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Gardening the World: Agency, Identity and the Ownership of Water

Gardening the World: Agency, Identity and the Ownership of Water

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Gardening the World: Agency, Identity and the Ownership of Water

507 Seiten
7 Stunden
Aug 1, 2009


Around the world, intensifying development and human demands for fresh water are placing unsustainable pressures on finite resources. Countries are waging war over transboundary rivers, and rural and urban communities are increasingly divided as irrigation demands compete with domestic desires. Marginal groups are losing access to water as powerful elites protect their own interests, and entire ecosystems are being severely degraded. These problems are particularly evident in Australia, with its industrialised economy and arid climate. Yet there have been relatively few attempts to examine the social and cultural complexities that underlie people's engagements with water. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in two major Australian river catchments (the Mitchell River in Cape York, and the Brisbane River in southeast Queensland), this book examines their major water using and managing groups: indigenous communities, farmers, industries, recreational and domestic water users, and environmental organisations. It explores the issues that shape their different beliefs, values and practices in relation to water, and considers the specifically cultural or sub-cultural meanings that they encode in their material surroundings. Through an analysis of each group's diverse efforts to 'garden the world', it provides insights into the complexities of human-environmental relationships.

Aug 1, 2009

Über den Autor

Veronica Strang is a Professor of Anthropology and Executive Director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University. An environmental anthropologist, she has written extensively on water, land and resource issues in Australia and the UK, and is the author of Uncommon Ground: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental Values (Berg 1997), and The Meaning of Water (Berg 2004). She also co-edited, with Mark Busse, the ASA Monograph, Ownership and Appropriation.

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Gardening the World - Veronica Strang



Water Garden

There went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground…And the Lord God planted a garden, eastward in Eden.

–Genesis 2:6–7

Figure 1 The Brisbane River at Caboonbah.

The Mirage

There is a garden in the mind's eye: a vision of a perfect world; a productive, well-fed, well-watered world in which societies coexist amicably; in which ecosystems are allowed to maintain themselves and all of their extraordinary intricacies; in which resources are only used at a rate that can be replenished; and in which the words starvation, conflict and extinction do not exist. This image, in myriad cultural forms, hovers like a mirage on the edge of the human imagination, sometimes inspiring hope that with enough striving it can be reached; more often engendering concern that humankind is on a road that doesn't go there.

This book is about the imperative to ‘garden the world’ that – though it may have this perfect vision in mind – has spiralled into a seemingly relentless desire for growth and expansion: a desire that is leading, inexorably, to an ecological crisis. It is about the things that, for most people, are simply more important, more seductive and more urgent. Most particularly, it is about water, and how this striving for growth has created an unquenchable thirst, draining rivers and aquifers dry, and causing societies to compete for water not only with each other, but also with the environment itself. Water lies at the heart of all development; indeed, little can happen without it. It is integral to people's abilities to have agency, to generate wealth and to direct social, economic and political events. It is, in other words, essential to every diverse cultural effort to ‘garden’, in an equally varied range of ecological contexts. Some cultural and subcultural groups garden more lightly (and thus more sustainably) than others. Comparing a range of land and water users, this book considers the beliefs and practices that lead to different forms of environmental engagement.

As water scarcity becomes a reality in many parts of the world, resources are increasingly the subject of social and political conflict, most particularly where freshwater sources cross international boundaries. Even within nations there are rising tensions over the control and ownership of water. There is competition for water allocations between rural and urban users, between indigenous and nonindigenous groups and between industrial and recreational water users. (Bakker 2003; Mosse 2003; Pearce 2006; Strang 2001a, 2009).¹ Many analysts now believe that water will soon follow – or overtake – oil as a source of conflict.

