Indifference to water doesn't wash

Efforts to preserve and protect our precious water is being stymied by ignorance.

A couple of weeks back, when the Daily Telegraph described attendees at her underground H2O Bar as "incredibly well-hydrated communists", it made artist Janet Laurence dance with delight.

Well-hydrated communists. Fantastic. It wasn't meant as a compliment, of course, or even constructive criticism. It was a small but pointed attack on people who care enough about water to make art out of it, and on the City of Sydney for funding that enterprise. But Laurence's eyes sparkled all the same, at the depths to which the anti-art, anti-environment, anti-city push had finally sunk.

<i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari</i>
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari 

For me, this was triply fascinating. I was bemused that "inner-city elitists" could also be "communists". Slightly shocked that water – far from being pH neutral – is now so politicised as to justify that derision. And reminded that, again and again, the big things – the things that Australia needs most desperately to do well – are what we put most aggression into doing really, really badly. Like water.

Water is our dreaming. It is our collective unconscious – and not only because this is the driest continent. That's just the surface story of a deeper, subtler reality.

We all know it matters; that the wars of the future will be water wars, that clean water is the future's sacred element and rehydrating the planet the new paradigm. We know that a hydrated planet is our best hope of producing food, cooling climate and cleaning water for drinking.

But still we treat people who work towards this as commies. Last week, within 24 hours of the Tele's story, the government showed itself oblivious to the new water thinking, dumping six of the state's most senior water-quality scientists and threatening land-healing farmer Dimity Davy with a million-dollar fine.


I've always loved how Australia – real Australia – is comprised of immense, aching absences; dry rivers, empty lakes, flat mountains, vanished seas. It is evident, when you're in it, that this is a landscape not of vacancy but of a subtlety and sophistication wholly matched by its Indigenous culture, and as profoundly misunderstood.

The white culture that came here wasn't just white. It was (self-described) Enlightenment culture; scientistic, empirical and instrumentalist, predicated on the belief that only what can be seen and measured exists. The continent could hardly have been more opposed.

Here, pretty much everything that mattered was both invisible and immeasurable. The culture was an immaterial lacework of songs, pathways and intuitions. The agriculture came and went with the breath of fire. The people flitted like shadows. The water flowed silently under the ground.

Starting with the best intentions, white farming trampled big boots over this fragile lacework. Even now, agroscience orthodoxy sees a good river as a fast river. In fact, in Australia – as Peter Andrews pointed out – the opposite is true. Australian rivers were 80 per cent underground, and the surface mostly marshy "chains of ponds". Fast rivers just sluice our soils to the sea without stopping to grow or cool or feed anything along the way. Which is why ecologists talk of "sowing the rain".

And why the NSW government is so nuts, threatening eighth-generation Bungendore farmer Davy with a $1.2 million fine for slowing her creek.

Technically it's pretty simple. You make "leaky weirs" from concrete rubble, old tractors or live willows to slow water to a trickle, thus helping it percolate through the soil, build the creek bed and mend the rift. "It's miraculous," says Davy, whose 24 weirs form part of a personal 50-year anti-erosion project. "It's terribly exciting. Apart from my family, it's my only passion."

Others have done it and survived. Tony Coote at Mulloon Creek and the Maslins at Gunningrah have rightly won praise for their creek-healing. But it's still illegal, and shouldn't be. A law that means you risk bankruptcy to heal the land is by definition bad law.

But it's not just new thinking that's under threat. Even our conventional water wisdom, it seems, is sluicing out to sea.

Laurence's point with the H2O Bar was to underline the sacred role of water in the ancient mysteries of place, especially this place. Set in the lovely arched caverns of the Paddington reservoir, the bar was a glassy mix of hipster whisky saloon and 22nd century chemistry lab. Around it, threading through the crowd, teams of white-coated water bearers – part-scientist, part-minion, part-priest – proffered tiny beakers of the good stuff.

As at a wine tasting, sommelier-apostles recited each water's full provenance: rain from Cape Grim, spring water from Kulnura groundwater from the Great Artesian Basin, runoff from Mount Warning (personal fave, very zincy) and – most popular – the famous Sydney tap.

Sydney tap has become something of an affectation of late. It's now a thing, as you take your seat at table, to bark "Sydney tap" in preference to Pyrenees sparkling or Italian spring. But for how much longer?

The cache of Sydney tap water grew after the 1998 giardia crisis, when we all learnt to boil water before drinking and spell cryptosporidium. On top of the fierce localism it put a kind of bravado. Me, podna? Sydneysider, can digest anything.

But the water scientists dumped by the government last week were the Sydney Catchment Authority, set up by Bob Carr in response to that same giardia scare. They included its director of science, Dr Penny Knights, plus microbiologists, catchment management experts and the organisation's principal physical chemist.

The Baird government presents these moves as value-neutral; cost-cutting, restructuring, merging. Well, they would say that. But there's history here. They've previously attempted to drop the organisation's only – and statutorily required – public health expert, and in 2012 appointed former Liberal party treasurer and mining company director Mark Bethwaite as its chair. Now, in a move that water expert Professor Stuart Khan describes as "a stupid mistake", they've erased it completely when what they should do is reinforce its science with poets, dreamers and Indigenous water shamans.

Wise up, guys. Water may be our collective unconscious but unconscious doesn't equal unreal, and collective doesn't equal communist.

Twitter: @emfarrelly


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