The wisdom in damphobia

Last week, Tony Abbott criticised those reluctant to endorse his 100 dam proposal as ‘damphobic’. From this, I infer that he means that the irrational fear of dams holds people back from rushing to support his plan – that these cautious folk have beliefs that are unfounded, that they are unable to put those fears aside for the greater good that supposedly comes from further interfering with the way water flows in Australia.

Let’s look, then, at the evidence that may inform a less than hearty and immediate endorsement of making 100 more dams, many in northern Australia, for evidence may prove the actual wisdom in damphobia. We could start, for example, with the Ord River in north Western Australia, the gateway catchment to the Kimberley. This river, regulated by dam building in the 1960s, was before that time a fundamental part of Indigenous people’s livelihoods – including, but not limited to, local Miriwoong and Gajerrong peoples. These Indigenous people who lived with its changing ways were – are – startled and saddened at the changes wrought by the dams and the ensuing irrigation, especially as it occurred without their consultation, participation or compensation. Flooding an area about ten times the size of Sydney Harbour meant that sacred geographies were swamped in the process of creating a reservoir for irrigation – sacred geographies that were embedded in Indigenous livelihoods.

The environmental injustice aside for one moment, let’s look at the evidence around the success or otherwise of the Ord River Irrigation Area, and the justification and motivation for the two dams installed on the Ord. In its early days, and with bipartisan support, both the federal and Western Australian governments spent millions bolstering crop and infrastructure development (the dams could not have happened without it). And yet, far from being a ringing endorsement for irrigation expansion of the north, the Ord has struggled repeatedly with suitable crops. Rice and cotton failed, the former with recent genetically modified versions. Cotton was abandoned in the mid-1970s; up until then, farmers had applied up to 50 rounds of DDT a season.

But these issues are not new. Reading the assessment by Norman Young in 1979 of the Ord River Irrigation Area’s first fifteen years, we get some insight in to the lessons environmental history can teach. Even after state and federal governments spent approximately $100 million to get it off the ground, the Ord still failed to reach its perceived potential, according to business people and farmers at the time.

It’s not all bad news for the Ord today, though, thanks to massive government investment once again, and the remedies to start righting past wrongs. In 2005 the Ord Final Agreement was formed, which delivers compensation, finally, to the Indigenous people whose livelihoods were impeded by their loss of country. This overturns some of the injustices that underpinned the early days of the Ord but it’s taken a long time to get there – over ten years of native title contestation. In terms of agriculture options, it seems now that sandalwood is somewhat more sustainable – and it certainly dominates both area-wise and for agricultural investment in the Ord.

What I hope that Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott do when consulting with people about their hopes for regional Australia’s future, including around water planning, is take last week’s recognition of the First Australians seriously and listen to their experiences of living in country. I hope they listen to the living memories of traditional owners, such as in the Ord, and consider the costs and benefits of irrigation expansion in places where people know the country better than they. Being ‘damphobic’ may make some sense then.

Jessica McLean

Jessica McLean's doctorate looked at water matters with a focus on the Ord catchment in northern Australia, working with Indigenous people in that region, and has published journal articles from this research. She is currently a Human Geography Lecturer at Macquarie University where she teaches a course aiming to rethink resource management to centre often marginalised positions in decision making processes and outcomes. Twitter: @jess_emma_mc.

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