Much of Regional Australia is located far away from the ocean, meaning that water desalination is not available.

Where would the additional water supply needed to cope with substantially larger populations come from?

Water scarcity remains the inconvenient truth! 

RELATED ARTICLE:  To view a pictorial tour of drought ridden Western NSW!

DEVASTATING REALITY OF DROUGHT IN NSW … https://caanhousinginequalitywithaussieslockedout.wordpress.com/2019/05/12/devastating-reality-of-drought-in-nsw-despite-having-a-go-are-they-getting-a-go/?fbclid=IwAR1aO1JPf__-2LwTcgvCoNtnL8nfbwWpwVPoYO_o3P91IitsdGokfan12sg


Water scarcity exposes ‘migrants to the bush’ fantasy


By Leith van Onselen


Over the past year or so, I have ridiculed the push by Coalition politicians towards decentralisation, noting that this is a pipe dream based on the settlement pattern of new migrants, which have overwhelmingly chosen to flood the major cities:

Another issue conveniently ignored by pushers of this policy is that many of Australia’s regions are suffering extreme drought – a situation that is likely to worsen as climate change bites. A case in point is regional NSW, where water storages are plummeting:


Burrendong Dam: six percent capacity on April 2019

PHOTO: Without significant rainfall, Burrendong Dam could run out of water within 12 months. (Supplied: Robyn Brien)


Major industries including mines, abattoirs and even Dubbo’s zoo are being warned their water allocations will be restricted within weeks, as the water crisis in western New South Wales worsens.

The Macquarie Valley’s water storage, Burrendong Dam, is currently at 6 per cent and falling with record low inflows.

Without significant rainfall, the dam is expected to be empty within 12 months.

Located near Wellington in the NSW central west, Burrendong Dam has a capacity of more than 1,600,000 megalitres and supplies water to communities from Wellington to Cobar…

WaterNSW spokesman Tony Webber said… “We are seeing a worst case scenario in terms of inflows. In recent times, the inflows have been well beneath the chronically low levels that we experienced in some of the worst droughts we have had.”

It’s a similar situation in regional QLD:

…nearly two-thirds of the state remains officially in drought.

Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said on Wednesday morning he had accepted the recommendations of local drought committees to drought declare five additional shires and extend or issue part drought declarations in four others…

It means that 65.2 per cent of Queensland is officially still in drought at the end of the summer wet season.

Much of Regional Australia is located far away from the ocean, meaning that water desalination is not available.

Therefore, if the Coalition’s ‘migrants to the bush’ strategy was successful, where would the additional water supply needed to cope with substantially larger populations come from?

Water scarcity remains the inconvenient truth the mass immigration spruikers continue to ignore.




SOURCE:  https://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2019/05/water-scarcity-exposes-migrants-bush-fantasy/







WHERE is the WATER coming from to quench the thirst of 8, 9, 10 MILLION living in GREATER SYDNEY? 

ARE Sydneysiders prepared to pay $6000 Annual Water Rates to pump Desal Plants? 

The Cordeaux Dam provides water to the Macarthur and Illawarra regions, the Wollondilly Shire, and metropolitan Sydney  Wikipedia


Feb 25, 2019 – Wollondilly Advertiser … suggests there is no strategy nor capacity to provide the essential drinking water and waste water services. … Cataract Dam is now at only 26.7 per cent capacity and Cordeaux is at 35.5 per cent.  AND the Macarthur and Wollondilly Shire is where much of the new housing is happening!








 modelling by Infrastructure Australia in 2017 projected that household water bills would more than quadruple in real terms because of population growth and climate change, rising from $1,226 in 2017 to $6,000 in 2067.




Sydney desal plant restart ahead of schedule as dam levels continue slide



The restart of Sydney’s desalination plant is proceeding faster than expected, helping to slow the drawdown of the city’s reservoirs amid the ongoing drought.

The $2.3 billion plantwhich resumed operations in January, has been supplying water to Sydney’s network for about six weeks. Production is now between 300 and 400 million litres per week.

Cordeaux Dam is about 40 per cent full, while Sydney's reservoirs are now below 55 per cent capacity - and falling.
Cordeaux Dam is about 40 per cent full, while Sydney’s reservoirs are now below 55 per cent capacity – and falling. CREDIT:NICK MOIR

“In line with our operating licence, [the plant] has until September to reach its maximum capacity of producing 250 million litres per day of water – or about 15 per cent of Sydney’s drinking water requirements,” Keith Davies, the facility’s chief executive, said.

“However, we expect to reach full capacity by August, which is also ahead of schedule.”


Even with the added water, Sydney’s catchment levels are continuing to decline at the rate of about half a percentage point a week.

On Friday, storages were about 54.6 per cent full, or the lowest since 2011.

The decline has come despite the city’s total water usage during the first four months of 2019 dropping about 8 per cent from a year earlier to 192.9 billion litres.

“We’ve had extremely low volumes of water entering our rivers and storages,” a Sydney Water spokesman said.

“The last two years – since April 2017 – have seen some of the lowest inflows into our catchment dams since the early 1940s.”

Hot, dry and windy

Membranes at the Sydney Desalination Plant: restart going better than expected.
Membranes at the Sydney Desalination Plant: restart going better than expected.


Stuart Khan, a professor at the University of NSW’s School of Civil & Environmental Engineering, said a lack of rain over the catchments had been exacerbated by increased evaporation rates from warmer-than-usual temperatures and stronger winds.

Both Sydney and NSW as a whole had their hottest January-April periods on record, the Bureau of Meteorology said. Evaporation levels during the summer for NSW were highest since 1982-83.

Professor Khan said authorities are planning for level 1 water restrictions to kick in from about August – even with the desal plant operating at full tilt – assuming below-average rainfall continues and dam levels drop below 50 per cent full.

According to the 2017 Metropolitan Water Plan, the voluntary Water Wise Rules will become mandatory at that point. These include restricting the watering of gardens by hoses fitted with a trigger nozzle to before 10am and after 4pm.

Preliminary planning for the expansion of the desal plant will also begin – with construction beginning should dam levels sink to 35 per cent full.

A key challenge as Sydney’s population continues to grow and residents have installed many of the water-saving devices – such as low-flow shower heads and trigger hoses – in response to previous public campaigns.

Per capita water use is about 200 litres a day, down from 250 before the Millennium Drought, Sydney Water says.

“[Authorities] don’t think we have the capacity to have those big water savings this time,” Professor Khan said. “We’re not as wasteful as we used to be.”

Sydney Water stepped up its advertising on Friday as part of its latest campaign to educate the public about drought after a survey by the agency found 47 per cent of residents did not realise the city was in drought.

“One of the surprising results of the research was the fact that more than a quarter – 26 per cent – of inner-city dwellers don’t believe the drought will impact them,” Melinda Pavey, the NSW Water Minister, said.

“We’re experiencing some of the driest conditions on record and while we had some good rain in some areas during March, overall our dam levels continue to drop,” she said.

“That’s why it’s never been more important for all of the Greater Sydney, Blue Mountains and Illawarra communities to come together to help save water.”



WATER scarcity is the ‘Elephant in the Room’  … dam levels across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are hitting decade lows!



-Greater Sydney’s 11 dams were at a combined 55% capacity on Sunday 5 May 2019

-how will these three Cities cope with double their populations in 50 years? 

BY whacking up Desal Plants?

-desal plants cost $Billions and have environmental impacts 

.consume vast quantities of electricity 

.costly to maintain; even if not supplying desalinated water

.all residents pay higher rates 






map of Australia red and orange across most of east and south east indicating very much below average to lowest 1% soil moisture

Photo:  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-12/state-of-the-drought-is-not-good/10876716

Water storages plunging as Australia’s population balloons


By Leith van Onselen

With Australia’s population ballooning on the back of mass immigration, and projected to add around 360,000 people a year until 2066The Economist last week warned that Australia likely to experience a “severe water shortage” by mid-century.


Daily Telegraph:  Sydney Water Says NSW Drought will likely trigger water restrictions

Warragamba Dam levels on April 1, 2019. The dam is at 56.5 per cent capacity, compared to 75.5 per cent the same time last year. Picture: Tim Hunter


We won’t need to wait until mid-century, however, with dam levels across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane already hitting decade lows. From The Guardian:

Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane have seen water levels hit near-decade lows after a hot summer and dry autumn…

In Sydney, inflows are at their lowest since 1940. Greater Sydney’s 11 dams were at a combined 55% capacity on Sunday – compared to 73% at the same time last year.

Sydney activated its desalination plant in January, when dam levels dropped below 60%, but levels continue to drop 0.4% a week

In Melbourne, dam levels were at 51% on Monday, compared with 59% last year and 61% the year before.

Last month, Melbourne Water warned that storage “hasn’t been this low since April 2011”…

In Queensland, the south-east was also reaching a 10-year low. Neil Brennan, the chief executive of Seqwater, said in April that water levels were at their lowest since February 2010. Brisbane’s dams were at 70% capacity on Sunday, down from 82% last year…

On Monday, Peter Hatfield from Sydney Water told radio station 2GB that “we just haven’t had enough rainfall in the past couple of years.”

Water scarcity is the elephant in the room of the population debate, and an issue that Australia’s mass immigration ‘Big Australia’ boosters and policy makers conveniently ignore.

How will these three cities cope as their populations roughly double in size over the next 50 years?

Last year, Dr Jonathan Sobels – a senior research fellow at the University of South Australia and the author of a key 2010 report prepared for the Department of Immigration entitled Long-term physical implications of net overseas migration: Australia in 2050 – gave a brilliant incisive interview on ABC’s Radio National that among other things warned that Australia’s water security is being placed at risk from endless mass immigration:

…we are coming up towards physical limitations within our physical, built and natural environments that will lead to compromises in the quality of our life…

Not only are the dams not filling, but the ground water supplies are not filling.

*The only option you have open to you is water efficiency use and whacking up desal plants. But if your population keeps increasing at the rates we have seen in recent times, you won’t be able to afford putting up billion dollar desal plants, which also have their environmental impacts…

Of course, desalination plants are environmentally destructive and hideously expensive, with costs borne by the incumbent population, as noted by The Conversation:

The desalination plants were expensive to build, consume vast quantities of electricity and are very expensive to run. They remain costly to maintain, even if they do not supply desalinated water. All residents pay higher water rates as a result of their existence.

Indeed, modelling by Infrastructure Australia in 2017 projected that household water bills would more than quadruple in real terms because of population growth and climate change, rising from $1,226 in 2017 to $6,000 in 2067.

The report also warned that “the impact of these changes on household affordability could be substantial… and could lead to significant hardship”:

As noted in the 2010 report prepared for the Department of Immigration, entitled Long-term physical implications of net overseas migration: Australia in 2050:

Decreased urban water supply is a significant environmental constraint exacerbated by higher levels of NOM.

