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Running out of water

September 12th, 2007

A couple of months ago, there seemed to be some hope that the record-breaking drought in south-eastern Australia was breaking. There was good rain, and the switch from El Nino to La Nina seemed to be established. Now, it seems, those hopes are gone. The really good rain was confined to coastal areas, most notably Sydney. Temporary water entitlements are now going for $1000 a megalitre, and irrigators are likely to receive something like 5 per cent of their normal allocations.

The water market should do some good in ensuring that water flows where it is most needed, most obviously in keeping tree crops alive. But water is also needed for cities and towns in the Murray-Darling Basin and for Adelaide, so the market will have to be combined with administrative allocation, and there may be a need for emergency measures.

In these circumstances, the last thing we need is the continuing squabbling between Federal and State governments, and within the Federal government between Nationals and Liberals, which has led to only marginal progress under the National Water Initiative. It’s likely that nothing much will happen until after the Federal election and, to be fair, there’s not much that can be done until we see how bad the summer is going to be. But it seems clear that the incoming government will have an emergency on its hands.

Nanni at RSMG has more on the limitations of demand management. This is not going to be an easy problem to solve.

Meanwhile, and relatedly, several species of coral and many seaweeds have been listed as vulnerable or critically endangered as a result of climate change, specifically the increasing frequency and severity of El Niño events.

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  1. MH
    September 17th, 2007 at 19:23 | #1

    In regards to your first proposition, global warming and el-nino, the relationship between el-nino and climate change is historically recorded and scientifically proven. El-nino events have caused the collapse of two very developed South American societies, so long ago no one remembers them, both cases extreme dry conditions. Whether or not global warming by Co2 accretion is the primary cause is irrelevant, anthropogenic warming is scientifically demonstrated. The forcing effect on a system like el-nino is very problamatic. El-nino events are imperfectly understood but they can be very severe and last longer than the span of a human life.

    It is my view that we will see no rational market solution to the continued shift to a drier and more arid climate in most of Australia. The PP curve for water as a resource has shifted inwards and there is a significant gap between what it used to be and what it is now. So there has to be significant destruction of aggregate demand. Water’s demand curve is quite inelastic at a household level so you will be left with a rationing system for reasons of social order and economic activity.

  2. Chris Lloyd
    September 17th, 2007 at 19:36 | #2


    I went to school in the 1960s and embraced the steady state vision of zpg and genuine environmentalism rather than the leftist crap the Greens call environmentalism, The goal was to achieve zpg or even population reduction. At that point , you have the right to increase our pollution per head. So one achieves an affluent even profligate life-style through the use of contraception. You can probably even water your lawn. Alas this vision is now lost. The modern sentiment seems to be that those with small populations must accept the world’s overflow.

    If there were millions of genuine refugees from climate change in our region then I would be inclined to accept as many as possible, not because of the Ming’s 1951 convention but because it is the right thing to do. It is the term “forced to� that I baulk at. However, I do not expect the human displacements numbers that you do – certainly not in the pacific.

    Over-population is the basic cause of global warming. The biggest single act of pollution you will commit in your life is to pro-create. Nobody talks about this because it intersects with PC topics like eugenics, reproductive rights and refugees. Too unconfortable. But remember that Mother Nature does not give a damn about pollution per head. She only cares about total pollution.

    Regarding the energy to pump desalinated water (finally getting back on central topic!), I should have checked before saying that the cost of pumping was high (I was quoting someone from work). Suppose a family household in Melbourne is 100m above sea level and uses 500 litres per day. If my calculations are correct then this requires about 140 watt-hours of energy which is basically the energy a typical house-light uses in 3 hours. So it is a modest proportion of household energy.

  3. mugwump
    September 18th, 2007 at 00:29 | #3

    Aren’t you claiming that should the world fail to heed you, should it in any way act to lessen the gay, wanton appeal of the burning of fossil fuels, then economic armageddon would be upon us? Isn’t that a fair-use paraphrase (not a strawman) of what you’ve many times said?

    No. I have never said anything close to this. I have attacked the premises and misuse of science and economics of the enviro-lobby, the anti-freedom and anti-growth lobbies, in calling for 50%-90% reductions in greenhouse emissions in short-order. But the opposite of an extreme viewpoint is not itself an extreme viewpoint.

  4. September 18th, 2007 at 01:18 | #4

    The biggest single act of pollution you will commit in your life is to pro-create.

