Just add water: a review of Running Out? by Ruth Morgan

‘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 very 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 Western Australians, she is also afflicted by a sense that these luxuries sit uneasily with the environmental reality, 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 Wheatbelt 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 that the capital of WA 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; WA, writes Morgan, may still turn out to be the ‘canary in the country’s climate change coal mine’. 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. It begins in 1829, with the foundation of the Swan River Colony, when a small group of white settlers inserted itself into the southwest corner of the continent, only to find that its 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.

That material is an engineer’s dream. From C. Y. 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 difficult’ Wheatbelt region; to the plan to improve the health of groundwater reserves lying beneath the sandy soils of Perth’s Swan Coastal Plain – one marvels at the ingenuity and boldness of the people charged with implementing (or, as we now say, ‘rolling out’) these schemes, even as one shudders at what they’ve 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; as she puts it, ‘How we define water scarcity … is historically contingent of our way of life, our expectations and aspirations.’ But while most readers will have no trouble assimilating this point, 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 coal mine of academic waffle began to show visible signs of distress towards the end of the first sentence and finally popped its clogs about half way 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 1) how expectations have changed over time, 2) how realistic our current expectations are in light of the amount of water we have, and 3) what has to happen, either to our expectations or to our water infrastructure, in order to bring the two into balance. Morgan must refer twenty or thirty times to increases or decreases in our hydroresilience, but the fuzziness of the concept, and the inconsistency with which it’s deployed, means that she effectively ducks the question her book’s title is so keen to advertise.

Running Out? began life as a PhD and the marks of its birth are everywhere – in its fondness for the grand concept (‘the discriminatory sanitary order’; ‘Big Water’), in its weakness for tautology (‘the connection of goldfields homes to reticulated supplies served to “domesticate” water, whereby it became readily available inside the home at the turn of a tap’), and in its 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 twentieth century questions the security that Australians have long associated with suburban spaces.’ By the end of the book I wasn’t at all sure if WA is running out of water; but I had, alas, run out of patience.

Ruth A. Morgan, Running Out? Water in Western Australia
UWA Publishing; $34.99; 268pp

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First published in The Weekend Australian.