Globally, agricultural water use increased five-fold in the twentieth century: two to three times the pace of population growth. Ohlsson (1995) points out that soils are being eroded, salinated and made unproductive faster than new soils can be brought under the plough. There is now a shortage of new land suitable for irrigated agriculture, and the amount of irrigated land and grain produced per capita has been falling since the 1980s. Water abstraction (along with the clearing of land for agriculture) is a primary cause of habitat loss and the reported extinction, worldwide, of one hundred species a day (Vandeman 1998: 66). Groundwater tables are declining, and many rivers are utilized to the point where they no longer reach the sea:

Figure 2 Mural at Community Justice Centre, Kowanyama.

We have come to a point where water scarcity is increasingly perceived as an imminent threat, sometimes even the ultimate limit, to development, prosperity, health, even national security. (Ohlsson 1995: 4)

The world is running out of fresh water . Already the social, political and economic impacts of water scarcity are rapidly becoming a destabilising force, with water related conflicts springing up around the globe. (Barlow and Clarke 2003: 6)

Further intensity is given to conflicts by the powerful and emotive meanings encoded in water. Though these are shaped and elaborated in multiple ways within specific cultural contexts, common themes have persisted throughout human history and across cultural boundaries. Water is perceived, broadly, as the lifeblood of every endeavour, as the essence of spiritual and social identity, as the substance most vital to human health and well being, as the wellspring of individual and collective wealth and agency and as the fluid manifestation of literal and metaphorical processes of change and transformation (Douglas 1973; Strang 2004a, 2005a).

Because of the meanings that water holds, and its centrality to human endeavours, inclusion in the ownership and control of freshwater resources has often been seen as a fundamental form of enfranchisement and a basic human right. Such precepts are difficult to reconcile with the increasing privatization of water resources. For some, this commoditization represents potential managerial efficiencies and economic gains. Others see it as an unacceptable form of enclosure and an abdication of one of the key responsibilities of government. Thus the technical and ecological issues are entangled with the social and cultural meanings and values that are encoded in water, and with pressing moral questions about ownership and access.

In Australia, the world's driest continent, a combination of rapid development and increasing drought has brought water issues to a point of crisis.² A water resources audit in 2002 showed that 26 per cent of its surface water and 31 per cent of its groundwater sources are over allocated. The country has dam storage capacity of 83,853 GL, but in June 2005 this contained only 39,959 GL of water (AATSE 2004: iii). Farmers now find themselves regularly competing for insufficient resources with domestic water users: in the same year that agricultural use was forced down by 10 per cent, to 65 per cent of the total 18,767 GL of water used in the economy, domestic water use rose from a 5 per cent average to 11 per cent (Commonwealth Government of Australia 2005: 2).

Table 1 Australian and Queensland water use in gigalitres (Commonwealth Government of Australia, 2005:1).

With electricity generation also highly reliant on water, there is also the prospect of regular power supply shortages and rapid rises in electricity charges.³ There is now national concern about the security of water supplies and thus the country's social and economic stability, coupled with real alarm about the ecological implications of the continued overuse of resources.

Australians are a coastal people living on the driest inhabited continent on earth. Many of the values we hold regarding water and the way we use it have come from other places and other times. We must recognize this…A 1950s European lifestyle conducted on the evercrowding fringe of a desert continent is not sustainable economically, ecologically or socially. (Simpson and Oliver 1996: 70)

Australia's crisis revives a central question, raised by Schumacher many years ago (1974) and by environmentalists and social activists ever since, about the feasibility of achieving social or ecological sustainability with an economic mode requiring constant growth. Today, climate change is underlining the point, forcefully demonstrating that global ecosystems do not have an infinite capacity to absorb the effects of ever intensified production. Though less clearly articulated, there is also ample evidence that societies destabilize when economies are not conducted, as Schumacher put it, ‘as if people matter’ (1974). This is borne out in Australia, where subcultural communities and local ecosystems are exhibiting signs of strain. Although Australia may be one of the first industrialized countries to reach this point, similar problems are surfacing in many parts of the world, and the underlying reasons for them are echoed in other cultural contexts. In this sense, Australia is ‘the canary in the coal mine’, offering an invaluable comparator, and a clear early warning that water issues must be addressed effectively.

