Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Peak Oil...then Peak Peak People?

From the kayak

Someone chastised me the other day for not talking about peak water. It was at a time that I was discussing transition towns and how peak oil relates to what they are all about.

Peak oil means the peak of the world’s output, after which production begins to decline. That time is about now. Is this similar to water? To start with, water does not decline. It just goes round and round as it has done for millennia. Some gets locked away for long periods in underground reservoirs but in the main there is about the same amount available as there has always been.

Of course there are a lot more humans on the planet than there were, and they all need water. We are also a lot more efficient at extracting it from rivers, from under the ground, and even from the sea. The question is whether we have enough to go around?

It seems to me that the answer is no – not with our current landuse practices. Queensland is enjoying plenty of water. Farmers are happy so shouldn’t we all rejoice? There is just one problem; this water should have made its way to the end of the Murray River. I struggle with calling it the mouth of the river as the Murray ends with a dam wall, and what is called the Murray Mouth is actually where a dying Coorong connects with the Southern Ocean.

While we have floods at the top end of the catchment we have a river drying out from the bottom up. Perhaps some of this is due to climate change but this is just one factor. On average the Darling River used to contribute 16% of the Murray River flow. The Darling and the upper Murray are governed by entirely different weather mechanisms. The Darling is dependent on the massive El Nino/La Nina cycles. The Murray is dependent on the frontal systems moving across from the west. So, when the Darling has a wet year and the upper Murray has a dry year it would be logical to expect that the contribution of the Darling would be higher. But none of the Queensland floods reached the Murray – none. Zip!

Now before you go blaming the farmers for taking the water, just remember that they did not extract one drop just for the fun of it. They are all efficient water users. The problem is that they need to survive. The towns dependent on them need to survive. We depend on them to provide food for us, exports so that our economy can survive. So we are all to blame.

But we were talking about peak water. Any mine has a limited life. Unfortunately we have been mining water for many decades and failed to realise it. The stuff under the ground can only be used until it runs out or it is replaced somehow. The basalt aquifer under the Lockyer Valley to the west of Brisbane enabled the valley to be the food bowl for the city. Now the aquifer is in serious decline. Its peak was decades ago. As we mined more and more water we reached a point where the amount of water that we could take started to decline. Certainly in the Lockyer Valley peak water was a long time ago.

Such a scenario is played out in many areas in Australia. We extracted water like there was no tomorrow. Take it, use it, create wealth and pat ourselves on the back because of our cleverness and superiority. But like all parties, it had to end sometime and maybe the hangover isn’t worth it. We now have salt problems, what we have planted needs more water than is available, farmers suicide and the towns that are dependent on these farms hang on tenuously. Environmentally we have destroyed much of what we love. In the worst places the acid is now stronger than the stuff in your car battery. That land is dead and it will take a very long time to recover. Certainly our grandchildren still to be born will not see it repaired.

Peak water? Let’s just hope we have reached peak greed.

Steve Posselt


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