Modelling shows the vulnerability of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to deficits in water supply, on a NOM strategy of 260,000 pa.: a view strongly supported by empirical review of State Government reports…

Only NOM levels of 50,000 pa or less result in Melbourne and Sydney maintaining a small surplus of net surface supply over demand on average out to 2050, assuming current climate conditions persist.

Potential options to alleviate water stress at high NOM levels over the longer term may be hard to find.

Clearly, Australia’s mass immigration ‘Big Australia’ policy is a key threat to Australia’s water security. So why exacerbate the problem in the first place, when it can be ameliorated by simply returning Australia’s immigration intake back toward the historical average of 70,000 people a year?

Why aren’t more so-called experts and policy makers acknowledging these most basic of facts?




SOURCE:  https://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2019/05/water-storages-plunging-australias-population-balloons/






Climate change and population growth are making the world’s water woes more urgent

And they are exacerbated by bad management, says Simon Long

As it scours the universe for signs of extraterrestrial life, nasa has a motto-cum-mission-statement: “Follow the water”. About 70% of the human body is made up of water, it says, and 70% of Earth’s surface is covered in the stuff. “Water creates an environment that sustains and nurtures plants, animals and humans, making Earth a perfect match for life in general.”

If water is a proxy for life itself, it is perhaps not surprising that worries about the health and availability of supplies here on Earth can take on apocalyptic overtones. A scorching, arid future marked by a fierce, bloody struggle for a few drops of water is a standard theme of dystopian fiction and film-making. This report will examine how close such nightmares are to reality. It will look at the state of the world’s freshwater and at the increasing demands on it, and consider the ways they can be met.

The first thing to recognise is that the 70% figure is largely irrelevant to the debate. The sea it represents is salty, accounting for 97.5% of all the water on Earth. A further 1.75% is frozen, at the poles, in glaciers or in permafrost. So the world has to rely on just 0.75% of the planet’s available water, almost all of which is subterranean groundwater, though it is from the 0.3% on the surface that it draws 59% of its needs (see chart). This report will argue that misuse of water may indeed lead to a series of catastrophes. But the means to dodge them are already known, and new technologies are constantly evolving to help.

The fundamental problems, however, are neither the resource itself, since water is likely to remain abundant enough even for a more populous Earth, nor technical. They are managerial, or, more precisely, how to withstand economic, cultural and political pressures to mismanage water. In the harsh words of Asit Biswas, a water expert at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore: “Lack of money, scarcity, and so on—they’re all excuses. The problem everywhere is bad management.” Or, as Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, put it in an entirely different context: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”

Even governments not facing the vexatious business of winning over voters struggle to institute sensible water policies. People regard access to water as a fundamental human right and hence as something that should be available on the basis of need, rather than the ability or willingness to pay. That makes it hard to charge a proper price for it, which in turn encourages profligate use. Even those who would be willing to curb their consumption for the benefit of generations to come may not be aware how much they are using. They consume it mostly not through drinking or washing, but through the water that has gone into the food they eat and the clothes they wear.

In any event, water seems an infinitely renewable resource. Used in a bath, it can be reused—to water plants, for example. Rainwater can be “harvested” or may seep into the ground to replenish an aquifer. Water that evaporates from lakes, swimming pools and reservoirs, or “transpires” in the photosynthetic process whereby water passes into the leaves of plants, joins the atmosphere and will eventually be recycled. Over 60% of the rain and snow that falls is returned in this way through “evapotranspiration”. But, like water that has run into the sea, it cannot be used again until nature has recycled it.

The present-day world provides ample examples of environmental devastation that serve as a warning that water usage has its natural limits. Boats are stranded aground in the middle of nowhere, amid the vanished waters of what was once the world’s fourth-largest saline lake, the Aral Sea, between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Last year Cape Town in South Africa averted only narrowly the unwanted prize for being the first of the world’s big cities to run out of water. By the time rain finally broke a three-year drought, water levels in the reservoirs supplying the city had fallen to below 20%, and officials were discussing the feasibility of towing an iceberg from Antarctica to provide meltwater to drink. Four years earlier, it had been São Paulo in Brazil that had teetered on the brink, with reservoirs reduced to 5% of capacity.

Even the sober assessment of the un’s latest annual world “water development report” smacks of a kind of desperation. Already, it notes, more than a quarter of humanity—1.9bn people, with 73% of them in Asia—live in areas where water is potentially severely scarce (up, other studies suggest, from 240m, or 14% of the world’s population, a century ago). The number facing shortages almost doubles if you count those at risk at least one month a year. Meanwhile, global water use is six times greater than it was a century ago—and is expected to increase by another 20-50% by 2050. The volume of water used—about 4,600 cubic kilometres a year—is already near the maximum that can be sustained without supplies shrinking dangerously. A third of the world’s biggest groundwater systems are in danger of drying out. So the numbers living under severe water stress are expected to climb to as many as 3.2bn by 2050, or 5.7bn taking seasonal variation into account. And they will not just be in poor countries (see map). Australia, Italy, Spain and even America will endure severe water shortage.

Three main factors will drive the continued growth in demand: population, prosperity and climate change. In 2050 the number of people in the world is expected to increase to between 9.4bn and 10.2bn, from just under 8bn now. Most of the increase will come in parts of the world, in Africa and Asia, that are already short of water. People will be leading more water-intensive lifestyles and move into cities, many of them in places at great risk of water shortage.

The biggest uncertainty in projecting future demand lies in estimating how much will be needed for agriculture, which currently accounts for about 70% of water withdrawals, mostly for irrigation. Some forecast a big increase in demand, as food production has to rise to feed a growing population. Others, such as the oecd, have predicted a small decline in water use in irrigation thanks to a reduction in wastage and a rise in productivity.

Still less predictable is the impact of climate change. The scientific consensus is that, in the words of Henk Ovink, the Dutch government’s special envoy on water matters, the process will be “like a giant magnifying glass, making all our challenges more extreme”. Wet places will become wetter and dry places drier. The world’s water endowment is already highly unequal—just nine countries account for 60% of all available fresh supplies. China and India have about 36% of the world’s people, but only about 11% of its freshwater. Climate change will exacerbate this inequity. And rainfall, such as the South Asian monsoons, on which much of subcontinental economic life hinges, will become more erratic.

The most dramatic short-term effects have been the increasing number of extreme weather events. Over the past two decades these have affected on average about 300m people every year. Last September’s almost simultaneous storms—Hurricane Florence in the east of America, and super-Typhoon Mangkhut in East Asia—were linked by scientists to rising levels of greenhouse gases, warming oceans and changing climate. Measurements of sea temperatures down to 2,000 metres show a steady rise since the 1950s, to new records. Climate models have long forecast that warmer oceans will lead to more intense, longer-lasting storms. The rising temperatures are accompanied by rising sea levels—at a rate of about 3mm a year—as the warmer water expands, and as ice at both poles melts. Higher seas bring storm surges that can reach farther inland. And warmer air temperatures mean the atmosphere can hold more moisture that eventually falls as precipitation.

In the long run, however, the bigger problem from climate change will not be too much water but too little. As a report by the World Bank puts it: “The impacts of water scarcity and drought may be even greater, causing long-term harm in ways that are poorly understood and inadequately documented.” Of course, a lot depends on how much the climate changes and how fast.

Last October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report comparing the consequences of restraining global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels as opposed to 2°C. It concluded “with medium confidence” that, with a 2°C rise, an additional 8% of the world’s population in 2000 will be exposed to new or aggravated water scarcity by 2050. With a 1.5°C rise, that falls to 4%. There would be considerable regional variation. For example, it cited research showing that, in the Mediterranean region, a 1.5°C rise in temperatures would lead to statistically insignificant changes in the mean annual flow in its rivers and streams. A 2°C rise, however, would bring decreases of 10-30%.

Decreasing streamflow is a worldwide phenomenon. Some of it results from declining rainfall. But much is the direct result of human intervention—the damming and diversion of rivers for flood control, water-storage and irrigation. And, where rivers still flow, the water in them is often unsafe to drink or even bathe in. In surveying the Earth, surface water is an obvious place to start. As throughout this report, examples will be drawn worldwide, but especially from two countries with very contrasting experiences: Israel, which is sometimes held up as a model of sensible water management; and India, which almost never is.

This article appeared in the Special report section of the print edition under the headline “Thirsty planet”

‘Special report Water

Reuse this content

About The Economist
→ Rivers and lakes: Poisoned and over-exploited, many rivers are in a parlous state



HOW many times do we need to be reminded?

Australia is essentially a dry place
-Australia is not in a position to believe ‘growth’ and more particularly ‘population growth’ are forever more sustainable 

IT is all about water

-have they deliberately forgotten because they don’t agree with the evidence?

-have they forgotten because nothing is going to stand in the way of making money, irrespective of the cost to the environment?

WHEN is enough enough?
WHEN is Sydney big enough?

WHEN is quantity seen for what it is?  Are the sacrifices quality of life and sustainability?

WILL those who ought to know better ever realise we only have one Earth?





Water restrictions loom for Sydney as drought continues to impact on dam levels

5 MAY 2019

Water restrictions will be introduced in Sydney if drought conditions don’t ease in the next three months, according a report on dwindling dam levels in New South Wales.

Key points:

  • Dam levels are dropping by about 11 billion litres of water each week
  • If levels fall below 50 per cent capacity, stage-one water restrictions will be introduced
  • A Sydney Water report found 62 per cent of Sydney residents were unaware of current drought conditions


The latest research from Sydney Water reveals levels across 11 dams in Greater Sydney are dropping faster than they have in decades.

Since April 2017, the levels have plummeted from 96 per cent combined capacity to just over 55 per cent and continue to fall by 0.4 per cent every week.

If levels fall below 50 per cent, it will trigger stage-one water restrictions for Sydney households — which bans hosing hard surfaces and limits watering gardens to times outside 10am to 4pm.

Sydney Water’s executive drought lead, Catherine Port, said Sydneysiders were using 11 billion litres of water a week and called for homes and businesses to reduce their usage levels.

“Over the past 18 months we have seen some of the lowest inflows into catchment dams since before 1940,” she said.

“Our water storages have fallen significantly over the last two years — it’s time for all of us to look at on how we can save water.”

Ms Port also said it was a misconception the drought was a uniquely rural or regional problem.

Sydney’s desalination plant at Kurnell was turned on in January, after dam levels dipped below 60 per cent capacity.

The latest Sydney Water report found 62 per cent of Sydney residents were unaware of current drought conditions.

It also found over a quarter of inner-city residents, who are surrounded by green parks and gardens didn’t think the drought would impact them.

“Sydney has had some good intermittent rain which has kept Sydney lovely and green and so it’s understandable people don’t realise that Sydney is in drought,” Ms Port said.