Though generally regarded as an ecological or technical problem, the overuse of water is, above all, a social and political issue. An understanding and appreciation of people's diverse relationships with water – and with each other – is vital for the resolution of conflicts, and for the development of more ecologically and socially sustainable forms of water use. There is a need to consider not just the formal institutions and structures involved, but also the ways that different groups control or influence the management and use of water and the conceptual models and values that they apply in this process.

This book therefore sets out to explore the perspectives of different groups of water users in Australia, the social and environmental relationships that direct their engagements with water, and their responses to developments in water policy and governance. It articulates the issues that lie under the surface of people's interactions with water, examining how local realities – social complexities, diverse subcultural perspectives, and material opportunities and constraints – intersect with top-down economic forces and political ideologies. In particular, it attempts to elucidate the imperatives that drive people's desire to ‘garden the world’ so relentlessly, and so thirstily. In doing so, it hopes to provide analysts and policy makers with a new perspective on human-environmental engagements: one that will assist them in guiding societal choices in a more genuinely sustainable direction.

The Study

It's the people. We see that all the time. We'd say, ‘It would be all easy if we just had to do all the soil and the plants and the animals.’ It's the people that make it very difficult, very challenging.

–Chris Rinehart, Department of Natural Resources

The research supporting this text was conducted between 2003 and 2007, with lengthy periods of fieldwork in two major river catchments in Queensland. It employed standard anthropological methods: literature reviews, participant observation⁴ and archival research. During the course of the research 331 people were interviewed, some of them several times. Their voices are included in this text as much as possible.⁵ Research was conducted with indigenous communities, graziers,⁶ farmers, extractive and manufacturing industries, recreational water users, domestic water users and river catchment groups and other environmental organizations. The investigation also built on the author's previous ethnographic work with these communities, conducted over the last twenty years, and considered related research by social and natural scientists.

The structure of this text reflects the research design. Following a description of the two catchment areas, chapter 1 sets out an analytic framework, outlining key areas of anthropological theory and noting how they might be brought to bear on the case study material. It examines theories concerning production and consumption, and considers how these facilitate processes of commoditization. It observes how natural resources are ‘acculturated’ through people's efforts to engage with and act upon their material environments with varying degrees of directive force. It focuses particularly on how water is integrated into creative efforts to construct and express social identity and agency through the ownership and control of resources, and how this involves self-generative activities aimed at ‘gardening the world’.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of issues of water governance, considering the various international, national, regional and local institutions and regulatory mechanisms through which it is enacted. It considers the relationships between these different scales of action, and the conceptual models and ideologies that inform them. It notes some key changes in the governance of water in Australia, in accord with a dominant commodifying vision in which water is recast as an economic (and increasingly privatized) asset. It also observes the persistence of a subaltern view defining and defending water as a ‘common good’, and considers how these ideological debates and institutional changes have impacted upon different groups of water users.

Subsequent chapters are concerned with the cultural and subcultural groups in the two river catchments. Chapter 3 describes Aboriginal groups' beliefs, values and practices in relation to water, land and resources, and considers how these provide an alternative and more holistic conceptual model of human-environmental interactions. It charts recent transitions in their engagements with water as they have adopted new social and economic forms and incorporated new material culture into their lives. It also describes their efforts to regain ownership of land and water resources, to achieve more self-determination, and to reestablish a role as environmental managers.

Chapter 4 examines the perspectives of farmers and graziers on water issues and the historical developments that have shaped their interactions with water resources. It considers the centrality of water in their efforts to express social agency and identity as ‘primary producers’, and outlines their struggles to retain (at least vestiges of) the social, economic and political leadership that they enjoyed for much of the colonial era. It explores some of the factors that have created a widening rural-urban divide, leaving farmers feeling marginalized and resentful, noting that these tensions have been greatly exacerbated by competition for insufficient water resources and the loss of farming allocations as supplies have been redirected to ‘priority’ urban and industrial water users.

