May 21, 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
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.