With half of Queensland under water and dramaticimages of people being evacuated from semi-submerged houses and cattle swimming across flooded paddocks being beamed around the world, Tony Abbott, reliable as ever, has pledged to build more dams. Fortunately, Tony Abbott is not in a position to build dams, because the ink was barely dry on his media release before those more informed and better placed to talk about dams pointed out the canyon-like flaws in Tony’s proposal.
“I just think it’s a bit odd”, said Tony, “in a country with as many water issues that we’ve got that there have been virtually no dams built in the last two decades.”
This statement, of course, has nothing to do with floods and droughts – water issues, as he puts it, and everything to do with industry, construction and putting nature in its place.
Tony then went on to say, “They’re flood-mitigation devices; they’re a potential source of emissions-free baseload electricity; they’re an important adjunct to food security; they’re a source of environmental flows in dry times. Dams are a lot of important benefits to our community and for the last two decades, largely thanks to the Greens, we’ve had this dam phobia. It’s time we shook it off and I think the floods are an illustration of the sorts of issues that we can use dams to help.”
Ah, so this isn’t really about dams at all – it’s about the nasty Greens and the undue influence they have held over governments for the last 20 years. That bit about the influence will certainly be news to the Greens, but let’s take his other statements one by one:
Flood mitigation devices? Yes, they hold back water, that’s what dams do. One of the most powerful images of this flood has been that of the water surging over the Fairbairn Dam (pictured right) near Emerald in Central Queensland. Nothing was going to hold back that volume and force and Emerald was evacuated as the waters rose. The idea that the mere act of building dams across rivers will stop floods is simply wrong in every sense.
Emissions-free baseload electricity? Of course, here is Tony’s climate change strategy – build more dams and get more hydro electricity. The problem here is that dams on their own do not produce electricity: that requires full-scale, monumental construction works of turbines, power stations, pipelines and the like. I’m sure the graziers in Central Queensland would be more than happy to give their land to Tony for that. There’s also the teensy problem that the rivers currently flooding only carry sufficient volume of water to generate electricity when they are flooding – about once every 50 years or so.
An important adjunct to food security? I think we’ll call this the ‘Barnaby clause’, as I’m guessing he’s talking about irrigation and not fishing. Irrigation currently accounts for 75% of Australia’s water use and, like electricity, it only works when the rivers are flowing. Most of the time, as we know, they are not. Also, like it or not, it’s the periodic flooding that is essential for our food security. Valuable silt is washed down and replenishes the soil of the floodplains. If people have built towns on floodplains, they will, from time to time, get very wet. Living on floodplains is a double-edged sword – you get the fertile river soil and the floods.
Environmental flow in dry times? In dry times dams hold back water and the rivers downstream dry up. Dams are the cause of lost environmental flow, not the solution. Just ask the towns and communities on the Snowy River downstream from the Jindabyne Dam who have been fighting for decades to increase their environmental flow from 2% of the original to 28%.
Tony’s real statement should have read: Queensland is full of voters, many of whom are now looking at massive damage to home and livelihood and if I’m quick I can score a few points against the Greens and shore up the Queensland vote for the next 10 years.
We know that droughts in Australia are typically broken by floods. This is the natural cyclical process and building dams does not make it rain during drought and do not stop floods when the drought breaks. Dams are essential for urban water storage and regulation of flow where that is required. Abbott’s statement is simply creating unsubstantiated reasons for dams that have no ecological or practical basis. He has, unsurprisingly, turned the floods into a political issue. Meanwhile, the federal and Queensland governments are dealing with the situation on the ground and getting relief through to those affected.
Greens leader, Bob Brown, who knows a thing or two about dams, having cut his political teeth in the campaign to save the Franklin River from damming in the 1980s, released this statement, while the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Ruchira Talukdar wrote this article for The Punch. I also highly recommend Patrick McCully’s excellent book on the impact of dams worldwide, Silenced Rivers: the ecology and politics of large dams (Zed Books, London, 2001).
Up to date news on the Queensland floods here, including where you can donate to the relief appeal.