In chapter 5 the issues are examined from the point of view of industrial groups including mining and extractive industries;⁷ fertilizer, paper and chemical manufacturers; the Port of Brisbane and water supply companies themselves. Like the farmers, they have a highly directive view of the material environment, but now find themselves caught between conflicting ideologies in this regard. Industrial water users have retained a central economic position, and are consequently better positioned to compete with the enlarging domestic population for water resources. However, they are confronting major challenges, not only in maintaining the security of their water supplies, but also in meeting new demands for social and environmental responsibility.

Chapter 6 deals with people's recreational uses of water, considering how these have changed over time, and how they influence debates about water issues. It focuses primarily on noncommercial engagements with water, though offering a brief overview of the tourist industry in the two river catchments. Exploring recreational, aesthetic and direct sensory engagements with water sources, it notes the importance of these in encouraging affective concerns for social and ecological well being, and in building support for the environmental movement. It considers the relationship between the aesthetic use of water in public parks and recreational spaces, and people's creative use of water in the domestic sphere to express individual and familial agency and identity. It also draws attention to a basic conflict between the meanings encoded in water and ‘demand-side management’ efforts to persuade people to limit their use of water resources.

Charting the emergence of a powerful environmental movement in Australia over the last two decades, Chapter 7 considers the environmental and conservation organizations involved in managing water in Queensland. These range from regional and local ‘stakeholder’ groups, often dominated by local primary producers and landholders anxious to protect their access to water, to activist and indigenous organizations keen to critique industrial farming practices and promulgate different kinds of social and environmental relationships. In this sense, they reflect the central ideological divides between different water-using groups in Australia. The chapter explores the diverse beliefs and values that compose debates, paying particular attention to the local catchment management groups that provide an important new arena of agency and control, enabling a wide range of urban water users to be involved and ‘have a voice’ in the process of water management.

The conclusion draws together the different perspectives explored in the previous chapters and presents the major findings that emerge from the ethnographic analysis. Engaging with the theoretical debates set out at the beginning of the text, it considers the wider implications of the research in relation to policy and practice. It highlights some of the factors that provide impetus to unsustainable levels of ‘gardening’. It considers the concepts, ideologies and discourses about development and growth that dominate environmental management and how these serve to perpetuate unsustainable practices; and it suggests potential changes in conceptual and organizational models that may encourage more collective and sustainable interactions with water.

Two River Catchments

The research was carried out in two major river catchment areas: the Brisbane River in South Queensland, and the Mitchell River in Far North Queensland. These were chosen to encompass interactions with water, in remote, rural and urban areas. The use of river catchments as the basis for ethnographic research, as in previous work,⁸ permits a coherent analysis of the relationship between social and ecological issues.

The Brisbane River

Southern Queensland has a range of artesian and subartesian water sources, but its major water resources are the various rivers traversing the state, the largest of which is the Brisbane River. This dominates the 22,420 square kilometres defined as the southeast region.

Figure 3 Map of the Brisbane River Catchment.

The river forms in the Jimna ranges inland, emerging in a network of small and sometimes ephemeral streams that thread their way through loosely forested cattle country into two major tributaries. At various stages these tributaries are impounded by dams, creating the large Somerset and Wivenhoe reservoirs and other smaller water bodies.

Below the dams, amid the patchwork of fruit and vegetable farms of the central valley, the Brisbane River is joined by Lockyer Creek and the Bremer River. By the time it reaches the lower valley floodplains, it is a large, mud-brown serpent, winding in generous loops towards the city through a rapidly expanding suburban sprawl.

Changes in land use have radically altered the ‘particularly beautiful’ waterway first charted by the explorer John Oxley in 1823:

Other early writers were similarly struck by the beauty and fertility of the countryside around Brisbane. The lower reaches of the river were fringed by open forest and rainforest, the latter notable for hoop pines…Upslope of the river and along broader floodplains, rainforest changed abruptly to open Eucalyptus communities with a grassy understorey or a scattering of dogwood. Mangroves extended upstream to Hamilton reach. (Arthington 1990: 73¹⁰)

At that time, clans of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers had inhabited and managed the surrounding landscape for many thousands of years, and the river was central to their lives. As well as making extensive use of inland areas, they clustered in particular around its resource-rich estuary, which was dotted with small islands and sandbars (Gregory 1996: 2).

