Over­flow­ing with com­pli­ca­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

“I take a bath ev­ery month,’’ El­iz­a­beth I is pur­ported to have said, ‘‘whether I need one or not.’’ Clearly, hy­giene stan­dards change, and it is hon­est of Ruth A. Mor­gan to con­fess, in her pref­ace to Run­ning Out?, to her ‘‘love af­fair with the wash­ing ma­chine’’ and ‘‘pen­chant for long, hot showers’’.

But, like many West Aus­tralians, she is also af­flicted by a sense that these lux­u­ries sit un­easily with the ge­og­ra­phy and cli­mate of ‘‘the western third’’. The di­a­gram at the start of her book — a graph show­ing wa­ter con­sump­tion in WA over the past cen­tury — fol­lows roughly the tra­jec­tory of a mo­tor­cy­cle stunt-ramp.

And yet Perth, the fastest grow­ing city in Aus­tralia, is bounded by ocean to its south and west and by desert to its north and east. As for its weather, that’s not much help ei­ther. Even as new Perth sub­urbs are retic­u­lated, the run of bad sea­sons in the wheat-belt re­gion — part of a gen­eral dry­ing trend — is en­ter­ing its sixth year.

As un­pro­pi­tious as all this sounds, the over­all sit­u­a­tion may not be as bad as cer­tain com­men­ta­tors would have us be­lieve. In­deed, one of the ef­fects of Run­ning Out? will be to turn the hose on those hot­heads who, fol­low­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Tim Flan­nery, pre­dict the WA cap­i­tal will soon be­come a ‘‘ghost me­trop­o­lis’’ — a parched and aban­doned tes­ta­ment to hu­mankind’s Ozy­man­dian con­ceit.

But Mor­gan is not com­pla­cent ei­ther, nor un­aware of the iron law of un­in­tended con­se­quences. The Kwinana de­sali­na­tion plant, which be­came op­er­a­tional in 2006, may have post­poned Flan­nery’s dystopia; but it did so at the cost of in­creased car­bon emis­sions, which won’t help that dry­ing trend in the long term. Western Aus­tralia, Mor­gan writes, may still turn out to be the ‘‘ca­nary in the coun­try’s cli­mate change coalmine’’.

This book, in short, is nei­ther a coun­sel of de­spair nor a coun­sel of com­pla­cency. It has many faults, but over­state­ment is not one of them.

Run­ning Out? is a work of ‘‘en­vi­ron­men­tal history’’, a youngish dis­ci­pline that stud­ies the re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­man be­ings and their en­vi­ron­ment: how they have shaped it and how it has shaped them. The book be­gins in 1829, with the foun­da­tion of the Swan River Colony, when a small group of white set­tlers in­serted them­selves into the south­west cor­ner of the con­ti­nent, only to find their fixed ideas about agri­cul­ture, hy­giene and gar­den­ing were not easily rec­on­cil­able with their new sit­u­a­tion.

The at­tempts to square this par­tic­u­lar cir­cle form the es­sen­tial data of Mor­gan’s book, and her ma­te­rial is as plen­ti­ful as her sub­ject is scarce. From CY O’Con­nor’s Gold­fields Wa­ter Sup­ply Scheme, which trans­ports wa­ter from the Dar­ling Range near Perth via pipeline to the Kal­go­or­lie gold­fields, to the de­vel­op­ment of in­ten­sive ir­ri­ga­tion around Har­vey for dairy farm­ing and hor­ti­cul­ture, to the retic­u­la­tion of farms and prop­er­ties in the ‘‘hy­drauli­cally diffi- Run­ning Out? Wa­ter in Western Aus­tralia By Ruth A. Mor­gan UWA Pub­lish­ing, 268pp, $34.99 cult’’ wheat-belt re­gion and the plan to im­prove the health of ground­wa­ter re­serves be­neath Perth’s Swan Coastal Plain, one mar­vels at the in­ge­nu­ity and bold­ness of the peo­ple charged with im­ple­ment­ing these schemes, even as one shud­ders at what they have meant for WA’s en­vi­ron­ment and in­dige­nous peo­ples.

It’s es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing to read of the schemes that never quite made it, or haven’t made it yet, such as the plan to pump wa­ter from the state’s trop­i­cal north­west and — my per­sonal favourite — to filch an ice­berg from Antarc­tica and moor it off the coast of Fre­man­tle. Even if it didn’t solve WA’s wa­ter prob­lems, it would make one hell of a party pon­toon.

Mor­gan is aware that wa­ter scarcity is, to a great ex­tent, a mat­ter of per­cep­tion: ‘‘ How we de­fine wa­ter scarcity … is his­tor­i­cally con­tin­gent of our way of life, our ex­pec­ta­tions and aspira- tions.’’ Most read­ers will have no trou­ble as­sim­i­lat­ing this point, but Mor­gan has de­cided to com­pli­cate it with the con­cept of ‘‘hy­drore­silience’’. The con­cept is de­fined as fol­lows: Broadly con­ceived, hy­drore­silience of­fers a means to com­pare and con­trast, as well as to ac­count for, the range of ways that Aus­tralians have un­der­stood and re­sponded to lim­ited wa­ter sup­plies. An in­di­vid­ual, group, or so­ci­ety’s de­gree of hy­drore­silience is the his­tor­i­cal prod­uct of an in­ter­ac­tion of eco­log­i­cal, ge­o­graph­i­cal, cul­tural, so­cioe­co­nomic, and po­lit­i­cal fac­tors, which to­gether shape the ex­tent to which they are ad­versely af­fected by a real or per­ceived lack of wa­ter.

My own ca­nary in the coalmine of aca­demic waf­fle be­gan to show vis­i­ble signs of dis­tress to­wards the end of the first sen­tence and fi­nally popped its clogs about half­way through the sec­ond one. But the key words come at the end of the pas­sage: ‘‘real or per­ceived lack of wa­ter’’. Thus ‘‘hy­drore­silience’’ draws no dis­tinc­tion be­tween what is the case and what we feel is the case — a fa­tal weak­ness, it seems to me, for surely the point is to ex­plore how ex­pec­ta­tions have changed over time; how re­al­is­tic our cur­rent ex­pec­ta­tions are in light of the amount of wa­ter we have; and what has to hap­pen, ei­ther to our ex­pec­ta­tions or to our wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture, to bring the two into bal­ance. The fuzzi­ness of the con­cept, and the in­con­sis­tency with which it’s de­ployed, means Mor­gan ef­fec­tively ducks the ques­tion her book’s ti­tle is so keen to ad­ver­tise.

Run­ning Out? be­gan life as a doc­toral the­sis and the marks of its birth are ev­ery­where: in its fond­ness for the grand con­cept (“Big Wa­ter’’); weak­ness for tau­tol­ogy and ten­dency to dress up sim­ple state­ments in com­pli­cated lan­guage (‘‘The ap­pli­ca­tion of the con­cept of en­vi­ron­men­tal anx­i­ety to the house­holds and the sub­urbs of Perth in the early 20th cen­tury ques­tions the se­cu­rity that Aus­tralians have long as­so­ci­ated with sub­ur­ban spa­ces.’’).

By the end of the book I wasn’t at all sure whether Western Aus­tralia is run­ning out of wa­ter but I had, alas, run out of pa­tience.

A camel on a beach in Broome, Western Aus­tralia — a state bounded by ocean and deserts

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