The data from the report suggested heavy rainfall in March contributed to a lack of awareness about true drought conditions.



However, Ms Port said the state was suffering from sustained low levels of rainfall and above average temperatures.

“We would need significant rainfall to counteract the two years of below average rainfall that we’ve had,” she said.

April has been a particularly dry month and the outlook from the Bureau of Meteorology is for average temperatures and ongoing dry conditions.”

NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey said Water Rise Rules — which recommend reducing shower time and fixing tap leaks — applied to everyone in Sydney, the Blue Mountains and Illawarra.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said 99 per cent of the state was in drought and “has been for some time”.

“It is now impacting our dam levels which is why we kicked off the desal plant and we’re looking at all those issues,” she said.


SOURCE:  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-05/water-restrictions-loom-sydney-dam-levels-drop-in-drought/11081008







Barnaby Joyce said building the Bradfield Scheme to redirect water is the one thing Australia can do to reduce the effects of drought. Is he correct?

original post 23 April 2019

The claim

Wild weather, floods and drought — and, of course, climate change — have been a key focus of public, academic and political debate in the past year.

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce tweeted on March 3: “Here in Victoria. Bushfires and drought. We must be a nation of vision. The one thing we can do to drive a solution to reduce the effects of drought is build the Bradfield Scheme.”

Barnaby Joyce


Here in Victoria. Bushfires and drought. We must be a nation of vision. The one thing we can do to drive a solution to reduce the effects of drought is build the Bradfield Scheme.

608 people are talking about this

An ambitious plan from the 1930s, the Bradfield Scheme was aimed at diverting floodwaters from the north of the country inland.

And March’s tweet was not the first time Mr Joyce had mentioned the scheme.

Earlier in the year, in response to the devastating floods in Queensland and one of the driest years on record, he told Sky News: “We could start the process of the Bradfield Scheme”.

“The solution is moving from where we have too much to where not enough, from where there is an abundance to where there is paucity. This is something we could do.

“If that water was to come down, we would have irrigation through western Queensland towns, through western NSW.

“You’d be able to fill up the Menindee Lakes and deal with your problems basically at the lower lakes.”

The NSW Nationals also brought attention to the scheme in February, with a promise to put “$25 million on the table” to investigate building a modern version of the scheme.

“The cyclones, the perennial wet season in Queensland, we can utilise this excess precipitation for the people in NSW,” they said in a Facebook post.

“It just makes sense. We can bring the water to where we need it.”

So, is the Bradfield Scheme the solution to easing the effect of drought and floods in northern Australia?

RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

The verdict

Verdict: pie in the sky.

The viability of the Bradfield Scheme as an irrigation plan has been dismissed many times by experts over the past 80 years.

The scheme has been rebutted on scientific, engineering and economic grounds.

Statutory authorities and government departments, as well as independent researchers, have identified “miscalculations”, “tremendous costs”, “overestimations” and scientific inaccuracies contained in the proposed scheme.

They rejected its promise of moderating the climate and of delivering increased rainfall to Australia’s arid centre.

Experts told Fact Check that engineering solutions and alternative models for diverting water inland could be found, but the costs were likely prohibitive, with no guaranteed agricultural benefits.

“[It] wouldn’t deliver; wouldn’t repay the cost,” said Professor Richard Kingsford, director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of NSW.

“A mad idea for both economic and ecological reasons.”

What is the Bradfield Scheme?

In 1938, John Job Crew (JJC) Bradfield, engineer and principal designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, proposed an ambitious water infrastructure plan that became known as the Bradfield Scheme.

According to a 1947 report by William Nimmo, the chief engineer of the Stanley River Works Board, Bradfield’s 10-page typed plan had been submitted to the office of then-Queensland Premier William Forgan Smith.

It was titled: “Queensland: The Conservation and Utilization of Her Water Resources”.

Studying rainfall patterns, water resources and the impact of drought, Bradfield envisaged a complex hydraulic system using dams, pumps and pipes to divert floodwaters from the coastal rivers of north Queensland inland across the Great Dividing Range.

However, Bradfield’s plan was rejected by the government due to a lack of research and the anticipated high cost of the proposal.

Despite this, Bradfield reportedly continued to push his proposal through the media and in public lectures until his death in 1943.

In 1941, he had expanded his proposal to include extra dams and a larger irrigation area suitable for irrigated crops such as maize, rice and cotton.

Bradfield’s revamped scheme — titled Watering Inland Australia — was published in the Australian illustrated magazine Walkabout in June of that year, and in Rydge’s Business Journal the following October.

Again, the scheme was rejected.

Would it improve the climate?

The Bradfield Scheme had predicted that by increasing irrigation in the dry centre of Australia, the country’s farmland would be expanded, creating jobs, increasing food exports and drawing people to land that was sparsely inhabited.

“Far-reaching schemes are required to ameliorate the climate and rejuvenate inland Australia,” Bradfield wrote in Watering Inland Australia.

“Australia eventually should easily accommodate 90 million people, 30 per square mile.

“A rejuvenated inland, creating employment and settling a population in comfortable circumstances would be one part in such a long-range policy.”

A key point in Bradfield’s theory was that, by supplying water and maintaining permanent water surfaces in the continent’s centre — like a full Lake Eyre in northern South Australia — the centre’s climate would improve with increased rainfall and lowering of temperatures.

He based this suggestion partly on prior research done by meteorologist Edwin T Quayle, who investigated increased annual rainfall around rivers, lakes and irrigated cultivations in western Victoria and South Australia.

In 1945, a committee of four meteorologists established by the Queensland government investigated the expanded Bradfield Scheme, under the direction of H N Warren, Director of Meteorological Services.

The committee included Quayle, whose research Bradfield had drawn upon.

Their findings — which were endorsed by all but Quayle — were presented to the federal parliament, and concluded that Bradfield’s increased rainfall suggestion “could not be substantiated”.

It said the potential climatic improvement was “overestimated”.

Earlier this century, another expert group reviewed the scheme, with its findings published in the Australian Meteorological Magazine in 2004.

The paper, co-authored by scientists from the Bureau of Meteorology Research Institute and CSIRO, and with the benefit of longer term data and sophisticated climate models, also considered whether flooding inland Australia could lead to climate amelioration.

To test Bradfield’s theory, the team used examples of international research on the significance of water surfaces to climate amelioration, the results of the earlier reviews of the scheme, and evaporation rates in the area.

They also used large-scale models developed by the CSIRO and the University of Melbourne, namely C-AM (CSIRO conformal cubic atmospheric model) and MUGCM (Melbourne University atmospheric general circulation model).

The experts concluded that diverting floodwaters to the centre of the country and maintaining a full Lake Eyre would change the climate only marginally, if at all.

Dr Neville Nicholls, co-author of the paper and currently emeritus professor at Monash University, told Fact Check that even if large evaporation could be avoided, there would not be substantial changes to the climate.

“We found no evidence that the scheme would help avoid droughts by increasing inland rainfall or decreasing temperature, except very close to the water body,” he said.

Would it be worth the cost?

Another major point of criticism of the Bradfield Scheme was the estimated costs of implementing it.

Bradfield had put the cost of his revised scheme in 1941 at “up to £40 million”, which translates to approximately $3.2 billion in 2018 prices.

Experts said this was likely a gross underestimation.

In 1947, hydraulic engineer William Nimmo’s critical review demonstrated that Bradfield had overestimated the “water capability supply” — the quantity of floodwater available for diversion — by 250 per cent, while grossly underestimating the plan’s cost.

According to Nimmo’s calculations, the cost of delivering water to the Flinders River alone would be almost $6.9 billion (in 2018 dollars).

The cost of taking it over the mountains to potential irrigators would be “enormous”.

letter from the prime minister’s office to the Farmers and Settlers’ Association of NSW that was signed by the minister for post-war reconstruction, John Dedman, referred to both the unfavourable findings of Nimmo’s report and the meteorologists’ earlier review of the scheme.

Nimmo had also found that, in places, ground elevation had been miscalculated and some water diversions would therefore require electricity to be achieved.

This would further drive up running costs.

Experts questioned whether the price of the water making it to the end of the system would be affordable for irrigators.

At the time, according to reports, Nimmo had calculated that the cost to irrigators would be 25 to 30 times the cost of water being supplied to Victorian and New South Wales farms by the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Another study carried out in 1982 by Cameron McNamara, consulting engineers for the Queensland Government, also identified “underestimated costs” and “engineering miscalculations” of the original Bradfield Scheme.

That study also questioned the suitability of the land to be irrigated for certain crops.

Around the same time, others continued to champion a scheme of this nature.

In late 1981, for example, a Queensland Northern Peninsula Area (NPA) Water Resources sub-committee — comprising Dr Eric Heidecker, Roy Stainkey and Bob Katter Jnr — introduced the Revised Bradfield Scheme for specific diversions.

However, this iteration of Bradfield’s idea also failed to gain traction.

University of NSW Professor Richard Kingsford told Fact Check that while the cost of implementing the Bradfield Scheme today was estimated to be in the billions of dollars, the main consideration was whether the resultant productivity gains would be enough to justify the cost of diverting the water.

“[It] wouldn’t deliver; wouldn’t repay the cost,” he said.

Dr Daniel Connell, a research fellow at the Australian National University, agreed that the scheme would only be possible with “massive government subsidies which far exceed the value of what would be produced”.

“It’s much cheaper to desalinate water, the cost of which now makes that option feasible for a wealthy city, but still far above what is needed to make agriculture financially viable,” he said.

Experts told Fact Check that alternative models and schemes could be easier — and cheaper — to implement than Bradfield’s, but the extent of any potential agricultural productivity was likely to be fiercely contested.

The environmental impact of diverting floodwater

Professor Kingsford told Fact Check that beyond the recent devastating events in Queensland, floods in general had “a significant role to play in the ecosystem”.

“In the Murray-Darling, we have large areas that are dying with not enough water because, essentially, we have taken the floods away,” he said.

“You take all that water away and you put it somewhere else, you get a collapse of those ecosystems, which has happened in the Nile Delta, it’s happening in the Yangtze [in China] at the moment.”

Diverting floodwaters from their natural paths could cause wide movement of invasive species, collapse marine and estuary ecosystems, and even cause economic damage to coastal communities, according to experts.

He also pointed out that the Snowy Mountains Scheme was like a mini-Bradfield in that it had diverted water successfully to irrigators, although at the same time “it has devastated the [Snowy] river”.

Still making waves, even after decades of rejection

The Bradfield Scheme has continued to get a nod from politicians of varying political hue, including former Queensland premier Peter Beattie (2007) and independent federal MP Bob Katter (2018).