The river mouth was similarly attractive to Europeans searching for safe harbours, navigable waterways and fertile land. John Oxley recorded ‘country on either side of Very Superior description and equally well adapted for cultivation or grazing, the timber abundant and fit for all the purposes of domestic use or exportation’ (in Mackaness 1956: 12). Following this report, in 1924 the Moreton Bay penal settlement was established, initiating Brisbane's long-term development and expansion. By the 1840s pastoral holdings and farms had spread, following the river and its tributaries inland. ‘Inevitably, the consuming need to find reliable water supplies for people, livestock and crops dominated the early years of settlement’ (Powell 1991: 4).

Inland development generated commensurate growth around the port and wharves, sawmills, abattoirs and tanneries were built on the river banks. Even before the end of the nineteenth century there were concerns about the water pollution from these, and new legislation to address this problem was introduced in the 1890s:

Concern was raised over the use of Bulimba Creek by the Graziers Butchering Company…The issue of water pollution was certainly on the Divisional Board's agendas throughout the turn of the century, with many references to problems related to slaughter houses, piggeries, wool scours and fellmongeries. (Howells 2000: 33)¹¹

Queensland's separation from New South Wales in 1859 resulted in a major shortage of funds, and there was a push to attract immigrants from England and Germany to come and take over ‘free’ areas of land and make them productive: ‘Those dispossessed of access to land during the reform of British agriculture…would find plentiful land waiting to be tilled in the new colony’ (Gregory 1996: 38).

Emigration to the new colony encouraged urban development, which, like the agricultural expansion, clustered first around the port, and then, in the late 1800s, spread outwards and upriver. From the start, the city was dominated by the curving sweeps of the waterways which carved it into distinctive pockets and peninsulas. Settlers compared the Brisbane River to the Thames, using the river and bay as the colony's first great highway. Its tributaries provided a flow of goods: steamers brought fresh vegetables, coal and wool down the Bremer; lighters and cutters came down the Logan with sugar, cotton, maize and arrowroot; and, as the land was cleared, logs were floated down to Brisbane's sawmills (Longhurst and Douglas 1997: 3). Moreton Bay also supported a major commercial fishing industry, which depleted some species so rapidly that a system of licensing was introduced in 1877. Further restrictions followed, but the industry continued to grow nonetheless, and ‘in 1918 a modern, state-controlled fish market and cold storage facility was built near the Victoria Bridge at South Brisbane’ (Gregory 1996: 59).

When navigating the tortuous route through the estuary proved too difficult for larger boats, its sand bars and islands were dredged away, opening the river to more marine traffic. New entry channels were cut in 1865, 1886 and 1912. In the first half of the century over fifty-five acres of land were removed to widen the river mouth. ‘Training walls’ were built to regulate currents and encourage ‘scouring’ to prevent the estuary silting up again. Major industries expanded in the lower reaches of the river, all making use of the waterway for production processes, transport, cleaning and waste disposal.

Engineering also enabled the delivery of fresh water to expanding urban areas. A coal-fired pumping station supplied the first pipeline to Brisbane in 1893, bringing water straight from the river at Mt Crosby. A treatment plant to remove silt was built in 1919, and in 1925 the water was chlorinated for the first time. A weir was built in 1926, ‘thereby for the first time altering the normal flow behaviour of the river’ (Razzell 1990: 213).

