How we think about water is a classic progress trap
I just returned from almost three weeks in Hong Kong. It is a city that I fell in love with some five years ago when I worked there with Oxfam Hong Kong.
There is a great deal that Australia’s major cities could learn from Hong Kong: it is a city that promotes and rewards efficiency, cleanliness and creativity – aspects that we often neglect.
This is clearly evident in the integrated design of the public transport system that is regular, clean, safe and on time. (Please note NSW State Rail Authority: the definition of ‘on time’ does not change at regular intervals but is kind of set). For example, last Saturday I missed a bus – my irritation was subdued when I informed the next one was ‘four minutes’ away. We can compare this to the two-hour gap between busses on the 370 route between Leichhardt and Coogee which I was faced with only a week later: and this is in the eastern suburbs if Sydney – the best served public transport corridor.
Since my last visit to Hong Kong there are some signs of Chinese mainland influence and nationalism. I was informed, however, that these have been accompanied by increasing political involvement and demands for greater democracy. Despite outward appearances, there is a democratic culture here and I was lucky enough to work with some of the most passionate and competent social justice advocates I have ever come across.
There are also downsides to Hong Kong. One of these has become the increasing reliance on air conditioning set at a temperature of about 21 degrees.
Yes, Hong Kong is a tropical city but historically buildings have been designed to keep naturally cool. Over the last 20 years this has changed and Hong Kong residents are likely to switch the air conditioning on as soon as they walk through the door. This creates both noise and heat for the neighbours who respond by shutting their windows and switching on the air con.
Just how much the city relies on this technology was highlighted in an attempt to have a ‘no air con night’. The idea was to encourage residents to turn off the air conditioning so that they could find alternative ways to cool down and also limit the noise pollution. As up to 60 percent of Hong Kong’s electricity is used on air conditioning, it was also about limiting pollution.
The night was not quite successful with only 50,000 households taking part (not many as Hong Kong has a population of approximately seven million residents). Many others who intended to take part eventually turned the air con on because of the noise of their neighbours or ended up getting too hot and could not sleep.
The problem is that there are no so many air conditioning units that it has actually made the city hotter. Buildings are now designed with air conditioning in mind and so everyone has one running continuously. The heat that comes out of the unit actually gets trapped between the buildings and it becomes intolerable. The response is that more people get air conditioning and the spiral continues.
There are now about 20 hotspots in the city: that is, locations that do not get below 28 degrees either during the day or night all year round – which are estimated to increase by 30 more in the next 20 years.
This is a classic ‘progress trap’ – a term coined by historian Ronald Wright in his book The Short History of Progress. A progress trap refers to the aspects of our civilisation that have made us successful and comfortable but can ultimately lead to our downfall. Success here refers to economic, social or even cultural. The problem is that we have become so used to relying on such technologies or processes that we cannot see a way around them: they seem natural and inevitable and so we get stuck along this path even when the consequences become increasingly obvious.
This creates tunnel vision for policy making and we cannot see a way out because the changes to this path seem too politically risky and radical – so they are best avoided.
Australia is confronting a number of its own progress traps – with water allocations along the Murray-Darling Basin being one example on everyone’s mind at the moment.
Whole communities have come to rely on the over-allocation of water rights that has made many (though not all) successful. As it has become increasingly obvious that the river is dying, any policy to reverse this has never been successfully implemented.
There is a need to remember that water is an important input to almost every industry. There is a strong link between water availability and agricultural production as well as mining production including exploratory drilling and site rehabilitation.
The history of industrial and agricultural water rights in Australia is complicated with details significantly varying across States. In general, however, allocations are provided directly to users. While water agencies technically have the power to alter or even cancel licences, this has rarely occurred and, in most circumstances, water have come to be viewed by holders as rights in perpetuity.
Even by the 1970s it was evident that many water systems had been over-allocated, and levels that could be extracted by entitlement holders could exceed any realistic measures of sustainable. NSW, for example, had licences and water allocations that were estimated to equal 120 percent of total available water resources. Though reforms have been implemented at different times, these fail to meet sustainability requirements.
Despite much fanfare, one commentator described The National Water Commission’s biennial report on water reform that was released late 2009 as one of the “most dispiriting government reports ever compiled”. Amongst other things, the Commission criticised the provision of assistance for irrigation infrastructure that if felt distorts the decision-making process for investors and irrigators.
I am not some inner city hippy demanding water cuts – what I am trying to highlight is that we need to confront this issue. There is a need for some serious structural adjustment here – and despite promises made to irrigators as late as the 1960s that water supply would be continuous, this has to change.
What is fundamental here, however, is that these communities not be abandoned: we need to ensure both our state and federal governments work with the local population when implementing any strategy but ensure that one is implemented regardless.
Alternatives are possible – and we need to find them or the Murray Darling will wither – and progress will cease altogether.
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