On April 11, One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson kicked off her 2019 Federal Election campaign with a media release that promised: “We will build the hybrid Bradfield Water Scheme and drought-proof much of the country, while solving the issue of water for the Murray Darling.”

Professor Albert Van Dijk, of the Australian National University, told Fact Check that scientists used the term “pipe dream” for such optimistic but outdated ideas.

“Grandiose ideas like these have historically resurfaced every time that elections are held during a drought,” he noted.

“They have been thoroughly debunked as both uneconomical and hugely damaging. There’s really no point debating them again.”

ANU Emeritus Professor of History Tim Griffiths agreed that, historically, the “reviving” of the Bradfield Scheme coincided with droughts, floods and times of crisis in general.

Professors Van Dijk and Kingsford both agreed that there was no easy fix for drought.

“We have to essentially be able to live with the droughts that come regularly to our continent,” Professor Kingsford said.

“The problem is they are getting stronger and more intense as a result of climate change.”

In recent years, federal and state governments have commissioned various studies into Australia’s infrastructure and water security.

Fact Check was unable to find any direct reference to the Bradfield Scheme among them.

The Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO were unable to provide any more recent research on John Bradfield’s ambitious infrastructure plan.

Principal researcher: Christina Arampatzi



Barnaby Joyce, Twitter, March 3, 2019

Barnaby Joyce, Sky News Opinion Interview, February 2, 2019

NSW Nationals, Facebook Post, February 25, 2019

The Bradfield Scheme: Comments by W.H.R Nimmo (1947), Queensland Government Library Services

Watering Inland Australia (collection: just add water), National Archives of Australia

Watering Inland Australia , by J.J.C Bradfield (1941), National Archives of Australia

Watering Inland Australia, by J.J.C Bradfield (1941), Queensland Government Services

The Bradfield Scheme, critical reviews and discussions, National Archives of Australia

The rainfall response to permanent inland water in Australia, Australian Meteorological Magazine, March 2004

Irrigation vision ‘still article of faith’, The Canberra Times, Trove, January 27, 1983

Barry Jones MP, House of Representatives, December 8, 1983

The Revised Bradfield Scheme (a proposition), Queensland Parliament, November, 1981

Premier Peter Beattie, ABC News Article, February 19, 2007

Bob Katter, House of Representatives, June 27, 2018

Pauline Hanson, Media Release, April 11, 2019


SOURCE:  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-24/fact-check-bradfield-scheme-barnaby-joyce-drought/11029284





Early Environmentalists and the Battle Against Sewers in Sydney



Early Environmentalists and the Battle Against Sewers in Sydney

Sharon Beder

Citation: Sharon Beder, Early Environmentalists and the Battle Against Sewers in Sydney, Royal Australian Historical Society Journal, vol. 76, no. 1, June 1990, pp27-44.This is a final version submitted for publication.
Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.
Sharon Beder’s Other Publications


Sewage pollution has reached crisis proportions in Sydney and for small towns throughout New South Wales, the introduction of a sewerage system is no longer such an attractive proposition. The alternatives put forward by groups like Friends of the Earth, which involve the use of decentralised on-site sewage treatment units placed in people’s back yards, are gaining popularity over the conventional method of transportating sewage in pipes to a centralised treatment plant which discharges into the town’s main waterway or the ocean. And the come-back of backyard sewage treatment is happening for the same reasons that sewers were opposed in the nineteenth century: because it is perceived that sewers lead to water pollution and waste resources.

The use of flush toilets and water to transport wastes was an old idea dating back as far as 2800 BC to the Minoans and also the Chalcolithics.[1] Despite the antiquity of such systems, referred to later as ‘water carriage’ systems, they were relatively new in nineteenth century Britain and were considered to be a modern, progressive method of dealing with wastes. Sanitary reform was virtually synonymous with sewer construction and Britain provided the model for Australia.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century water-carriage methods were challenged by those who preferred dry conservancy methods of dealing with the human wastes. The movement against water-carriage gained much of its impetus from community dissatisfaction with the gross environmental pollution which early sewer systems had been responsible for.

The first city sewers in Sydney were constructed in the 1850s and discharged raw sewage directly into the Harbour at Fort Macquarie (now Bennelong Point, the site of the Opera House). By 1875 there were sewage outlets at five different points in the Harbour and each was causing a nuisance. (see figure 1) A committee appointed by the Board to examine the outlets found that at Rushcutters’ Bay an extensive and stinking mud flat had formed which was exposed at low tide. At Woolloomooloo Bay a large bank had formed and sewage floated on the surface of the salt water, oscillating back and forth with the movement of the tides. At Fort Macquarie a ‘considerable bank’ had formed and certain winds blew effluvia over ‘a considerable area of the northern part of the city.’ The water flowing from the Tank Stream into Sydney Cove was inky in colour, ‘apparently putrescent, and floated on the surface of the Bay’ for a considerable distance. Finally at Darling Harbour, the committee described accumulating banks of ‘filthy and putrid mud’.[2]

The government was lobbied to clean up the mess throughout the 1870s. A petition signed by 3,800 people complained that the existing system of sewerage:

has resulted in depositing all the filth of the city in the harbour, rendering all business occupations upon its shores disgustingly offensive, largely increasing the sickness of the citizens, and silting up year by year navigable water to a large extent. [3]

The petitioners complained that the state of the harbour was well known overseas and was ‘discouraging immigration and hindering trade’. Owners of waterside properties were especially disadvantaged by having the ‘excreta and offscouring of a hundred thousand people’ cast upon them. ‘The sewer evil’ had been caused by the government and should be cleaned up by the government.[4]Complaints had also been received from the Imperial naval authorities about the unhealthiness of the anchorage-grounds. Early in 1875 typhoid fever had broken out on board a moored ‘man-of-war’ ship and they attributed it to noxious gases coming from the sewer outlet at Fort Macquarie.[5]

In 1877 the Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board recommended that the city sewage be intercepted and diverted. They proposed that the north draining sewage be piped to Bondi and discharged into the sea at Ben Buckler Point and that the south draining sewage including that of Surry Hills, Redfern and Newtown be piped to a sewage farm, either on the lower part of Shea’s Creek (now Alexandria Canal) near Botany Bay or on Webb’s Grant on the Southern edge of Botany Bay.[6]


This decision prompted public debate over the merits of water-carriage technology which was as fierce in Sydney as anywhere in the world. In a paper which was read before the Engineering Association of New South Wales in 1884 Gustave Fischer, a local civil engineer, compared the feelings on the issue to those of religious faith:

An out-and-out water-carriage advocate would go to the stake in support of his views, while the advocates of the different systems are equally bigoted in their own way…This excessive orthodoxy…tends to make men narrow-minded and bigoted, and incapable of taking a broad and impartial view. [7]

The debate was not confined to engineers or professionals however. The newspapers regularly published editorials and letters to the editor arguing the advantages and disadvantages of water-carriage schemes and dry conservancy schemes. The issue was covered almost every day in the Herald in March 1880.The alternatives to water-carriage technology which were put forward at the time did not include an improved cesspit system. Cesspits were not considered as a serious alternative because they were closely identified with insanitary conditions and disease. Although regulations were established to ensure that they were more adequately constructed, appropriately sited and regularly cleansed, the idea of continuing with a cesspit system was out of the question. Reforms had been called for and politically, drastic changes were required. No-one trusted the cesspit system any longer.

The dry conservancy systems which were put forward as serious alternatives included dry closets and pan systems. The dry closet (often referred to as the earth closet), named in contrast to the water-closet or flush toilet, did not use water to wash away the excrement but rather was a means of collecting the solid excrement in a container. (see figure 2) The addition of earth, ashes or charcoal after each visit to the closet deodorised the excrement which was periodically collected at night by cart and taken to a processing plant where it was dried out for use as manure.

The pan system consisted of having a pan under the toilet seat which was collected by night-men at regular intervals and replaced with an empty one. The pan was able to take urine as well as faeces and did not require the use of earth for deodorising. One version of the pan system was described at an 1889 meeting of the Engineering Association of N.S.W. by E.W.Cracknell.[8] A collection pan would be fitted to the toilet seat forming an air-tight joint which would prevent the escape of noxious gases. The full pans would be carted to a place where the pans would be emptied, washed out mechanically and returned with a measure of deodorant. The contents would be treated and made into cakes of manure. The NSW Poudrette and Ammonia Company, he claimed, already produced manure in this way at a profit.[9]

The main advantage put forward for all dry conservancy systems was their ability to utilise the waste as fertiliser. There was an element of the population in Sydney, as in Britain, that found the idea of utilising the sewage to be an attractive one. Such utilisation was already practiced informally in many parts of the world. It had been the hope of some of the early sanitary reformers that the sewage collected in sewers could be utilised on sewage farms. Edwin Chadwick, the renowned British sanitary reformer, had observed that sewage in Edinburgh was in much demand by the farmers and he persistently advocated the utilisation of sewage. At this time the Herald warned that ‘We shall not always be able to rob the soil, and give it nothing in return’.[10]

Dry conservancy adherents wanted to see human wastes being utilised as fertiliser but they argued that by mixing water with sewage, as occurred in water-carriage systems, the ‘constituent parts’ were spoiled.[11] Moreover, they argued, the use of water-carriage technology limited the area over which fertilizer could be used whereas dry conservancy methods allowed the manufacture of poudrette cakes which could be transported where required. Dry conservancy ensured that ‘the whole agricultural value of the excrement’ was retained and that the resulting manure was in a form in which it could be stored and transported easily. Dry conservancy methods were also conservative of water, even if sewers were used for other household wastes, because water would not be required for toilet flushing.[12] This was no minor consideration in Sydney which had a history of inadequate water supply.

The Sanitary Reform League, originally named the League for the Prevention of Pollution of Air and Water, was formed in Sydney in 1880 to press for alternatives to the Sewage and Health Board scheme of piping the sewage to the sea at Bondi. Many of the League’s members including their founder, Sir James Martin, the NSW Chief Justice, favoured dry conservancy methods and were prominent in pushing the case for dry conservancy. They criticised water-carriage as a technology that was not only wasteful but also detrimental to the environment and public health. Martin, in a series of letters published in 1880 in the Sydney Morning Herald under the heading ‘The Pestilence That Walketh in Darkness’, criticised the proposed scheme of sewerage because of the air and water pollution it would cause.[13] Air pollution was a particularly damning accusation since it was believed that ‘miasmas’ were responsible for many of the life-threatening diseases around at that time.