Much larger alterations followed. Somerset Dam, completed in 1959, greatly increased the storage capacity of the Brisbane catchment, though with detrimental effects on the prawning industry downstream. Another major alteration – also aiming to improve the quality and reliability of water supplies – came with the construction of the massive Wivenhoe Dam, completed in 1983. The dams were not built merely to provide reservoirs for domestic supply: their purpose was also to provide some potential flood mitigation (spurred by major flooding of the city in 1893 and 1974), and irrigation for the growing number of farms in the central catchment area. Droughts in the late 1800s had reduced herds of cattle in Queensland by more than 50 per cent, and sheep numbers had dropped from 20 million to 8 million. In the 1920s, another drought and the relative independence of the states provided by federation encouraged an energetic commitment to further infrastructural developments and more intensive ‘gardening’:

Figure 4 Mt Crosby Weir.

In the minds of the new state's political and bureaucratic leaders water resources and regional development ran together: furthermore, like most Queenslanders, they were obsessively present and future-orientated – and in particular, there was an acceptance and an expectation of relentless pioneering, a readiness for forthright landscape authorship. (Powell 2002: 105)

Agricultural development was therefore strongly supported, with ‘the allotment of smallish parcels of land in efforts to attract young families to the irrigation frontier’ (Powell 2002: 107).

Such intense developmental activity had major ecological effects.¹² Forest clearing in the riparian zones and the introduction of sheep and cattle led to land slippage and soil erosion. The timber went to sawmills and paper mills, which were built alongside the main river and its tributaries, discharging their waste directly into the waterways. The abstraction of water from underground aquifers brought saline water to the surface, resulting in dryland salting and the salination of subsurface waters (Beresford et al. 2001; ABS 2002). Dairy and arable farming, increasingly dependent upon the use of fertilizers, carried plant nutrients into the watercourses, encouraging weed and algal growth (Dennison and Abal 1999). The new dams checked the natural flow of water down the catchment, and the river, which had been mostly clear until the 1930s,¹³ became increasingly turbid.

Urban expansion also demanded great quantities of sand, concrete and stone, and many quarries, such as the one at Kangaroo Point (which remained active till 1976), were situated near or on the river, thus adding to the disturbance of the aquatic ecosystem. There was considerable industrial development too, and by the latter half of the twentieth century the river was supplying water to increasingly sophisticated manufacturing industries producing paints, plastics and other chemically complex products.

In the 1970s substantial concentrations of carcinogenic substances such as petroleum hydrocarbons were found in sediments, fish and seabirds around the estuary, along with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) petroleum oils, plasticizers, solvents, pesticides, detergents and toxic metals. The river had accumulated other pollutants too: organic substances – fats, vegetable oils, proteins and carbohydrates – as well as pathogenic microorganisms such as faecal bacteria, viruses and parasites. Treated sewage discharges released chlorine residues toxic to aquatic organisms and, as if this was not enough, there were also enlarging populations of feral (introduced) fish species.

Several key changes occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Aboriginal rights came to the fore, giving voice, for the first time, to a discourse about land management that critiqued the state's commitment to unconstrained resource development. Further dissent came from the burgeoning of a previously small and marginal environmental movement, and the enlarging urban population began to ask questions about the ecological impacts of rural and industrial water use.

At this time the economy was also shifting away from an almost total dependence on primary production to encompass other service-based industries. The city, most particularly after the 1988 EXPO fair, saw a considerable growth in tourism. These changes encouraged a different kind of focus on the river, not merely as a source of water for residential supplies, intensive farming and industry, or as a drain for waste, but as an ecosystem, as a recreational space and as an aesthetic object. Brisbane became ‘The River City’, and the sinuous curves of the river appeared in accompanying logos.

By the beginning of the new millennium tourism had boomed along the seaboard, leading to the construction of dense high-rise developments. Brisbane was attracting fifteen hundred new residents every week, as southern Australians retired northwards, or moved to Queensland in search of job opportunities and cheaper housing. Between 1991 and 2001, South East Queensland received 29 per cent of the total population growth in Australia (Preston 2001), and it remains the fastest growing area in the country (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007).¹⁴ Its current population is expected to rise by a further million, to 4 million by 2026, generating a demand for 575,000 new dwellings and thus further expanding urban areas (Queensland Department of Infrastructure and Planning 2008).

