Saturday, May 20, 2006


Stillsuit for a nation

The eucalyptus tree in front of our house would appear to be dead.

It's not a small tree. It reaches to at least twice the height of our two-storey townhouse, and it's certainly one of the taller trees in the block. Its branches, not the usual feeble eucalyptus efforts, spread wide and variously play host to crows, cockatoos, noisy miners and kookaburras. The kookaburras are especially fond of it at about 2am, when they are wont to have noisy domestic squabbles that preclude sleep for those of us who don't have wings.

I take the precipitate departure of our tree to be the sign that the drought continues apace. As little as a month ago those spreading branches were completely fleshed out with green leaves. Last week I looked up and they were all brown. The poor thing is going to look pretty shabby once they all drop off, but unless we get some serious ground-soaking rain soon that will be the least of its worries. Presumably this means that the current shortage of said bountiful precipitation is unusual even in the lifetime of a 20-metre gum tree.

Not that it hasn't rained in the last week, of course, in fact it's rained several times. But this rain doesn't stick; two hours later, washing left out in it is dry again. Not only our stately eucalypt but the hardy kikuyu lawn at the university are showing the symptoms of a long-lasting imbalance between the water they need and the water they're actually getting. Water levels in the Sydney dams are at the 40-ish percent mark and dropping steadily.

Things do not look like getting better any time soon. Any sane person, indeed any sane regional body, confronted with such a situation, would take steps to reduce their reliance on rain as a source of water for minor but important facets of civilisation like drinking and washing. You might think, for instance, that instead of pouring enormous quantities of somewhat dirty fresh water out to sea every day via the business end of water treatment plants, that perhaps you could recycle some of it. Perhaps even go so far as to make it fit to drink, as is done in many major cities around the world.

Fat chance. Recycled water here in Oz is at the receiving end of what I can only call a propaganda war. Let's insist on all calling it "recycled sewage", for a start. That'll really sell it to the public. Almost everyone who ever mentions recycled water in the media talks about recycled sewage. Anyone would think that rainwater was created in a blaze of celestial light just above the cloud layer and never made contact with anything less pure than the wings of angels before coming out the tap. I have drunk the tapwater in Adelaide, and I swear you could taste the urine of at least five different species of river fish in it. Recycled water could not possibly be any worse!

Instead, desalination plants are held up as the great white hope for supplying drinking water. Desalination, the molecular equivalent of pushing water uphill with a pointy stick. A more involved, energy-intensive and ecologically damaging version of the same technology used to clean up waster water and make it fit to drink. I wonder who's getting rich of that idea, then? Someone, no doubt, who is friends with someone else who's conveniently forgotten where Sydney used to put its untreated sewage until fairly recently.

I took some photos of our tree today, I'll post them up once they're developed and I get a chance to scan them.

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