The saved and the dammed

by Bill Browne

The words “dam” or “dams” appeared three times in the Treasurer’s speech on Tuesday, well ahead of the single reference to “climate change”. New funding for “vital water infrastructure across the country” exceeds new funding for the Government’s energy plan, of which addressing climate change is only one of several objectives.

Overall, the Federal Government plans to spend $2 billion over a decade on “priority water infrastructure”, including $283.5 million for two dams.

Does the economic history of dams in Australia justify this enormous spending and enthusiasm?

Australia Institute research shows that tens or hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have recently been spent, with little transparency, on new private dams. These dams do nothing to help drought-stricken towns, struggling small irrigators or the wider public.

Public dams have not fared any better. The Ord scheme irrigated the East Kimberly to kickstart agriculture in the region, but the unirrigated West Kimberly has similar levels of agricultural employment – without the $2 billion bill for an irrigation scheme.

But don’t take our word for it. Then Resources Minister Matt Canavan talked up irrigation projects in 2016:

Some recent CSIRO work shows that the record of irrigation projects in the north is not one of failure. For almost every failure there has been a success. For every Lakeland Downs that does not go to plan, there is a Burdekin. For every Ord, there is an Emerald, and for every Humpty Doo there is a Katherine-Mataranka.

“For almost every failure there has been a success” is an inventive way of saying that more irrigation projects failed than succeeded. With the taxpayer on the hook for another $2 billion, is the Government prepared for more than half of these water projects to fail as well?

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