With this rapid population growth, domestic demands for water and energy rose accordingly, so that coal-fired generating stations and urban water suppliers began to compete seriously with irrigators for dwindling water resources. Meanwhile, as rural industries came under more pressure from a globalizing economy, farmers struggled to intensify their production further. The use of water for irrigation had more or less doubled every decade since the 1970s, and continued to increase. In Australia as a whole, by the end of the twentieth century, over 75 per cent of the country's available freshwater was being used for irrigation (AATSE 2004: iii).¹⁵ In 2002, 37.1 per cent of the agricultural establishments in Queensland were irrigating (ABS 2005a: 3).

This has led to widespread public concern about the ecological effects. As a businessman in Brisbane put it, ‘Our history with the use of the water from the artesian basin is just vandalism’ (Arie de Jong). In the first decade of the new millennium a lengthy drought exacerbated the situation, forcing even the most resistant groups to pay attention to the evidence pointing to climate change and its potentially dire consequences. ‘One of the most important impacts of climate change will be its effects on the hydrological cycle and water management systems, and through these on socio-economic systems’ (Young, Dooge and Rodda 1994: 90).¹⁶

In Australia it is already plain that ‘current management arrangements for water [have] greatly reduced environmental values in many rivers’ (Ladson and Finlayson 2004: 19). In the Brisbane River Valley, as elsewhere, major efforts have been initiated to address environmental problems. Some groups have lobbied energetically for better pollution control and the protection of environmental flows, suggesting that these could be achieved, if necessary, through a reduction in allocations to irrigators. Major water users – farmers and industry – have campaigned equally robustly to protect their access to resources; while the state government, conscious of the immediate social and political costs of failing to supply water to the enlarging urban population, has focused on how to achieve greater security of supply, mainly through the building of new – controversial – dams. Thus conflicts about water, simmering for some time, have begun to heat up.

The Mitchell River

Water issues in the Mitchell River catchment area are sometimes similar and sometimes different from those in southern Queensland. As well as the river itself, there are various artesian and subartesian water sources. The central valley, around Chillagoe, is well supplied with small aquifers, and the western end of the river sits on the edge of the Great Artesian Basin itself, although this vast underground sea of freshwater is showing signs of strain: ‘The Great Artesian Basin has suffered a massive drop in pressure and a loss of springs: the permanent springs it used to have are dried up’ (Damien Burrows, Australian Centre for Freshwater Research).¹⁷

The Mitchell is a major tropical river, fed by the Palmer River, the Walsh and other large tributaries. With headwaters in the Great Dividing Range and an estuary emptying into the Gulf of Carpentaria, it runs right across Cape York, traversing tropical rainforest, fertile tablelands, rocky hills, and then a wide sweep of savannah, culminating in rich wetland areas and marine plains. It covers an area of 73,230 square kilometres, and contains a population of between 4,500 and 7,500 people.¹⁸ Tropical monsoons provide considerable rainfall – between 750 and 800 mm per year, and occasionally nearer 2000mm.

Figure 5 Map of the Mitchell River Catchment.

Having such diverse and abundant resources, Cape York was one of the most densely inhabited areas of Australia prior to European settlement, and indigenous people still make up over 5 per cent of its current population – more than double the 2.4 per cent found in the national population (Cunningham-Reid and Pilat 2003). Located far from the early colonial centres, the peninsula remained relatively undisturbed until the late 1800s when the Palmer River gold rush brought a sudden influx of miners. Cattle stations supplying this community spread down the Mitchell River. The indigenous inhabitants fought to defend their land but, armed only with spears, they were massacred and dispossessed. Many clans were pushed to the western coast where missionaries, alarmed at the brutality of the frontier, had set up mission reserves.¹⁹ The river's estuary therefore lies in Kowanyama, an ex-mission reserve area established in 1903. This is now held by an Aboriginal community of just over one thousand people belonging to three major language groups: Kunjen, Kokobera and Yir Yoront.

