The political after-effects of drought

Australia’s crazily stochastic rainfall is having serious political fallout, one to two years after a major east coast drought turned to catastrophic floods almost overnight. As climate change begins to replicate Australia’s climate in other continents, our lessons may be relearned by others.

Australia’s east coast states  spent something like AU$15-20b on drought mitigation infrastructure in the 2005-2010 period, including large desalination plants for every major city and a very extensive network of reuse plants and pipelines for Brisbane.

The dam water supply levels in every major city had reached critical levels in spite of severe water restrictions and in the case of Queensland, the state government had been planning for trucking water into the centre of the capital, Brisbane.

In every east coast city’s case the rain began shortly after the drought infrastructure was complete (sometime before in the case of Melbourne’s gigantic desal). Water utilities and state governments were left with huge bills for now unnecessary infrastructure.

The fun really began when people started to hear how much their water bills were going to increase to cover the cost of the capital works. Society’s collective memory is very short, and people hearing that their water bill is going to go up 15-20%+ a year for the next few years has caused a lot of political difficulty.

This has been particularly interesting in South-East Queensland, where a major restructure of the water sector for the purpose of increasing water security in the region was attempted during and after the drought. The result has been a rash of finger-pointing and political maneuvering between State and local government as both sides try to blame the other for cost increases. The fall-out could well bring down one or more local or state governments.

I think there are a few lessons here.

It is very important to avoid infrastructure lock-in if at all possible. Large scale solutions may be more efficient, but a modular and scalable response to water supply threats is likely to be less costly in the long-run. Moving early to manage potential threats before they become critical will leave more options on the table. Having a now unneccessary $3b desal plant operating on a take-or-pay contract can be  very politically awkward.

Expect people to forget their previous support for decisions made in-extremis…particularly when they get the bill.

 Don’t miss the chance to set up a more resilient system when the status-quo is threatened by a crisis…but make sure your alternative approach makes sense under both rainy and dry scenarios.

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