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This opinion piece was contributed by Warwick Lorenz, Managing Director of Australian Pump Industries.

Australia is currently affected by serious drought, which in some parts of the country is now in its fourth year. Australia is a strong agricultural producer with over three million square miles of territory, inhabited by over 24 million people. Sixty per cent of that population live in four cities and are largely disconnected to the inland, or as Australians call it, the outback.

While Australia’s National Farmers’ Federation has an ambitious vision for agriculture to become a $100 billion industry by 2030, their plans do not seem to involve government, industry or even the farmers themselves in any kind of major improvement of the program to drought-proof the country.

Key advocates for that program are high profile Australians like billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, a major player in the international iron ore business and large-scale beef cattle farmer. Forrest is regarded as being a bit of a dreamer even though he has built a 40 billion dollar iron ore empire.  

“Everything I know starts with a dream and the dream I want to share with you is an Australia which does not fear lack of water,” he told the annual ABARES (Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences) Outlook conference in Canberra in March 2015.

Forrest has plans to harvest 5000 gigalitres of water from underground aquifers and rivers to drought proof existing agricultural areas. The plan is to open up thousands of hectares of land for new agricultural projects, something that is sorely needed in Australia!

Andrew Forrest’s plan is based on his childhood having grown up on a cattle station in the Pilbara in north-west Australia.

“I grew up in the bush and the pastoral station in the Pilbara was in the north-west isolated outback,” Mr Forrest said.  

“I saw the agony and I felt the pain it caused my parents, such anguish as they bore personal witness to the ravaging effects of the drought whilst the vegetation around us wilted.

“It was not until I saw the wildlife, the birds, the kangaroos, emus, goannas and eventually the sheep and cattle all meet, by their thousands, their dry and dusty and painful death. It is those emotions that I can never forget.”

I can relate to Forrest’s pain as I have seen family members suffer on the east coast of Australia, where two good years can be followed by four or even five bad years, with the result of what should be beautiful and productive farmland turning into dust bowls.

I took my campaign to drought proof Australia to the former Deputy Prime Minister of the country, Barnaby Joyce. Mr Joyce was not only Deputy Prime Minister at the time (May 2017) but was also Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Water.  

Under his leadership, new dams were planned and 39 feasibility studies funded to $60,000,000 to access the economic viability of water infrastructure projects. These include dams, pipelines and managed aquifer recharge projects. The studies included the feasibility of building a number of new dams in Queensland and increasing the size of Lake Argyle in Western Australia by raising the spillway.

The government committed around $250,000,000 to co-fund the construction of five infrastructure projects to secure new and affordable water for regional economic development including new and expanded agriculture. These commitments included the Rookwood Dam in New South Wales, Dungowan Dam, and a number of other key projects valued at millions of dollars.

The tragedy is that in Australia it seems that the federal government can have the best of intentions, but without the cooperation of state governments, normally involved in sharing the funding of these big projects, they can’t get going.

An added problem is the perceived issue of environmental departments in state governments being preoccupied with staying in power, and that means votes from the major population centres, the four key capital cities in Australia.

The cost of this paralysis is being reflected every day in headlines as we move into an even deeper drought situation. Headlines like ‘Drought affected producers need support’ tell us about well-meaning government departments spending millions of dollars to compensate for the tragedy of farmland being lost.

We read about capital works investment programs to help build and revitalise regions but these don’t involve water! We also read about pensions being paid to farmers in the form of ‘Farm Household Allowances’ for income support.

There is support relief from council or government rates, education support for children and even grandstanding over securing three-year funding for mental health support services. Nobody seems to want to talk about taking any long-term action for the drought proofing of the country.  

Unfortunately, we have to contrast this with massive investments being undertaken in other countries. I see the Three Gorges Dam in China and the multitude of other dams built in China in recent years as a great example of what can be done.

Ethiopia will continue the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the River Nile despite Egypt’s disapproval. Meanwhile, Kenya is building the Thwake Dam, which will be the largest single project in the country and the region. It will provide a total of 134 million litres of water daily and be the largest in East Africa, with 1.3 million people from the lower eastern region of Kenya benefitting.

Meanwhile, the Australian drought kicks in and it seems nobody is prepared to really think about the long-term future.

We even have some politicians who proudly claim credit for bringing about Drought Community Programs to stimulate drought ravaged communities in rural Australia worth up to 35 million dollars, but, in my opinion, not a penny of it went on drought prevention.

Meanwhile, projects like the New South Wales Clarence Copen Dam Scheme are ignored in spite of the massive change this would make to hundreds of thousands of hectares of currently unreliable land.

As one final shot on this subject, it should be noted that the Australian National University in Canberra recently prepared a study in which it identified 22,000 potential sites across Australia for pumped hydro energy storage. The maps showing locations of potential storage sites and a report on the findings are readily available, however, at this stage that program seems to be going nowhere.

Australia is ready for a major leap forward but somebody has to think more than three years ahead and fund the work to be done. To quote Andrew Forrest, “Everything I know starts with a dream”.

I just wish he would share it with more Australians. Water is life, water is wealth, dams are banks!

Warwick Lorenz is a passionate advocate for the drought proofing of Australia. His position is that we need to be thinking 20, 30 or even 50 years ahead when Australia will have a population of 70 million and will have to sustain it by diversification of inland cities, which will need water.

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