Figure 6 Kunjen elder Alma Wason at the junction of the Mitchell and Alice Rivers.

Apart from this ex-mission settlement and large cattle stations, most of the development along the Mitchell is in its upper reaches, where a substantial country town, Mareeba, provides a commercial and social centre for numerous small farms. These rely on the Mareeba-Dimbulah irrigation scheme and the Tinaroo Dam completed in 1958, which feeds into but is not situated in the catchment area.²⁰ Within the catchment itself, there is a total storage volume of 425,779 ML, and total surface water use of 55,229 ML/year (Commonwealth Australian Government 2008).

The irrigation scheme enables farmers to grow various fruit and vegetable crops, including avocados, coffee, grapes, mangoes, maize and sugar. These have expanded to fill the gap left when deregulation caused the collapse of the highly profitable tobacco farming industry in 1995.

North Queensland's local economy remains heavily dependent upon agriculture, though employment patterns have followed national trends in shifting people out of primary production and into service industries. As in South Queensland, there has been an influx of retirees and job seekers, boosting the population considerably in urban areas and also in the periurban ‘lifestyle blocks’ that have become increasingly popular in Australia. The population in the Far North is expected to increase by a further 100,000 in the next twenty years (Queensland Department of Infrastructure and Planning 2008).

Figure 7 The Tinaroo Dam stores water for a major irrigation scheme.

A tourist industry began to flourish in the Far North in the 1980s and, though based primarily in Cairns, this has led to increasing development across Cape York. The Aboriginal community in Kowanyama provides sites for fishers and campers near the Gulf coast, and the river catchment contains several national parks: the Alice-Mitchell National Park at the junction of the two rivers and the Mungana Caves National Park near Chillagoe. One of the larger cattle stations, Wrotham Park, recently opened a luxury hotel on an escarpment above the Mitchell, and Mareeba, Chillagoe and Dimbulah now have a range of caravan parks, hotels and motels. Mareeba also has a Heritage Museum; there are various wineries and coffee farms in the upper catchment; and the Mareeba Wetlands, Julatten Bird Park and other ‘eco-tourist’ ventures provide a focus on local flora and fauna. Early mineworks have gained a new lease of life as cultural heritage sites.

Mining itself continues along the Mitchell and its tributaries, with large gold and zinc mines near Chillagoe and Mt Garnet and smaller alluvial gold mines, mostly on the Palmer River. The alluvial mines and a number of the older mine sites are implicated in some of the more severe environmental problems in the catchment. There is a sad litany of these: like other areas in northern Australia, the Mitchell River has a fragile and complex ecology and delicate soils. However, the older mine sites, leaching toxic chemicals and heavy metals into watercourses,²¹ and the new alluvial mines disturbing river banks and increasing the turbidity of the water, are only part of the problem. Much more widespread environmental damage has been created by cattle grazing, which, with the introduction of drought-resistant breeds and the building of more and more dams, has steadily intensified, causing extensive soil erosion and land degradation.

As in other parts of Australia, irrigated agriculture has also led to salination of some areas, and heavy fertilizer use has promoted weed growth in and along the waterways at the expense of indigenous species. Introduced weeds are a particularly pernicious problem in the tropical north.²² Rubber vine, chinee apple, water hyacinth, ‘bellyache’ bush and others choke the waterways and strangle native bush throughout the river systems. Feral animals, pigs, cats, cane toads, nonnative fish species and others, have also proliferated, adding to the disruption of local ecosystems.

Tourism, though a boost to the local economy, has brought its own pressures, with overfishing, litter and unplanned bush fires, and disruption from ‘bush-bashing’ four-wheel-driving adventures. It has also generated so much development that, as in the south, there is now growing competition for fresh water between tourists/domestic users and farmers in rapidly expanding urban areas. Farmers cannot afford domestic-level prices for water, and are extremely anxious about the growing threat to their allocations. As a sugar farmer said, railing against the government's threat to ‘rake back’ allocations: ‘You can make bombs with sugar you know!’

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