Sewer gas was a big problem in the nineteenth century when knowledge of how to trap the gas and prevent its return back into homes and city streets was scarce and workmanship in sewer construction often cheap and shoddy. Because of this at least one town in England, Manchester, converted from water-carriage to ‘the apparently safer and more effective dry conservancy method.’[14] A letter writer to the Herald argued:

A well sewered town may be described as supplied with a system of subterranean retorts, so arranged that the fluids in passing give off the largest volume of gases, which are carefully collected, and then by means of chimney pipes (for house drains serve admirably that purpose), conducted into the very heart of the dwellings.[15]

In many parts of the world early sewers had been built to carry off stormwater drainage and when they were converted to take sewage they did not cope very well. They were often large diameter (big enough for a person to walk through) brick construction which meant that flows were slow and sometimes stagnant. They were frequently obstructed by large objects or a build up of solids, and faulty joints permitted a substantial amount of subsoil leakage.In Sydney it was found in 1875 that of 5,400 water closets supplied by mains water, 4,500 had a direct connection between the toilet pan and the water pipe supplying flushing water so that when the water supply was cut off, as it frequently was, toilet waste could be sucked back into the water mains. The Sewage and Health Board noted:

The certain consequence of this most unusual arrangement is, that the water supplied to the inhabitants for household purposes is polluted with matter which some high authorities consider too offensive to be admitted even to the public sewers.[16]

The other big problem associated with water-carriage technology was the nuisance generally created at the point of discharge. Because of cost constraints and a certain measure of ignorance, and particularly because water carriage meant that there was a substantial liquid component to dispose of, most early sewers were discharged into the nearest watercourse. This rapidly led to the fouling of that watercourse which was generally quite close to the town and often the source of water supply for that town or one downstream. In Sydney it was the Harbour which was polluted and this was considered to be a public health threat because of the ‘miasmas’ which were coming off the harbour waters and shores.The pollution from sewr gases and untreated discharges therefore sullied the reputation of water-carriage systems and a letter to the Herald warned:

what a pity then, if youthful blooming Australian cities were to begrime themselves with European folly in the shape of sewage by water carriage with their inevitable melancholy train of cholera, typhus, and exhaustion of the soil.[17]

Dry conservancy methods did not have such a good image either. They were inevitably associated with the old cesspit system. Water-carriage at least removed the source of the problem from the home, quickly and efficiently. It was thought that if the sewage was allowed any time to putrefy or decompose it would give rise to ‘miasmas’. Therefore if the sewage was allowed to sit around waiting for collection for the purposes of utilisation it would only cause the very problems which sanitary reform was supposed to solve. The need to remove excreta ‘as speedily as possible’ was readily accepted by most experts at the time[18] and was used by the Sydney sewage and Health Board to discredit dry conservancy methods:

Such plans, moreover, all violate one of the most important of sanitary laws, which is that all refuse matters which are liable to become injurious to health should be removed instantly and be dealt with afterwards. With all these plans it is an obvious advantage on the score of economy to keep the refuse about the premises as long as possible.[19]


The relative merits of the various schemes being proposed were difficult to evaluate because they were all fairly new and therefore experimental. One Sydney engineer complained that almost all books and pamphlets on the subject were biased, producing ‘the most hopelessly confusing discrepancies in all values and quantities.’[20] The confusion was not only because of bias but also because there was no agreed upon criterion for such an evaluation. Evaluation policies develop as a field of technology matures. When there is no agreement about competing technologies, or even the primary objectives of such technologies, as was the case with water-carriage and dry conservancy technologies, then agreement about standards and criteria of efficacy cannot be reached and the relative worth of each technology cannot be decided on the basis of ‘efficacy’ alone.There were places in Australia and overseas that were using the earth-closet system to some degree but these examples were used by people on both sides of the debate to prove the success and the failure of such a scheme. It was claimed, for example, that earth closets had been used successfully in India,[21] New Jersey, Paris and Stockholm and also Balmain[22] and unsuccessfully in Balmain, Manly, Melbourne and Brisbane.[23]

Often the criticisms on both sides were based on the worst representative cases of each others schemes; dry-closets that were shared by too many people; night-soil collection that was not properly supervised or regulated; poorly constructed sewerage schemes. For example a Sydney engineer advocating water-carriage sewers, J.B. Henson, admitted that the results of many sewerage systems had been unsatisfactory but he argued, these were designed by people who did not understand sanitary principles. The Herald argued:

It is not fair to compare the principle of water carriage, when badly worked out with that of the earth-closet system, carried out under imaginary, and in our case unattainable conditions. [24]

The debate should also be considered in the context of crisis. The tendency not to implement new systems of technology in the public sector until a crisis makes it no longer possible to put off the inevitable reforms means that such decisions are made when there is little time or flexibility for pioneering uncertain alternatives.The relative economics of the various schemes was another hotly debated issue. The dry conservationists argued that their schemes were more economical because of the value of the manure which would be sold, the savings in water and the lesser treatment that the remaining sewage would require. The value of the manure was a particularly indeterminate matter, and there was little agreement either on its efficacy in improving farm yields or on the price that it would fetch. Moreover the price that it could be sold for at the time did not reflect the long-term value to the soil. In the relatively young colony of N.S.W. the land had not yet been overworked and deprived of many of its nutrients and fertilisers were not as much in demand then as later. The cost of artificial fertilisers to the farmers was not considered to be a cost that should be attributed to water-carriage systems. The cost of transporting the sewage or poudrette to the farmer, however, was included in the costs of dry conservancy methods and this was one of the key factors in depriving the manure of any value. [25]

On the other hand water-carriage proponents argued that because dry conservancy methods did not deal with the large quantities of liquid household wastes, sewer systems would still have to be built and therefore the cost of dry conservancy methods were always additional to the cost of a sewerage system. This argument was made at a time when it was supposed that a combined system of drainage and sewage pipes would suffice for a city.[26] Later it was found that separate systems were required and it is uncertain how this consideration may have influenced the argument.

The operating costs of sewers discharging raw sewage into waterways were definitely lower than those of pan and dry closet systems because of the labour involved in the latter, especially when the labour required to enrich the manure and transporting it to farm land were considered. Moreover, sewerage systems were paid for on a completely different basis from cesspit, pan and dry closet systems which were paid for individually. Sewerage systems were paid for by the municipality or city and the capital cost was spread over a number of years through bond issues and loans.

However, the pan system was used in Sydney suburbs for many years, some until quite recently, as a cheaper, ‘temporary’ alternative to sewers. The very substantial cost of sewerage schemes made it difficult to argue for them on the basis of cost savings. However, an extensive network of sewers had been built before these debates came to the fore and the authorities baulked at starting all over and especially since this would have meant admitting that earlier decisions had been wrong as well as necessitated the scrapping of infrastructure that had required a large capital investment.

Earlier decisions had in fact set in place the beginnings of a technological system which was set to expand and grow. Such a system, as described by Thomas Hughes in his work on electricity generation,[27] encompasses not only physical equipment but also organisations, professional allegiances, legislative artifacts and scientific components. Such a system develops a momentum that is a powerful conservative force ensuring that development takes place in certain directions that were consolidated early in the system’s formation. By the 1870s and 1880s the Sydney sewerage system had accumulated some organisational and financial momentum which made it difficult for dry conservationists to alter its direction.

Another, perhaps more pressing, reason for the triumph of sewers over closets and pans lies in the opportunities they offered in terms of planning and control.


The Sydney Sewage and Health Board argued that Dry Closets were unsuitable for large towns because it was practically impossible to secure proper management of the earth-closets and this was necessary to prevent the closet becoming ‘a filthy and dangerous nuisance’.[28] Other management problems included getting people to apply the dry earth or ashes in sufficient quantity and detail to their excrement. A text book used in Sydney argued that ‘decent people’ managed their dry closets so that they were clean and inoffensive but ‘the lower classes of people cannot be allowed to have anything whatever to do with their own sanitary arrangements: everything must be managed for them.’[29]The Herald claimed that the danger with earth closets arose from the ‘ignorance, the recklessness, or the neglect of the people’ which could only be fixed with generations of public education, not just public organisation and regulation.[30] Dry closet enthusiasts admitted that the earth system failed in some places because ‘of a want of ordinary skill or an absence of efficient supervision such as would cause any other scheme to fail.’[31]And indeed proper management was also a problem with water closets when they were first introduced:

The ordinary water-closet is obviously unsuited for careless and wantonly mischievous people. The pans get broken, the traps choked up, the water is left running on continually from the tap, or the tap is broken and leaks wastefully; in frosty weather there is no water, and the consequence is that the closets become filthy and stinking.[32]

These problems, which were so readily blamed on the carelessness of the poor, arose because poor families were forced to share both earth and water closets with several other families and because of a lack of education about their use. An 1885 British survey found that 90% of houses inspected had broken or unflushable water closets, and five years later it was found that of 3000 houses inspected only 1% did not have plumbing or draining defects.[33]Despite the problems with water closets, they were being installed by the affluent before water-carriage disposal systems were even available. As the most modern of conveniences they were regarded as a more desirable device. They were relatively simple and automatic to operate and they removed the offensive matter from sight and from inside the home immediately. Water-carriage systems offered more potential for control and were therefore more attractive to the authorities in Sydney and also in many other cities around the world. The visible signs of dirt and disease would be removed from the city streets once and for all and this was an important step in cleaning up and ordering the city environment.

Although the actual toilet might remain a private responsibility and therefore be subject to abuse, the automatic nature of the flush toilet removed the need for individual decision making about when and how to remove sewage from the home[34] and the collection, carriage and disposal was necessarily a centralised, government controlled activity. To achieve the same degree of control with dry closets, the Sydney Morning Herald argued, it would be necessary for delivery and collection to be by ‘a process of domiciliary visitation by men armed with authority to see that this portion of the domestic arrangements of every house was properly attended to. The people would live under the visitation and supervision of an army of scavengers.’[35]

Water-carriage systems, as advocated by sanitary reformers and government authorities, required an integrated system of underground pipes that were planned, engineered and coordinated with reference to a larger, city-wide plan.[36] Political boundaries could not fragment a sewerage scheme, rather local councils were forced to give authority to more centralised government bodies in the realm of waste disposal once water-carriage systems were adopted. Water-carriage, with its scale economies, capital intensiveness and need for central administration ‘was an important factor in facilitating governmental integration.’[37]

The widespread belief that progress ensued from technological change and modernisation, also linked water-carriage technology to urban progress. A writer for the Quarterley Review in England argued:

Tube-drainage is therefore cheaper than cesspool-drainage, for the same reason, and in the same degree, that steam-woven calico is cheaper than hand-made lace. The filth and the finery are both costly, because they both absorb human toil; the cleanliness and the calico are alike economical, because they are alike products of steam-power.[38]

Sewers, despite their ancient heritage were seen to be more scientific than dry conservancy systems which seemed in turn to be somewhat primitive. Florence Nightingale observed in an 1870 Indian Sanitary Report that:

The true key to sanitary progress in cities is, water supply and sewerage. No city can be purified sufficiently by mere hand-labour in fetching and carrying. As civilization has advanced, people have always enlisted natural forces or machinery to supplant hand-labour, as being much less costly and greatly more efficient.[39]

The progressive image of sewerage systems and their very real effect in cleaning up cities had a significant effect on the development of a city, especially where it was in competition with other cities for population and investment. The impact on health, although clear in other cities, was not so marked in Sydney until after 1880 if one considers the death rate (see figure 3). But it was generally recognised that connection to a sewerage system increased real estate values and it has been argued that businessmen in some places considered sewerage works and water supply as ‘business investments in the projection of a favourable urban image.’[40]


The image of water-carriage technology as scientific and progressive was fostered by engineers whose professional image was thereby enhanced. The debate over methods of sewage collection was not confined to engineers but was readily taken up by doctors and lawyers, military men, architects and non-professional members of the public.Water-carriage was almost universally endorsed by government officials, local councils and by the various professional groups in Sydney. The Royal Society of N.S.W. resuscitated its sanitary section in 1886 and in papers given by Trevor Jones, the City Engineer, J. Ashburton Thompson, M.D, Chief Medical Inspector, John Smail, M.Inst.C.E of the Government Sewerage Department and other doctors and engineers water-carriage sewerage systems were discussed with the assumption that they were the only solution to the problem.

