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.

About the author
Leith van Onselen is Chief Economist at the MB Fund and MB Super. He is also a co-founder of MacroBusiness. Leith has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs.