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Water and Wealth

February 22, 2011

One of the more awe-inspiring experiences of the Dialogues on Country trip was our drop-in visit to Cubbie Station. Cubbie Station is a cotton plantation in Southeast Queensland (in)famous for its enormous water licenses. When its reservoirs are full, Cubbie controls an amount of water roughly equivalent to Sydney Harbour! Lizzy Skinner describes her reaction to seeing this monstrous amount of privately held water stretching across the land in this video:

In the course of our travels we encountered a lot of anger toward Cubbie Station. Graziers to the south have been severely impacted by all sorts of environmental, social, and economic change in recent years, but the blame for much of this is easily placed on the large, mysterious, and apparently very greedy operation just up-river. As Lizzy points out, Cubby Station is merely a symbol of a general trend–both wealth and water are gradually being consolidated to the north, in the hands of large irrigation operations. To many, this seems to come at the expense of livelihoods and ecosystems downstream.

For me this raises a very important question with respect to adaptation. Many people are focused on the question of what we are adapting to: what climate extremes are in store? How will rainfall patterns change? But equally important is the question of what we are adapting. What values are most important for us to fulfill as we move forward? It is not clear that the current system is working for people as it should. And if that’s the case, we don’t just want to preserve that system in the face of climate change; we actually want to change how the system works and who it works for, even as it adapts.

This raises some very difficult questions. For the example of agriculture, is it more important to preserve or augment productivity of the industry as a whole, or should we be really focused on maintaining the viability of small to medium sized farming operations? It is not clear that those two goals are the same. I was struck by the amazing contrast between the dwindling town of Goodooga (population 250), with its historic reliance on grazing, and the massive irrigating empire just to the north. It really drives home the point that adaptation (whether to climate or any other kind of large scale change) creates winners and losers.

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