The Sanitary Science and Hygiene Section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science also received papers on matters concerning sewage disposal. These papers were usually given by medical men and engineers, including government engineers and university professors, who favoured the water- carriage sewerage system.

Obviously engineers did not have a monopoly of control over sanitary decisions at this stage and a person who was trained in almost any field could make their name as a sanitary expert merely by studying the issue carefully and writing about it. Engineers were however closely associated with large-scale public works, the construction of tunnels and the laying of pipes, and overseas engineers were carving out a profession for themselves in the area of sanitation. Sewers had for some time been considered to be an engineering domain.

The reform measures pushed by sanitary reformers in the nineteenth century were largely technological and the development of new technologies associated with water supply and the water-carriage of sewage offered the opportunity for a new professional group to form which claimed to have specialised knowledge in the field. Attempts were made to exclude non-engineers from the field and establish sanitary engineering as a profession distinct from other professions and associated trades. The base for sanitary engineering was civil engineering to which a knowledge of physical and natural sciences was added.[41]

At the same time medical professionals in the public health area were carving out their own area of expertise. With the changing ideas about disease causation at the end of the nineteenth century physicians tried to exclude those outside the medical profession from the field of public health and to change the emphasis from collective community susceptibility to disease to personal and individual cure of disease with attention being given to specific agents of disease.[42] Engineers, on the other hand, retained the idea of the importance of environmental sanitation to health whilst it lent importance to their work.

Environmental sanitation fitted well with the engineering perspective which attempted to impose order on the natural environment, find technological fixes for social problems [43]and tended to view the urban environment in terms of a series of problems to be solved. The engineering priority of finding the least cost solutions, and not being swayed from that by other lesser considerations, also caused them to support the no-nonsense water-carriage system over other systems that attached some non monetary value to manure. An engineering text put it quite simply ‘The all-convincing argument with any but the sentimentalist is that, while there may be manurial value in sewage, no commercially profitable method of utilizing it has been found.’[44]

The problems associated with poorly conceived and constructed sewer systems, especially the problems of seepage and sewer gas, were used by engineers to argue for more expertise to be employed with regard to sewerage systems. Water and sewerage systems, as lifelines for the city, were so important, they argued, that only professional experts should be trusted to build and administer truly comprehensive schemes of sewerage.[45]

Because water-carriage technology needed to be implemented systematically to ensure effective functioning rather than in the piecemeal or ad-hoc way that dry conservancy methods allowed, it was particularly compatible with engineering ideals since it required planning, engineering expertise and centralised management. Water-carriage systems entailed large-scale public works and large capital outlays and the engineers’ association with public works, as well as their ability to minimise costs and to prioritise economic considerations, was an asset under the circumstances. Engineer-dominated permanent bureaucracies were needed to undertake the planning, construction and maintenance of water and sewerage systems. Such bureaucracies promised greater efficiency and provided the model for other types of public works.[46]

Whilst many books written by acknowledged sanitary experts in the nineteenth century devoted much space to the debate between dry conservancy methods and water-carriage systems, the texts written by engineers and for engineers were notably lacking in attention given to the debate. Such well-used texts as Latham’s massive volume on Sanitary Engineering barely mention the alternatives to sewers except to dismiss them in a line or two.[47] An important exception is perhaps Colonel Waring who although a member of various engineering associations was originally trained as an agricultural scientist and probably placed a higher priority on utilisation of manure than most engineers.[48]

Government authorities were also dismissive of dry conservancy methods. An 1887 report was typical saying that ‘At the best, the so-called dry systems are but inferior substitutes for water-carriage, which, if efficiently constructed throughout, is the cleanest and most convenient of all.’[49]


The fight between advocates of water-carriage technology and supporters of dry conservancy technologies was an uneven one from the start. The government and the engineers who advised them generally favoured water-carriage systems because they could be controlled more easily and necessitated a centralised government bureaucracy staffed by experts. Sewers were automatic and took responsibility away from individual householders and landlords and private carters, whom, it was felt could not be trusted. Dry closets especially, depended on proper management in the home as well as regular collection and responsible disposal. Sewers removed the cause of trouble quickly and quietly from under peoples’ noses.And whilst the government could achieve sanitary reform aims, engineers saw the opportunity to establish themselves as experts in a new field of sanitary engineering and to increase their role in city management. Very few engineers participated in the newspaper debate; since this was a matter for experts, public opinion was not of much significance. Advocates of the alternative schemes, though often professional people, doctors and lawyers usually, were nonetheless outsiders since the liaison between engineers and city councils was forged early when the first sewerage systems had been built in the face of almost no opposition.

Opposition to water-carriage technology was basically value based. Opponents’ central concerns were to do with pollution and conservation of resources, but these concerns were not really addressed. Debate was often focussed on technical issues of economics and efficacy. These issues could not be resolved because there were no standard criteria or test of what it meant for a system to be ‘working’ or effective.

People were encouraged to perceive water-closets as being clean and sewers as being the mark of progress and civilisation. The question of what to do with the sewage once it had reached its destination and the problem of subsequent pollution at the point of discharge were considered by the authorities and the engineers to be a separate and less important question and were not allowed to confuse the issue of how best to collect and remove the sewage. These problems were dealt with as they arose but the dependence of water-carriage technology on waterways for disposal has left a legacy of water pollution problems.

It is perhaps ironic that, although water-carriage technology won the day and became almost universally considered to be the superior solution to sewage removal, sewerage systems were often slow to be implemented because of their high costs and various dry conservancy methods and individualised household treatment systems (septic tanks etc.) were introduced, and have been maintained in Sydney, even until the present day. Whilst research and development has been aimed at improving sewerage systems and centralised sewage treatment, until recently, little work has been done on improving household collection and treatment systems because of their supposed temporary nature. The latest developments in decentralised sewage treatment units are not well known and just as dry conservancy methods suffered from the association with cesspits in the nineteenth century, modern on-site treatment units today suffer from the association with the very rudimentary technologies such as septic tanks that are still around from the nineteenth century.

Endnotes[1] Reginald Reynolds, Cleanliness and Godliness, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1943, pp13-20.

[2] Report of the No 7 Committee Appointed by the Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board, 1875.

[3] NSW Legislative Assembly, Votes and Proceedings, 1876-7, p685.

[4] ibid.

[5] Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board, Sixth Progress Report, 1875, p8.

[6] Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board, Twelfth and Final Report, 1877.

[7] Gustave Fischer, `Water-Carriage System of Sewerage, Its Disadvantages, as applied to the Drainage of Cities and Towns’, paper read before the Engineering Association of New South Wales, Sept 11, 1884, p2.

[8] E.W.Cracknell, `Sanitary Improvements’, Proceedings of the Engineering Association of NSW IV, 1888-9, p94.

[9] ibid., p95.

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, 29th March 1851.

[11] First Yearly Report of the Commissioners, p28.

[12] ibid., p13-21.

[13] Sydney Morning Herald, 9th March 1880.

[14] Anthony S. Wohl, Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1983, p102.

[15] Sydney Morning Herald, 15th May 1880.

[16] Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board, Progress Report, 1875, p1.

[17] Sydney Morning Herald, 15th May 1880.

[18] for example, Joseph Bancroft, ‘Various Hygienic Aspects of Australian Life’, Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science I, 1887, pp532-3; George Gordon, ‘Household Sanitation’, Australasian Association for the Advancement of ScienceII, 1890, p688; J.Trevor Jones, ‘Sanitation of the Suburbs of Sydney’, Royal Society of NSW 20, 1886, pp362-3; J. Ashburton Thompson, ‘Sewerage of Country Towns: The Separate System’, Royal Society of NSW 26, 1892, p133.

[19] Sewage and Health Board, Third Progress Report, p6.

[20] Sewage and Health Board, Third Progress Report, p6.

[21] Burke, Sewage Utilization, pp14-21.

[22] Sydney Morning Herald, 16th March 1880, 19th March 1880, 24th March, 1880.

[23] Sydney Morning Herald, 13th March 1880, 9th April 1880

[24] Sydney Morning Herald, 13th March 1880.

[25] for a U.S. analysis of sewage as fertiliser see Joel Tarr, ‘From City to Farm: Urban Wastes and the American Farmer’, Agricultural History XLIX(4), Oct 1975, 598-612.

[26] for an analysis of decision-making between separate and combined systems of sewerage see Joel Tarr, ‘The Separate vs. Combined Sewer Problem: A Case Study in Urban Technology Design Choice’, Journal of Urban History 5(3), May 1979: 308-339.

[27] Thomas Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930, John Hopkins University Press, 1983.

[28] The Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board, Third Progress Report, 1875., p3.

[29] W.H.Corfield, A Digest of Facts Relating to The Treatment and Utilization of Sewage, MacMillan & Co., 1871, pp31-2.

[30] Sydney Morning Herald, 13th March 1880.

[31] Sydney Morning Herald, 19th March 1880.

[32] Corfield, The Treatment and Utilization of Sewage, p118.

[33] Wohl, Endangered Lives, p102.

[34] Joel Tarr et al, ‘Water and Wastes: A Retrospective Assessment of WastewaterTechnology in the United States, 1800-1932’, Technology and Culture 25(2), April 1984, p234.

[35] Sydney Morning Herald, 26th March 1880.

[36] ibid., p84.

[37] Tarr et al,’Water and Wastes’, p252.

[38] F.O.Ward, ‘Sanitary Consolidation-Centralisation-Local Self-Government’, Quarterly Review 88, 1850, p479.

[39] quoted in The Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board, Third Progress Report, 1875, p6.

