Lack of leadership on water

Tell me why, I don’t like Tuesdays? Actually, it is pretty obvious why. In the mornings while we try and get the kids up and ready for school, I must also water the garden (a half hour job). We get up at 5:30am on a normal day to achieve this. The logical thing would be to get up half an hour earlier on Tuesday and water the garden. Can I do that? No. Instead I have to wait and get everyone up a half hour early so that I can water after 6am. This is the sort of lunacy that comes with arbitrary water restrictions (see my earlier post and this one from Andrew Leigh).

Now to quote Talking Heads, “well, how did we get here?” We got here because the government is using a policy designed for temporary emergencies — Stage Whatever Water Restrictions — when the problem is long term. Population pressure combined with other climatic changes — caused by humans or otherwise — means that water is becoming scarce. It is not just scarce this month but likely to be scarce forever.

At the moment, the Victorian (and other State) governments are sending the message: we want you to reduce water consumption but we don’t want to lose votes if people are miserable about conserving water in showers or washing clothes and dishes. So what we do is impose restrictions that make it difficult for people to water gardens and fill pools in the hope that they simply wont. That will keep water consumption down.

But the correct long-term behavioural and habitual response is not this. Instead, it is to make people aware of their ACTUAL water consumption and take measures to reduce it. Take, for instance, showers. We all probably shower much longer and with higher pressure than would be the case if we had to bear the TRUE SOCIAL COST of our water consumption. But what are we doing at the moment? We are showering even longer to try and fill a bucket so that we can water individual plants! All the time, we know it is stupid. The question is who to point the finger to.

Well, if you are serious about water management as one of the key environmental challenges facing this country, then the finger has to be pointed at the State governments. They have squandered an opportunity with the current drought to educate the population on their true awter use. If they had either (a) imposed increasing water charges related to use (and this wont hurt the poor because every household could have a free allowance) or (b) imposed a limit on consumption per household (with increasing tax penalties for over-use) then everyone would get a quick wake-up call. They would be forced to think about what water use is really important and they will conserve appropriately. Moreover, they will do so in a sustainable manner.

Put simply, there is a complete lack of leadership on the water crisis at a State government level. These are the same folks who are debating with the Federal government who should manage the Murray-Darling water issue. Well, if their performance with drought management is anything to go by, that debate is already resolved by example. The new Federal government leadership — say what you will about environmental flip-flopping — appears to be considering policies with a more sustainable bent. Although even there it is a worry. I would prefer policies design to allign incentives with appropriate behaviour than large scale expenditure but in many ways we are moving in the right direction so I am not complaining too much.

It is time for our governments to face facts. Dealing with environmental issues and managing their consequences is not one for heavy-handed, gut reaction, wait and see, policies such as current water restrictions. Imposing them reduces the constituency for real behavioural change. And the opportunity for education on that is being washed away.

7 thoughts on “Lack of leadership on water”

  1. Option (b) is easy, hey? So, spell out the limits that should be imposed. A limit per person? Per household? Or – let me guess – something much more complicated, varying with age of the householders, size of land-holding, type of building, type of use, time of year, length of drought and dozens of other fixed and varying factors? Sounds like a lot of (costly) effort to devise a rule that better fits with your personal routine.

    Anyway, all these complaints about capricious watering of gardens will be moot if/when Stage Four comes in, where there’s no watering at all. Wouldn’t that – option (c) – be the easiest solution? And a fine way to educate Melbournians about the pointlessness of having water-thirsty gardens in Australia.

    Re: the 6AM start. Until Stage Four comes in, why not just install an ‘automatic dripper system’, which can be used between midnight and 4AM? (There’s more info at, including how anyone – e.g. Orthodox Jews, or maybe inflexible economists – can apply for an exemption from any of the Stage Three restrictions.)


  2. There is a six week wait on dripper systems. I wonder why?

    Are you telling me that the government does not know the overall water target and can’t just divide by the number of households in the state?


  3. So the only factor that matters is usage per ‘household’? Do you really think someone living alone should get the same amount of water as a family of 15? And is Crown Casino a household too? I don’t understand why you think this is simple.

    By the way, people who are having longer showers just to fill buckets are obviously breaching the spirit – but, more importantly, arguably the letter – of the Stage Three rules. If it wasn’t water destined for an outflow drain, then it isn’t greywater.

    A six week wait? So, all your griping about watering at 6AM is really only about six weeks of watering at 6AM? Stage Three came in six weeks ago – albeit with months of warning – so your dripper must be coming this week.


  4. You’re oversimplifying. Why is a ‘household’ the right unit to measure out the water? And what is a household? Do you really think that a one-person flat, a eight-person house and Crown Casino should all get the same amount of water?

    By the way, people who are showering longer are obviously breaking the spirit of the rules, but more importantly they are arguably breaking the letter; if it isn’t a byproduct of regular use of a water system, then it isn’t greywater.

    Six weeks? Hardly a long wait, given the trivial issues you’re having with the current rules. Anyway, Stage Three has been here for six weeks, so your dripper must be coming anyday (assuming you didn’t order months ago, when everyone knew that Stage Three was coming.)


  5. Once we spoke of a “Now” generation. That has grown to a “Now” society, which does not understand that all change is gradual.

    Hence the awful ignorance displayed in so much of the recent comment on water.

    It should never for instance be necessary to drink recycled water if people do not want to.

    The solution is a dual water supply.

    The dual water supply does not have to be universal. Start by installing dual supply in new developments and major reconstructions which are required for other reasons.

    For a dual supply the cost of the actual pipes is only a small part of the cost. Hence the cost in a new development is far less than installation in an already established area.

    With a complete recycled water system more than half of the water used will still be new water.

    If the water was being recycled people could stand under he shower for as long as they liked provided the water used did not exceed the requirements for recycled water.

    Many city households are not individually metered. Individual metering must surely be one of the first changes made for an equitable system.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: