Building more dams won’t make it rain. Nor will bringing in millions

The Australia Institute’s Maryanne Slattery has hit out at the new found push to build dams across regional Australia to alleviate drought, arguing that it would be both costly and pointless given there will not be enough rain to fill them due to climate change:

…if new dams can solve Australia’s water problems, why didn’t the government build more dams last time? Or the time before that?

It may seem obvious, but building new dams doesn’t make it rain. Even if it does rain, we already have plenty of empty dams where the water can go.

But with even more empty dams, Australia could hold even more water to last through the next drought, right?…

Not necessarily. More important than how many dams Australia has is how we allocate water. Even if a new dam had been built for public use and it had water in it last year, most likely it would have been used for irrigation. Towns like Dubbo and Tamworth would be in exactly the same situation that they are in now…

Keeping water in dams “just in case” of severe drought is not good for business. Water in dams is water that isn’t being used for irrigation.

[Former NSW Water Minister Kevin Humphries] introduced legislation that removed the millennium drought from water allocation calculations, meaning more water came out of dams for irrigation which would otherwise be available for towns through the drought…

If more water is diverted, for example via a new dam, then an equivalent amount of water needs to be taken out of irrigation somewhere else…

Politicians lamenting the lack of new dams somehow manage to overlook the 20 to 30 new dams that have been built in the last few years. These dams are several square kilometres in size and many can be seen from the road between Griffith and Hay, NSW. They were even subsidised by the taxpayer.

The reason politicians don’t like to talk about these dams is they do nothing for drought-stricken towns and struggling communities. Instead they are on private land for the exclusive use of corporate agribusiness.

Dams operate like batteries. They store up water in the ‘good times’ to be used in times of drought. They could be useful long-term, provided the right policies are in place to ensure that they are not continually raided for irrigation.

That said, there is an angle that has been entirely missed. Australia’s population is growing by around 400,000 people a year – roughly a Canberra. And this is projected to continue indefinitely:

Moreover, the Morrison Government has just implemented a visa decentralisation program to send migrants to Australia’s drought-stricken regions.

Where will the additional water supply come from to cope with this population increase?

Water supply is clearly a major problem in the era of climate change. But we cannot ignore the demand-side of the equation. The extra 17.5 million people projected to arrive in Australia over the next 48 years – driven entirely by mass immigration – will consume water just like the rest of us:

Flooding the world’s driest continent with tens-of-millions of additional people is policy lunacy.

Unconventional Economist


  1. Many years ago I know there were some studies done to pipe water from North Queensland. So without such plan or building Desal Plant and pipe that water inland I can’t see the point of building new dams.

  2. Water from dams also depletes through seepage and evaporation, so they are mostly of use to smooth out seasonal flows, rather than longer term variance like el nino or global warming. Having a dam solely for a one in 5 or 10 year event is a non-starter.

  3. In the 60s Lang Hancock tried to convince the government bof the day to purchase nukes from USA. He wanted to excavate the centre of Australia into a inland sea with a channel to the coast to fill it. From what I recall the idea was to build cities around it.

    • Well as long as people learn to make coffees and soy frappuccinos with sand and salt water, they can get jobs as baristas and the new cities will be like real Aussie cities.

      No need to use a machine to heat the coffee out in the new Central Strayan Paradise either, just leave it on a rock in the sun for a while.

      • but on a more serious note.. who can predict what happens the climate in central Oz if such large sea is created. Imagine the shear water evaporation and increased rainfalls.

        • True – entirely unpredictable!

          I note though that evaporation does not make rain actually fall. Note desert coasts such as north Western Australia, southwest and northwest Africa, northern Chile, the Arabian Peninsula… all right next to giant oceans where plenty of evaporation happens. But the rain doesn’t fall unless the vapour gets chilled quickly eg rising over mountains or striking cooler air. I agree it’s unpredictable but the most likely outcome is a giant stagnant salt pool (including sea water getting into the Great Artesian Basin and f#cking it up 100 times faster than we’ve done so far). Very likely a total disaster.

          • “ll right next to giant oceans where plenty of evaporation happens. But the rain doesn’t fall unless the vapour gets chilled quickly eg rising over mountains or striking cooler air.”

            Then wouldn’t it be best to use all that displaced earth from that inner-sea cavity, and build a mountain range with it?

            Ka-ching !!

          • You’re onto it A2. I remember seeing a map where they thought it’d lush up the entire Eastern seaboard due to the ranges. I don’t remember anything about aquifers, but they probably weren’t a consideration back then.

            Geez RP you should be in Government.

          • Now you’re talking! The only problems with geo engineering are caused by not doing enough of it!

            Although weren’t we using nukes to make the inland sea? How do we convince the pulverised rock and radioactive dust to re-form into a convenient mountain?

    • Look up the Salton sea docos … a taste:

      “One of the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history is rapidly approaching, a casualty of the drought and “water wars” in the Southwest. California’s largest lake – the Salton Sea in the Sonoran desert – is disappearing. Breaking Point examines the history of the Salton Sea, the missed opportunities that have plagued it for decades, and the current options for its survival.”

      • ” the Salton Sea in the Sonoran desert – is disappearing.”