[40] Joel Arthur Tarr and Francis Clay McMichael, ‘The Evolution of Wastewater Technology and the Development of State Regulation: A Retrospective Analysis’ in Joel A.Tarr, ed, Retrospective Technology Assessment-1976, San Francisco Press, 1977, p176.

[41] Tarr et al, ‘Water and Wastes’; Martin Melosi, Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform and the Environment 1880-1980, Texas A.&M. University Press, 1981, p120.

[42] Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz, ‘Cart before Horse: Theory, Practice and Professional Image in American Public Health, 1870-1920’, Journal of the History of Medicine, January 1974, pp63-64.

[43] Melosi, Garbage in the Cities, p22.

[44] A. Prescott Folwell, Sewerage. The Designing, Construction, and Maintenance of Sewerage Systems, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1901, p8.

[45] Stanley Schultz & Clay McShane, ‘Pollution and Political Reform in Urban America: The Role of Municipal Engineers, 1840-1920’ in Martin Melosi (ed.), Pollution and Reform in American Cities 1870-1930, University of Texas Press, 1980, pp162-3.

[46] ibid., p165.

[47] Baldwin Latham, Sanitary Engineering: A Guide to the Construction of Works of Sewerage and House Drainage, 2nd edition, E & F.N.Spon, 1878.

[48] Geo. E. Waring, Jr, Modern Methods of Sewage Disposal, D.Van Nostrand, New York, 1894.

[49] George Stayton, Sewerage and Drainage of the Western Suburbs, Department of Public Works, 1887, p7.

Professor Sharon Beder is a visiting professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder’s Publications can be found at http://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb



SOURCE:  https://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb/sewage/history.html






FROM The SHIRE today … report of sewage overflows in Caringbah … five in less than 12 months!

Sydney is growing so too the Shire with townhouses & villas but the pipes can’t …

Sydney’s first pipes were built in the 1850s …

THIS is a job that Gladys must get done!  Or be done …

… we don’t wanna go back to dry closets or pans


Sewage overflows around Caringbah homes five times in a year

Raw sewage running over your lawn, down the driveway and under your house… It’s unthinkable.


But, that’s what has happened five times in the last year, including twice in the last few days, to residents in four adjoining houses in Carabella Road, Caringbah.

The sewage overflows occur in very heavy rain and, when the water subsides, yards and driveways are left covered with toilet paper and other disgusting items.


One of the residents is a woman, 88.


“Her home becomes surrounded by a moat of effluent”, said neighbour Dale Badger, who is also affected.


“The overflows are from sewage breather pipes that run between the houses.

“It’s happened five times since February 11, 2018, including Sunday and Tuesday this week.


“Each time we call Sydney Water, but they have been unable to fix the problem and don’t have an answer as to why it is happening.”


Betty Gregory, another affected resident, said the situation was “unbearable”.

Ms Gregory raised her concerns with Labor candidate for Cronulla Teressa Farhart, who said it “it is unacceptable for raw sewerage to be running into the local streets”.


Ms Gregory said, “We have been living in Carabella Street for 45 years without a problem before this started happening”.


“You cannot imagine what kinds of things are floating down our driveway and under our house – condoms, baby wipes, poo, all in a huge stream of sewerage water.


*”We put this down to the overdevelopment in the shire and the fact that infrastructure has not been updated to cope with the extra sewer.”


Ms Gregory said the situation worsened on Tuesday night.

“More neighbours are affected,” she said on Wednesday.


“[Sydney Water] did a bit of a clean up yesterday but did not fix the problem. It is in fact worse.


“Tonnes of raw sewerage going down our driveway and under the house.

“Do we have to accept this gross contamination of our home space?”


Sydney Water has been asked for a response.


SOURCE:  https://www.theleader.com.au/story/5963376/residents-angry-as-raw-sewage-flows-across-yards-in-big-wet/?cs=1507&fbclid=IwAR3f07RZ871lB5h9DPqCfVj4OdgjUNxn_pbYOv6kZqniHYj2gh08w_-W9vI









Since the Darling River ran dry six months ago, Wilcannia’s residents have been left to truck in drinking water. Politicians blame the drought, but locals cite mismanagement and corruption. By Nick Feik.


Wilcannia: The town with no water


Locals walk in protest in Wilcannia, New South Wales, on March 3.



The river stopped flowing through Wilcannia, in north-western New South Wales, in September last year. It’s now just a series of dank green ponds. Signs by the bridge over the Lower Darling warn of harmful algae that “may cause serious harm to humans and animals”. The animals have no choice, though, and the kangaroos are still drinking it, despite the smell.

Wilcannia’s 700 residents, the majority of them Indigenous, only drink water that arrives in boxes on the back of trucks from the desert-dry Broken Hill, 200 kilometres away, or from even further afield.

The town’s community radio station, Wilcannia River Radio, has started collecting and distributing donated water, although it’s nowhere near enough to satisfy demand.

A mother of five said her 10-litre carton was gone within a day. It would likely be another week before she was allocated the next free one. In the meantime, she was buying boxed water.

Some households are spending up to $60 a week on water. Almost everyone in Wilcannia, from the local pharmacist to the healthcare centre receptionist to the shire workers, buys water rather than risk drinking what comes out of the taps. A mother who cannot always afford to buy cartons says she boils the high-salinity tap water and adds cordial so her kids will drink it.


The Central Darling Shire recently switched Wilcannia over to bore supply and says the heavily treated water it pumps to homes is in line with national drinking water guidelines. But there is an understandable mistrust of the town water among locals. An undated sign in the public toilets beside Wilcannia Hospital instructs, on shire letterhead, “Do not drink this water”. It cites the contamination of Wilcannia’s water supply and says it is not fit for human consumption until further notice. Scrawled on the drinking fountain in the main street is a warning: “Drink this water, you are going to die”.

Without water in the river, though, the town is dying anyway. It’s the sixth year in a row that the Darling River hasn’t had a regular flow here, a run of dry years never known in the river’s history. “Give us a chance,” says Barkandji senior elder Kerry “Sissy” King, addressing the politicians she holds responsible. “Come out here and see how you feel about living [with no water]. They’ve taken it from the nation that lives off the river system. Come and sit in the gutter with us.”

State and federal politicians blame the drought. But the drought only started two years ago, not six. For Wilcannia residents this is a man-made disaster, and the lack of water coming down the Darling is a direct result of mismanagement and over-allocation upstream.

“The system is totally broken,” says local grazier Arthur Davies. “Without the Darling, this country out here is finished. Doomed.”

The crisis has united graziers and Indigenous communities in the region, and they agree on how things can be fixed.

The final report of Bret Walker’s Murray–Darling Basin Royal Commission, established by the South Australian government, found that the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) had acted unlawfully, and proposed a complete overhaul of the system. It found water allocations were driven by politics and a culture of secrecy: a “desire to keep its work and decision-making processes away from proper scrutiny”.

Or, as Brendon Adams of Wilcannia River Radio, put it: “Lies. It’s all lies.”


No rain is forecast for Wilcannia and its surrounds. Even if it rained heavily in the right catchments tomorrow, the water would take three months to make its way down here. The last remaining water in Wilcannia’s weir, really just a dirty pond in the riverbed, will run out in the next two months – at which point the water treatment plant and bore system will be under even more strain, to flush toilets, fill evaporative coolers, keep plants alive, feed animals.

It’s not clear, either, if bore supplies will hold out. There’s no way to tell how much groundwater is accessible and the local boring contractor is busy. It’s likely there will be increasing volumes drawn from below the surface. He is already contracted to sink more than 30 bores in the vicinity of Wilcannia, mainly for the use of local graziers and shire roadworks.

The Darling is Australia’s third longest river, reaching from its intersection with the Murray up to Queensland. Yet it hardly deserves this grand title – from Menindee to Bourke, roughly 800 kilometres, there is no flow at all. Walgett and Brewarrina, on the Barwon, a Darling tributary above Bourke, are also bone dry.

The recent fish kills at Menindee brought national attention to the state of the Lower Darling, yet the situation in nearby Wilcannia is arguably worse. As grazier Arthur Davies notes, “the fish aren’t a problem around here”. They’re long gone.

Today it’s beyond wildest imagination but Wilcannia was once a port town – Australia’s third biggest inland port. In tourism information posted by the Wilcannia bridge, photographs of rowboats and paddle steamers bumping into each other beside the same bridge mock the present moment.

Aboriginal communities have been living along the Barka – as it is known by the Barkandji – for at least 40,000 years. After a period of intense frontier wars, the Barkandji (“people of the river”) were displaced and moved into towns and surrounding stations, then onto reservations.

These early decades of colonialism also brought the first acts of environmental vandalism. To ease the way for riverboat traffic, rock bars that had existed for millennia – which also served as weirs to regulate water levels through times of both flood and drought – were blasted out, along with ancient fish traps and the Barkandji sacred site where the rainbow serpent lives.

In the mid-1990s, a national market for water was established. The implications for Indigenous people were profound. Having not owned land or farms they were excluded from any entitlements to tradeable water rights, and the consequent wealth-generating process.

By this time, experts were already warning of over-allocation throughout the basin, and caps were imposed on water extraction for the first time. The Millennium Drought, from 2001 to 2009, in its extremity, prompted the 2007 Water Act. Widely admired, the act centred around a commitment to protecting the basin using the best available science – one that placed the environment above political or commercial interests.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan was intended to deliver on the principles of the Water Act. Instead its new “water-sharing” arrangements became a free-for-all. Wilcannia and other local populations were essentially unrepresented in basin plan negotiations, as the Barkandji native title claim was yet to be recognised.

Meanwhile, lobbyists courted politicians from across the spectrum for new and larger allocations and sought to minimise environmental ones.

In the north, the cotton-growing corporations were wildly successful and used their generous allocations to expand farms, buy larger pumps, and increase off-river water storages. The likes of Webster Farms and Darling Farms and the foreign owners of Cubbie Station established operations that were never going to be environmentally sustainable. They forged on anyway.

Cut to 2019, and too much water has been taken for irrigation upstream, not enough  left to flow down the Darling River. It’s been a collective act of bastardry, if not outright corruption. An environmental catastrophe.


Every pernicious effect of colonialism has combined in Wilcannia. First, it was the seizure of the land, then the banning of culture and destruction of environment, the lack of representation, and now, finally, the water. “We’re already lost,” says Sissy King. “How much more lost can we be?”

It’s hard to dispute the words of anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, that colonialism is a structure, not an event.

The cost of living in Wilcannia today – both practical and metaphorical – is exacerbated by the water crisis, only adding to its dysfunction. The local economy is in a state of collapse and unemployment is high. Most shops are shuttered, even the ones that are open. Fresh fruit and vegetables are rare and expensive in the single small supermarket, and basics such as pasta cost two to three times normal prices.

