasture and rangeland occupy the majority of the continent and if you include all the farm dams and bores supplying stock water it’s quite a lot. However the water in those small dams scattered across the country has many environmental benefits, including supporting native wildlife, so in my plan that doesn’t count as impounded and diverted water, while the majority of farm dam water (9% of total in Murray-Darling Basin) used for irrigation of crops does.
Changing to goat dairy could also make a big impact since goats are better adapted to unirrigated pastures and fodder.
Sugar cane uses an amazing 17% of Australia’s impounded and redirected water. We would be better off consuming a lot less sugar.
Rice grown in the semi-arid zone of the Murray-Darling Basin uses 11% of our irrigation water. Shifting rice growing the summer rainfall regions of northern NSW and Queensland could eliminate this demand and replace sugar cane.
Cotton uses 10% of our irrigation water. While we need food to be grown every year, Australians probably have enough clothes between us for the next decade at least, if the figures published in the War On Waste are any indication.
If Australians used their existing town, tank and storm water resources, as well as recycled greywater, to grow food not lawns, we could close down at least half of the remaining irrigated horticulture in rural areas by growing veggies, fruit and raising poultry for eggs and meat. The prime agricultural land freed up in this way could be returned to dryland staple grains and legumes, allowing a larger area of low rainfall marginal cropping land to be returned to permanent pasture and/or revegetation.
So when Dave is dictator, the National Water Plan will include the follow measures:
- Replace the 50% of Australian sugar production that uses the most irrigation water with dryland rice, after ending all water allocation to rice growing in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation District and taxing the hell out of sugar (as well as outright banning high fructose corn syrup), to encourage the sugar addicts to consume less, and to switch to honey from a more sustainable and beneficial industry that consumes very little water.
- Ban the export of powdered milk and eliminate all irrigation for dairy production, aiming to reduce cow dairy production by 75% and encouraging dryland goat dairy to increase enough for Australians to eat about 50% of the dairy they currently consume. 50% of the increase in goat dairy would be in peri-urban herds where the goats also replace herbicide for vegetation control (because Dictator Dave will have also banned glyphosate).
- Close down all beef feedlots, which will save water and also conserve grains not suitable for human consumption for the more efficient use of feeding free range poultry and pigs.
- Grazing of rainfed pastures and rangeland will continue to be the predominant land use but with policies to shift the balance to more harvesting of wild meats with fewer cows and sheep. Australia will continue to export surplus meat from these systems.
- With the cessation of cotton production in Australia, the plan will include scaling up a hemp growing industry to more efficiently make use of some of our best cropping soils for sustainable fibre, oil seed and pharmaceutical production while providing a disease break rotation from grains, legumes and oil seeds.
That’s the bare bones of the plan, which will save about 40% of Australia currently impounded water. This is roughly what some of the climate models suggest will be the reduction in available surface waters before 2050. Given that water allocations are currently unsustainable we might have to implement further savings.
For example, savings could be achieved through changes in behaviour away from wasteful habits such as showering every day and washing clothes excessively, which are currently encouraged by the reliable delivery of treated town water at pressure for not much more than $2/tonne. With more people working from home, the obsession with these activities might fade with the rise of neo-peasant living in retrosuburbia. To accelerate this natural transition, Dictator Dave might mandate the closure of water treatment plants so reticulated water might not be crystal clear for washing or suitable for drinking, but remains cheap and abundant to encourage garden farming. Rainwater tanks with simple first flush diverters can provide potable water, with filters where necessary for the microbiologically challenged and those addicted to whiter than white clothes.
Compost toilets managed by some eco version of the night cart service will progressively replace most flush toilets, saving shitloads of water and recycling critically important phosphates and other nutrients back to the land that feeds the people.
Of course lots of industrial water use, including in the power generation sector, will be gone with the closure of many coal power plants to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
At the same time eco technologies such as biochar, riparian rehydration, silvopasture and keyline adopted by farmers will act as partial alternatives to irrigation and as a hedge against further aridification of the continent while gradually increasing sustainable food production. This will feed the slowly growing population resulting from the acceptance of a fair share of global refugees. Along with a larger proportion of Aussies, these refugees will be mostly working the land rather than the office and the factory because when Dave is dictator, it will be simple and logical.
No it won’t – whatever happens, it’s going to be messy. The responses to Covid have been the great accelerators in the rise of disaster capitalism and command economies replacing market solutions. As the multiple interlocking crises of the Brown Tech future scenario continue to erode faith in democratic representative governance, command-and-control politics in some form will be what the public is likely to accept and favour. Even the most well intended and best efforts at command-and-control governance responding to multiple unfolding crises will have unintended consequences and collateral damage. And of course unrestrained power over people and land will always tend to corrupt and bring forth those aiming to game the system for private rather than public good. Such is life.
While this thought experiment is just that, I believe it is more constructive in thinking about our future use of water in Australia than the $13 billion and untold intellectual effort and angst that led to the MDBP.
Rather than big bold top-down responses to crises, permaculture ethics and design principles suggest a proliferation of diverse bottom-up responses as richly illustrated and fostered in RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future.
One of the spinoffs of that book was the essay Feeding RetroSuburbia; from the backyard to the bioregion written to help those engaged in garden farming see the other parts of the puzzle of a regenerative and resilient food system. Rather than imagining a top-down mandated change along the lines of Dictator Dave’s National Water Plan, I envisage a bioregional food system growing in the shadows of the globalised system. In this vision, the bioregional parallel system might be feeding 20% of the population of Melbourne and regional Victoria within 20 years.
My assumption is that the increasingly stressed centralised system will be propped up, with feeding the masses as one of the last remaining functions of command-and-control governments. Whether the parallel system grown from grassroots can replace the failing centralised system in another decade or so, and feed everyone without radical breakdown in society, is too difficult to forecast. I do see this pathway as much more achievable, realistic and benign than big bold and enforced top-down plans, whether inspired by permaculture, such as the Dictator Dave thought experiment, or the supercharged plans unfolding from the World Economic Forum and other venues of elite power.
Just maybe the small and slow solutions will prevail, just as in the fable about the tortoise and the hare. And even if they don’t, they will become the lifeboats and seeds for the regrowing of the more localised and re-ruralised communities that our descendants will live in, whether by design or disaster.