        I hope that doesn’t impact on the next time GTA is set in Los Santos

        • It pertains to the discussion of man made seas and its back drop, superseded by its environmental catastrophe once it was completely looted. Now Calif enjoys the PG&E results of privatization and endemic looting.

        • It also pertains to the landscape surrounding Blaine county, particularly the Alamo sea.

          If the Salton sea disappears, then so too will the Alamo sea from GTA

    • This is California we’re talking about — full of people with crazy ideas but also the US state most likely to descend into some sort of post-apocalypse dystopia. Homelessness is out of control while housing affordability is worse than straya so decent people have been leaving in their droves. Soon, the major metropolitan areas will be inhabited by the homeless, hordes of illegals, a tiny middle class, the Hollywood set and lots of super-wealthy. Oh and the newly minted Chinese. Good luck squeezing raising the required tax revenues from that motley bunch.

  4. “”costly and pointless given there will not be enough rain to fill them due to climate change:””
    The Guardian is consistent. Always use broad sweeping hyperbole that has no evidentiary basis.

    • Didn’t Tim Flannery say that at the end of the melenial drought just before it rained again and all the dams overflowed? Was that the time of the Brisbane flood too? I can’t remember. I think it was also around the time he said sea levels were going to rise and make coastal areas inhabitable so he bought a seafront home.

  5. These grand plans for immigration decentralisation and all the other gummint horseshit will eventually bump up against the reality of there being no water available to sustain the population.

    Difficult times are coming.

    • TailorTrashMEMBER

      Welcome back LSW….where have you been ..?….deep behind enemy lines carrying out sabotage and general mayhem ….or doing really strategic stuff like interdicting Aldi bags stuffed with Chinese dollars .

      • Thanks mate.

        I fulfilled a lifelong ambition and went to France to visit the battlefields that my Pop fought on. He won the MM at the battle of Amiens in 1918 for volunteering to fetch help for his unit after the previous two volunteers had been shot to pieces in front of him. He was a better man than I’ll ever be, and I thought I should go and pay my respects.

        Also went to the Battle of Britain air show at Duxford to see the Spitfires and Hurricanes flying, HMAS Belfast on the Thames, caught up with some old mates in London, did some hiking in Italy, checked out Singapore on the way back.

        Now resuming normal transmission. 🙂

  6. Why won’t TAI, excellent on climate and water, address the linked population issue? I’ve asked them repeatedly, they can’t give me a reason. So they won’t mind if I assume the reason is: It’s bad form, in the circles in which TAI chiefs move.

    • Wellie Climate is a Global factor and immigration on a national level does nothing to sort it out.

      Other than that the right wing has constantly used racist propaganda to fat finger others for – its – failings E.g. boat people whilst the flood gates were wide open via airlines.

      • The immigration of people who are already rich or come from other rich countries will make little difference to anthropogenic global warming, but mass migration of ordinary people from poor countries will result in massive increases in their ecological footprint and carbon footprint, which would not have occurred if they had stayed at home.

        Note that we are taking migrants from countries a lot poorer than China.

        The migration also offers people a personal solution to their problems and a source of remittances to their relatives back home, reducing the incentives for their home countries to reduce population growth and make their economies more efficient.

  7. Ronin8317MEMBER

    The ridicule of Cargo Cultist need to stop. This is religion persecution!!

    On a more serious notes, the article pinpoints the biggest issue with irrigation farming : as long as it doesn’t rain, water usage will expand to use up every single drop of water until there is no water left. Having more dams means we will actually use up the water even faster due to over allocation.

    • I said years ago that a day will come where exporting our water would be more dire than exporting any other resource.

      • We export rice for FFS! What’s up with that? Rice and cotton – two huge consumers of water.

        It beggars belief. This why water actually needs to be charged out at an economic price — if it weren’t free, the rice and cotton-producing industries would be toast in this country. It’s lunacy.

        • Yep!!! All the water would then be kept for the big cities where consumption adds so much to our prosperity and GDP per litre of water would be the highest.
          People grow cotton with it because that is the highest return for the combination of land and water costs. I personally don’t like cotton much but personal dislikes and facts are not the same.

  8. Forrest GumpMEMBER

    Flooding the world’s driest continent with tens-of-millions of additional people is policy lunacy.

    I disagree.

    Its the voters that voted for the man that has these policies that are lunicidal

  9. So this idiot thinks building infrastructure is a bad idea?

    A round 2010 Brisbane’s Wivenhoe Dam was down to 17%. At the time I thought it was a good idea to get a team of bulldozers in there and deepen it, pushing the soil out to the edges to make the walls higher on the outer edges (cheaper too, because the soil wouldn’t have to be removed. This would help reduce evaporation in the shallow dam and increase its storage capacity.

    This wouldn’t have stopped the Brisbane floods but it would increase the cities water security for the next 20-40 years. It also would have been a hell of a lot cheaper than the failed Mary River Dam project.

    Australia is a country of feast or famine – drought or flood. It will rain again and there will be more droughts, so building infrastructure now means we will be better prepared next time.

    And this stupid country hasn’t built anything in the last 25 years so we are really just playing catch up for all those years of neglect.