The Victorian government’s plan to build one of the biggest desalination plants in the world, in South Gippsland, appears at face value a solution to Victoria’s water crisis. Although it’s despite Labor’s election mandate of 2006 to outright reject the desalination plant.
Labor now claims the environmental impact will be carefully managed, but the desalination plant will be controlled by a multinational company through a Public Private Partnership. Profit will be the main motive and costs including those of any carbon credits to be paid will be passed on to households. It is estimated that water bills in Victoria are set to increase 60 per cent by 2012!
The desalination process is very wasteful, inefficient, and expensive. As Friends of the Earth (FOE) highlights the massive continuous energy requirement of the plant will produce around one million tons of CO2 per year. Ironically, global warming is thought to be a prime cause of dwindling water supplies, which includes reducing rainfall!
Not only is desalination wasteful but it pollutes the ocean. High volumes of dry waste such as chemicals will be disposed of in landfill, while other waste will be discharged back into the sea. Considering the costs and devastating environmental damage caused by desalination, it really must be considered only as a last resort.
Why have all other options including water conservation not been pursued? While working people are being asked to have shorter showers and to pay higher prices for water, big business is not being forced to implement water saving measures.
It is agribusiness that has contributed to the water shortage in the first place. Agriculture accounts for much greater water usage than households and all other sectors combined. In Victoria, only 8 per cent of water use is domestic whereas agriculture is responsible for 66 per cent. Experts have shown that the water shortage could be solved through conservation: embracing new technologies in water irrigation, using recycled water for industry and irrigation, shifting away from high water crops such as rice and pasture, and by stopping logging in Melbourne’s Thomson and Yarra catchments.
Water conservation could also create new, sustainable and ongoing jobs. This would include the installation of rainwater tanks, and through conservation in industry and public buildings such as upgrading technologies in things like cooling systems.
Unfortunately the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union (CFMEU) support the project on the basis that it will create construction jobs. With unemployment expected to rise to 8 percent within the next year, there is no doubt that job creation is desperately needed, but any unions writing blank cheques to such projects also need to consider the environmental and social impact, and working conditions. It is worth noting that John Holland is a key player in one of the bids for the desalination plant, an employer notorious for ignoring the health and safety of its workers.
It is crucial that unions take a leading role in fighting for sustainable jobs. As the Socialist Party has argued many times, creating jobs and protecting the environment are not incompatible. The issue of the water crisis is no different. In fact many more jobs could be created in sustainable projects like solar and extending public transport for instance. Most people are concerned about both jobs and the environment. There is no division between the two: unemployment, low pay and the destruction of the environment are all caused by the same profit driven system.
By Kylie McGregor