Social housing is dangerously overcrowded – an issue that requires an investigation of its own – and crime rates, particularly domestic violence, are high. Health risks are rife, as are substance and alcohol abuse. Life expectancy is devastatingly low – at last count, 37 years for an Aboriginal male. And there is little to do: this year the locals won’t even be able to cheer on their rugby teams at home games as the ground is too dry to play on and there’ll be no water to spare.

None of these problems will be solved by the local council – because there is none. It was dismissed and went into administration in 2014, after the shire was declared bankrupt. The town’s current administrators, who are toiling just to keep the lights on, were appointed by the state government. New elections aren’t expected until September 2020. Until then, residents are without local representation.

Yet in this tight-knit community people are working hard to survive, and believe the longstanding problems are not insurmountable. “We want to have a good feeling in our hearts, not one of being denied,” says Barkandji elder “Pop” Cyril Hunter. “We want to feel like people care.”


The 2012 Murray Darling Basin Plan had a budget of $13 billion over 12 years. This money was to fund the return of the necessary water, as legislated, to keep the system in environmental balance – mainly through the purchasing of allocations from willing farmers and irrigators. As of 2019, more than $8 billion has been spent on the water buybacks and subsidies for infrastructure investment. Again, mainly for the benefit of irrigators, and in the name of “water efficiency”.

The net result, according to the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, an independent body, is that “environmental flow targets set by the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, which are required to be met to produce environmental improvements, have failed to be achieved”. Its February 2019 report found, furthermore, that “instead of an increase there has actually been no improvement or even a decline in water flows since the implementation of the Basin Plan”.

These observations match those of Wilcannia residents and regional graziers. They say the Darling hasn’t flowed regularly since the effects of the basin plan hit the river system. Wilcannia locals have seen droughts before, but every adult in town knows the river kept flowing through previous spells.

An Australian Academy of Science report on the Menindee fish kills found “there is not enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic decline of condition through dry periods”.  Based on observed data from gauges at Brewarrina, Bourke and Wilcannia since 1960, the report found that diversions have reduced annual flow volumes in the Darling River by about half.

Federal water minister David Littleproud responded to the report by first calling it political rather than scientific, before trotting out the now-common defence of the cotton and irrigation industries: blame the drought. He then drew attention to the small amounts of water these groups had drawn out of the system in the past year compared to previous years, relative to total volumes in the system.

Irrigators are able to draw out allowances in whichever year they choose, in years when the water price is low for example, then store the water behind their ever-larger weirs and in private dams. They have been given access to high, medium and low flows.

Even as Littleproud issued his statement, irrigators in the northern basin were running sprinkler systems across thousands of acres of cotton.

No one in Wilcannia believes the drought is primarily responsible for their situation. “The river used to run through droughts – now it doesn’t,” said Cyril Hunter. “The government made this drought,” said Brendon Adams, motioning towards the dry river bed. Many in Wilcannia also pointed to the age of the fish killed at Menindee as proof they survived the Millennium Drought. Some were up to 70 years old.


Coming to grips with the Murray–Darling system is disorienting. The language of water management is not designed to be straightforward: extractions, buybacks and return flows, sustainable and baseline diversion limits, classes of pumps and water licences, gigalitres, megalitres, billions of litres. And that’s before we even get to the overlapping responsibilities of the different governments, various acts, water-sharing plans and management authorities.

As Professor Sue Jackson, a geographer and water expert at Griffith University, explains it: “Water flows to power.”

The MDBA maintains that its efforts in the past six years have led to the recovery of more than 2100 gigalitres for the system. But the actual water is nowhere to be seen, in the northern basin rivers at least. Compliance measures have been notoriously lax, methods of gauging water returns basically untested, water theft common. Perhaps strangest of all, by the MDBA’s own admission up to 50 per cent of surface water extractions in the northern basin are unmetered. It has been described as an honesty box system, which is reliant upon corporations that are trying to make money.

Each year, the MDBA and state water agencies produce reports that run to thousands of pages, but they lack information in key areas. To read through them is to face the question of whether their function is not to manage the fair sharing of water but to provide cover for the outrage that is occurring.

State governments, meanwhile, are still running water-sharing regimes based on the interim arrangements put together in 2012-13. Due to regulatory and bureaucratic intransigence, the states’ updated water-resource plans aren’t due to be implemented until July this year at the earliest. Even so, the NSW government is running behind in its preparations. This means that NSW is still allocating water according to arrangements that take no account of either the subsequent draining of parts of the river system, its changed environmental state or the emergency needs of communities along the river. Nor do they take into account the successful 2015 native title claim of the Barkandji, covering 400 kilometres of the Lower Darling including water rights, which remain entirely theoretical.

The only significant reassessment of the original basin plan was initiated in 2016 under then water minister Barnaby Joyce. To the horror of scientists and environmentalists, the northern basin review found that even less water would be returned to the Darling. The recovery target for the northern basin was reduced from 450 gigalitres to 320 gigalitres a year in an amendment to the Water Act. The government would spend even more on “efficiency measures”, including more funds for irrigators. They are completely untested and, in many cases, speculative. A senate committee stated at the time that the MDBA had determined “the same environmental benefits could be achieved without having to use as much water”.

Joyce had a more straight-talking explanation of the changes he oversaw. As reported by the ABC, he told a gathering in Shepparton, in northern Victoria, that he had given water back to agriculture through the plan so the “greenies were not running the show”.

“We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you,” he told irrigators.

The river’s native title owners and other Aboriginal communities were invited to respond to the review, but it was consultation in name only. The MDBA subsequently reported, “an overwhelming number of submissions from Aboriginal people stated that the changes proposed to the Basin Plan are not supported by Aboriginal people”. Nevertheless, their views were overridden. A benefit package was developed to get the amendment through – a series of compensatory measures sometimes referred to locally in Wilcannia as “shut-up money”.

Obviously not all, or even most, farmers in the northern basin are thriving, but the deck remains stacked in their favour. While big irrigators are paid millions in water buybacks, and subsidised to upgrade their pipes, weirs and farming methods, Wilcannia residents are buying their own water because their river is dry. As Sissy King puts it, “Why should they be given money for what they stole from us?”


For the Barkandji, the river is more than a physical body of water or economic lifeline. As Cyril Hunter explains, “Water is our life, our culture. It’s our bloodline, that old river.” Sitting on a verandah by the river, he tells of the relationship between Barkandji people and the sacred aspects in the river; how the world is explained using the stories of the river; how traditional hunting of animals and fish, and the custodianship of the plants and trees, is based on a river that flows.

Culture isn’t something that can be drawn from an emergency bore via a chemical treatment facility.

Wilcannia means “a gap in the bank where the flood waters escape”. Hunter hasn’t seen it flood in years and, pointing to some kids playing nearby, notes that they’ve never seen it flow properly. He tells of how, when he was a child, his elders taught him to hunt and fish, what plants and fruits to collect and when, as well as the associated stories. The local ecology is now so disrupted that it has become impossible to pass on that knowledge.

The consensus in Wilcannia is that a solution to the Darling water problem is still possible. Rainfall averages across the basin have barely moved in the past century, so while increasing temperatures are a factor, fixing the immediate crisis doesn’t rest on hand-wringing about the drought. It means reducing entitlements for irrigation, increasing flows for rivers and wetlands and prioritising the needs of river communities who depend on it for basic sustenance. Crucially, it means overhauling how the system is managed, starting with the governance of the basin.

Otherwise we can kiss the Lower Darling goodbye, along with the communities living along it.

Standing in the riverbed in Wilcannia, all the government’s claims about “environmental flows” and “sustainable diversion limits” seem like a sick joke. There is no water here.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 9, 2019 as “The town with no water”. Subscribe here.

Nick Feik 
is the editor of the Monthly.


ANOTHER Consequence of Overdevelopment in Sydney … the Waste!

Creating pollution issues for residents en route and contaminated fill … a major issue …. asbestos contamination!

VIEW details below for writing your objection!


Concerns about quarry plans

Concerned residents had a meeting at Monkey Creek cafe in January.

Concerned residents had a meeting at Monkey Creek cafe in January.


Residents who want to comment on a proposal to move thousands of waste-carrying trucks over the Mountains to an old quarry past Bell have until March 20 to make a submission.


The plan to rehabilitate the old quarry would see approximately 1.2 million cubic metres of fill trucked from Sydney along the Great Western Highway or via Bells Line of Road to Bell, when it would be moved along Sandham Road to Newnes Junction.

There was a community meeting about the quarry DA a week ago  at Clarence RFS Shed attended by around 60 locals including members of the local RFS brigades.


Councillors from all three affected councils attended: Blue Mountains Cr Kerry Brown, Lithgow Crs Mayor Ray Thompson, Deputy Mayor Wayne McAndrew and Cr Steve Ring and Hawkesbury Cr John Ros.


Greens candidate for Blue Mountains Kingsley Liu and Labor candidate for Bathurst Beau Rile also attended, as did Blue Mountains Conservation Society vice-president Don Morrison.


Bell resident and retired truck driver owner Kaye Whitbread said that the DA would allow a truck to pass along Sandham Road nine metres from her bedroom window every nine minutes all day from 7am to 6pm.


“The noise and dust will be unbearable. Most of the road is unsealed. The dust will cover everything and we only have tank water out here to wash with. I won’t even be able to sell my property.”


All five councillors spoke against the DA and urged  everyone to make a submission.


Councillor Steven Ring who moved the unanimous motion for Lithgow Council to oppose the DA last week said that the council had been “pushing back waste from Sydney for 40 years. This is not a precedent we want to set. Once it starts they will be trucking out waste to fill every old mine in Lithgow.”


Mayor Ray Thompson said that bushfire concerns were also a major factor. “We know we are going to have another fire. We will need that water in the quarry again.”


Cr Brown said that contaminated fill was a major issue.


“Last month a random blitz by the Environmental Protection Agency revealed widespread overloading and illegal disposal of waste by the trucking industry. In my experience as a gardener and councillor, contaminated fill is always finding its way into sites illegally.


“A few weeks ago our council discovered 300 tonnes of fill recently trucked into Springwood Golf Course had asbestos contamination.”


Hawkesbury Cr John Ros said that he and Cr Danielle Wheeler would propose Hawkesbury Council also make a submission opposing the DA.

Cr Ros said: “We do not want any risks to the water quality for our farmers. There is also the impact of traffic, noise and safety from more heavy trucks on the Bells Line of Road.”


Submissions should be made to Lithgow Council (council@lithgow.nsw.gov.au), which is considering the DA because Newnes is in its local government area. But because the proposal is defined as a regional development, it will ultimately be determined by a Joint Regional Planning Panel, not council.  




View bottom righthand corner for details on where to send your letter of objection: