There is a political skirmish going on in NSW. It is a skirmish over a resource and it is taking place in the suburban garden. It might appear a tame sort of skirmish but it has a disturbing subtext.
Sydneysiders will have to live with less water, Premier Bob Carr told the quarter of the country's population who make the city their home. His statement was lead story in the Sydney Morning Herald on 1-2 November and his message should have come as no surprise. Resource managers and conservationists have been saying as much for years and the notion of impending water shortage had seeped down even to the level of local government. Where once they were banned, councils have adopted policy and guidelines, even encouragement, for residents of their municipalities to install rainwater tanks. In the most populous city on the world's driest continent, this is common sense and it has created a market niche into which a number of metal and plastic-based fabricators have stepped. Roofwater tanks are now available in such a range of sizes, shapes and colours that they make the old, traditional, galvanised iron tank look very dowdy indeed.
By mid-year, the low level of water in the dams that feed the city was giving cause for alarm. Unless there was prolonged, substantial rain before the end of Spring, it became clear, water restrictions would have to be introduced.
That happened at the start of October. With wide coverage in the media, even a colour supplement outlining the new impositions in the Sydney Morning Herald, Sydenysiders were informed that they could no longer use their hoses as brooms to "sweep" their patios and paving, that they would have to wash their cars not by hosing but with the more modest amount of water in a bucket. Gardeners had to turn off their sprinklers and stand in the garden watering with a hose. For the moment they were spared the banning of watering in daylight hours but, as it has in past years, that might come with summer. The restrictions, the Premier announced, would be reinforced with fines from 1 November. Goodbye lawn; hello bare, dry soil.
Over the weeks since the Premier announced the restrictions, a resistance has emerged from the pruned hedges and European-style gardens of suburban Sydney. Why, letters to the editor of the city's major metropolitan daily have asked, should gardeners be restricted in watering when the people next door could fill their swimming pool with drinking water? Why target only households and impose no restrictions on industry? Why should gardeners pull out their European gardens and lawn, as has been suggested, to replace them with low-water-demand native landscapes? Why impose fines when the government agency responsible for delivering and distributing water to the metropolis was itself responsible for the loss of megalitres from its leaky pipes? Why has no new dam been built in time to avoid this crisis?
A dam best avoided
The question over a new dam has achieved less prominence to date and it is a topic the politicians would like to avoid. Some years ago, when the potential reality of future water shortages was recognised, the city was given the choice of adopting water conservation or building a new dam on the Upper Shoalhaven, a couple hundred kilometres south of the city.
The idea was immediately opposed by environmentalists who played up the loss of natural areas and pointed to the possible presence of acid sulphate soils that could contaminate the fresh water. It was clear that any move to dam the upper Shoalhaven would be strongly opposed by the state's greens. The consequence for the Carr government could have been loss of green support, for although the greens are periodically critical of Carr (who sees himself as a conservationist) they have maintained broad support for his government.
Now, with suggestions that the time has come to reconsider the dam, the issue sits not far beneath the surface of the mini-controversy over water restrictions. Politicians hope that those restrictions will keep it there.
Too many people, too much stress
There is another big issue waiting just below the surface of Sydney's water controversy. At one level it is about resources and their provision; at another it impinges on federal policy and the politics of immigration.
The core of the issue is this: Sydney, with its infrastructure already under stress due to its rate of growth, has to accommodate and support up to 50,000 additional people every year. Many of these are overseas immigrants.
Premier Carr has frequently and bravely spoken out about the impact of overseas immigration and has called on Canberra to reduce immigration numbers to relieve pressure on the city. Canberra, predictably, says it is a state issue. The risk for Carr is that an opposition to immigration based on ailing urban infrastructure could spill over into accusations of racism in general and opposition to specific ethnic groups in particular. Ethnic lobbies under stress will not hesitate to play the race card if there is political milage in it. The fact that they have not stooped to this yet is to their credit.
But Carr is not a racist and any opposition or lobby group painting him as such would paint itself into a political corner. The immigration issue seems to be yet another of those issues that will bounce back and forth between Macquarie Street and Canberra in that peculiar game of political ping-pong that is uniquely Australian.
Water, immigration, politics - it is a convergence that the "limits to growth" environmental theorists of the past might have predicted. And in linking resource shortfall with population growth they may have been correct in the case of Sydney.
We cannot solve the problems of the present by implementing the political theories of the past. Just as the challenge results from the convergence of trends as disparate as water supply and federal immigration policy, so the solution must be equally disparate and include behavioural change in the use of resources such as water, political change in administering scarce resources and technological change to make possible and affordable resource conservation such as water storage. It is time to reward those taking positive measures.