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Patrick Troy looks into water's future
Australia's urban water management is becoming ever more tightly trapped within a vicious circle. By withdrawing progressively larger volumes of water from the surfaces of the natural environment around our growing cities, authorities are progressively stressing the associated ecology. Meanwhile, urban rain goes begging - and worse: the flows that run off from the rain that falls on the cities are the "single most important" source of the pollution in our urban harbours, bays and rivers. And, again, meanwhile, most cities have also been long discharging lightly treated sewage into their oceans, the upshot of which is "increasing point sources of pollution in the near off-shore".
Not only does all this mean that our city utility managers are now facing a future where they will have progressively less room to move, the sorry picture is compounded by the fact that much of the nation's capital-intensive water infrastructure is nearing the end of its life.
Not unexpectedly, Troy finds that the ideology that currently pervades the management of our public infrastructure contains no satisfactory solutions to the looming crisis. Economic rationalism is a broad sword. It can suppress consumption, but is blind to time and space, and the management of our water is exactly a time and space problem. Economic rationalism is next to useless when it comes to the particular task of examining, anticipating and managing the future demand for water in the specific context of our cities; a task that may be - as it almost always has been with water infrastructure - sadly delayed, but which cannot be denied.
Suppressing consumption by increasing prices is, moreover, inequitable, allowing wealthy citizens to simply buy their way out of their responsibility for contributing to the resolution of the environmental problems their behaviour helps to create; a resolution upon which their good health also commonly depends.
Eschewing reliance upon what he calls "economic mechanisms", instead Troy pursues a decentralised vision of practical environmental solutions. The key is harvesting city rain. This rain is generally sufficient to meet Australia's annual current demand for urban water. The vicious circle that is enclosing the cities could be broken by capturing the rain in modern household tanks, which could be fitted with filtration devices that can now produce water of a higher quality than the existing reticulation systems.
Indeed, the widespread intervention of household tanks has the potential to create a virtuous management circle. The domestic harvesting of rainwater for household consumption would reduce demand from the present large-scale urban storages. It would also reduce sewerage flows by allowing for the installation of small-scale biological treatment plants, the development of which has now made it feasible to operate household or neighbourhood water supply and recycling systems. Importantly, harvesting the rainwater would also reduce the heavy pollution that follows from stormwater runoff, while also attacking the high costs of amplifying the existing drains to accommodate higher residential densities.
The introduction of Troy's sweeping change in direction would require the creation of new decentralised and fully integrated water supply, sewerage and drainage authorities, the development and regular updating of local water production, consumption, sewerage and drainage maps, and sufficient investment in research and development to realise the available harvesting, treatment and recycling technologies in our local urban contexts. In conjunction with the continuing centralised management of the safety and security of the city systems, the local management authorities would guard quality and design compliance, and costs would be attended by a small "environmental royalty" charged on the tank harvests.
Characteristically, Patrick Troy's argument is plainly sensible, wonderfully integrated and disarmingly detailed, embracing, as it also does, an allowance for incremental reform, provision for secure emergency services, and environmentally friendly changes to gardening, road design and urban development practices generally. Presumably the work that lies behind this article will form a central part of Troy's book on the politics and sociology of water, which a note at the end of the Dissent essay advises is forthcoming. It may be hoped that the book will also address at least two further questions that the article prompts.
Firstly, what are the implications of a decentralised direction in the context of the current worldwide pressure from transnational corporations to privatise water infrastructure? Would decentralisation pave the way for private interests to seize the balance of our public water facilities? On the one hand, decentralised planning and production would seem to offer more personal and community responsibility and control; on the other, it could imply both less public interest in the central facilities, and smaller and therefore more vulnerable local public means of production. As Humphrey McQueen writes in his new book, The Essence of Capitalism: The Origins of our Future (Sceptre, 2001), the fees that water infrastructure commands have earned the liquid the title of 'blue gold', positioning it alongside oil as black gold. We need to know the way in which decentralisation is likely to play out in terms of the present bid by a half a dozen or so giant conglomerates to buy up the world's water assets, a bid that is currently being examined by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Secondly, would decentralisation and localisation pose new risks to the equitable supply of clean drinking water? Troy notes that locally recycled water can be fit for domestic consumption, "although aesthetic objections to the use of recycled water for consumption might still be voiced". There is an immensity of meaning in the 'aesthetics' of water, not least because of the liquid's profoundly intimate relationship with human life and imagination. Many Australians can still recall a time when they only drank bottled water if they were abroad. Now that fresh, clean drinking water is increasingly being air-freighted around the world to pleasure the rich, how can we be confident that the idea of recycling water consumption will not be pressed into servicing private affluence at the cost of increasing public squalor and serious further deterioration in the life-experience of the poor?
Patrick Troy has travelled a long way towards solving the technical-environmental problems that the future holds for the management of Australia's urban waters, but we will have to wait to see whether his vision has also comprehended the risks associated with introducing such far-reaching changes in the context of our present political economy. In the meantime, the water pressure mounts.
Patrick Troy's article, "The management of water in Australian cities" appears in D!SSENT, Number 7, Summer 2001-2002, pp 28-32. Christopher Sheil is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of History at the University of New South Wales, a former senior executive in the NSW Cabinet Office, and the author of Water's Fall: Running the Risks with Economic Rationalism (Pluto Press, 2000). Cartoon by Bruce Petty, courtesy of D!SSENT. The Evatt Foundation is pleased to support D!SSENT, a magazine that offers serious analysis of public policy issues in plain and accessible language which is published three times a year on subscription and is sold nationally through newsagents and major bookshops. Visit the D!SSENT website (by just clicking on the magazine's title, or by going to: www.dissent.com.au) and take out an annual subscription for yourself or a friend.