    What a repugnant view of children. I wonder whether they will grow up to regard you with the same disdain.

    Nobody talks about this because it intersects with PC topics like eugenics, reproductive rights and refugees. Too unconfortable.

    Presumably you meant to say “Politically Incorrect” rather than PC. However now that we have thrown off the strictures of political correctness please ignore any minor displays of discomfort and share your views on eugenics, reproductive rights and refugees.

  5. mugwump
    September 18th, 2007 at 01:31 | #5

    The biggest single act of pollution you will commit in your life is to pro-create.

    To the extent that it is hereditary, this view is not evolutionarily stable.

    That aside, on your view Chris the greatest single act of pollution your parents committed was creating you. Don’t you therefore owe it to the planet to commit suicide?

  6. BilB
    September 18th, 2007 at 05:50 | #6

    Chris L,

    I went to school in the 60′s also and had all of the same arguments, and was equally troubled by population growth and over consumption of the scarce resources of the world. But on the population front the good news is that the then projected 20 billion population scenario looks unlikely to occur. By way of seeing what is happening, if you haven’t already you would do well to look at Hans Rosling’s brilliant statistical presentations on this and other subjects.

    What troubles me is that in the advanced global warming scenarios the ocean currents stop circulating globally and become local pools with very little mixing. If this happens then the world will take on a totally unfamiliar appearence and it may be that the only very liveable land will be the antarctic and the very northern parts of europe and canada. It is very unclear how far that scenario is away, and more importantly what changes will occur along the way. This is not being alarmist, it is being realistic. If the worlds future is left in the hands of George Bush and John Howard then I am buying a block of land in Australian Antactica, for my family’s future. Of course I am not expecting to have to do that, because I believe that there are easy solutions to the problem.

  7. September 18th, 2007 at 09:38 | #7

    Hans Roslings 2006 TED presentation is indeed brilliant and well worth watching. And the gapminder.org website now also features his more recent 2007 presentation that reinforces his earlier point and concludes with some great showmanship. As he shows fertility across the globe is in rapid decline, has been for decades and is headed towards mere replacement levels.

  8. September 18th, 2007 at 11:31 | #8

    I have said it before on this site and others – the greatest risk facing humanity in the medium to long term is under-, not over-population.

  9. September 18th, 2007 at 14:24 | #9

    Andrew – I don’t see that as any sort of significant risk. And even if it happens I can’t see too many negative consequences if it happens naturally. However feel free to elaborate.

  10. snuh
    September 18th, 2007 at 14:41 | #10

    If you by-and-large prefer state control to free markets, and nature over humanity, then you will place little value on the spectacular achievements and growth of mankind, and attach little cost to jeopardizing that growth through misguided state-intervention.

    since you’re all about being rigorous, mugwump, perhaps you can cite something for the proposition that “state-intervention”[1] necessarily conflicts with “the spectacular achievements and growth of mankind.” i mean it would be a tragedy if, in your noble attempt to correct jq’s alarmism, you were to fall into the same error.

    [1] obviously i have dropped the word “misguided” here. it doesn’t seem to add anything to what you say, except that it allows you to later claim that you don’t object to state-intervention per se, only that sub-category of intervention which is “misguided”. which would be a redundant thing to say.

  11. mugwump
    September 18th, 2007 at 21:31 | #11

    snuh, my proposition that “misguided state intervention jeopardizes the spectacular achievements and growth of mankind”, and your proposition that “state intervention necessarily conflicts with the spectacular achievements and growth of mankind” are very different, the latter being much stronger and something I don’t endorse.

    Examples of misguided state intervention jeopardizing growth are legion. Do you really want me to list them?

  12. BilB
    September 19th, 2007 at 01:28 | #12


    On state intervention, all possibilities are true. Even “well structured state intervention dramatically enhances achievements and growth of mankind”.
    ie Roman empire, moon landing. Should I go on.

  13. mugwump
    September 19th, 2007 at 01:39 | #13

    BillB, I don’t disagree with you. But my original point was not that state intervention is always bad (although since most of the low hanging fruit has already been picked, state intervention today is more often bad than good), it was an observation on the political disposition of many AGW alarmists:

    If you by-and-large prefer state control to free markets, and nature over humanity, then you will place little value on the spectacular achievements and growth of mankind, and attach little cost to jeopardizing that growth through misguided state-intervention.

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