Thursday, June 18, 2009

Suck and truck


"It’s a gift under our land,” says Michael Opie, the managing director of Big Wet Natural Spring Water, in relation to his proposed second commercial bore licence at Musk, near Daylesford. I rang Opie a few weeks ago to ask him some questions about it. Whereas I can understand his desire to tap into the groundwater resource beneath his home for his family's use, I cannot understand why he is permitted to make commercial this public resource, transport it with dwindling and polluting fossil fuels to Melbourne, and sell it on to fill private swimming pools and to other bottled water companies such as Coca-Cola Amatil and Cadbury Schweppes.

Opie has spent considerable money setting up his first bore a year ago. The two hydrological studies required to obtain his first licence alone totalled more than $20,000. On top of this cost permit fees range between $1200-$1500, and the construction costs between $20,000-$50,000 for a bore of this size. Goulburn-Murray Water is the private company that oversees the licencing of bores in the region, and G-M W are ultimately answerable to the Minister for Water, Tim Holding. I spoke to Randal Nott, a hydrologist at the Department of Sustainability and Environment, and he said that onsite and immediate area ecological testing is quite extensive for a commercial bore, however nobody, to his knowledge, is assessing the ecological effects of pollution caused by the transportation and bottling of groundwater. Contrary to Nott's "extensive testing" a number of locals, immediate to the Musk bore, complained about their groundwater stores drying up last Summer. 

After Michael Opie's initial costs and after obtaining his permit he can start pumping water, buying the precious resource for a mere $2.30 per megalitre, or in real terms, about 6 cents a water tanker load. Considering the cost of a 600ml bottle of water, there's some pretty big margin there.

While it is encouraging that Goulburn-Murray Water has indicated an interest in making the area of Wombat, which includes Musk, a water management overlay, it can be argued that this only sends these types of commercial licences elsewhere. The problem of harvesting finite natural resources aggregately is culturally systemic; the abstraction of accumulating figures that doesn't stack up to the reality of what the land can physically support. As Michael Opie pointed out to me, if he wasn't doing it someone else would be. Opie believes his business is conducted sustainably despite the steady stream of 28,000 litre water tankers he employs for cartage between Musk and Melbourne. And he maintains that he is not growing his business, however later in our conversation he mentioned the possibility of purchasing new bores at other properties, down the track. Like with all modern-capitalist enterprises, growth is God.

For Australians to drink water bottled in plastic we now burn over 500,000 barrels of oil every year. In 2006, figures from the Australasian Bottled Water Institute Inc. show the amount was a mere 315,000 barrels. That's about 35% growth in three years. Imagine the waste products – plastics and emissions. It is not surprising therefore that one of the directors of Coca-Cola Amatil (a company who has 70% of the bottled water market), was until recently a 10-year director of Woodside Petroleum. Jillian Broadbent is also a Reserve Bank director. Mount Franklin and Pump bottled water brands are, of course, Coca-Cola's healthiest products in relative terms. Their other products actively contribute to the obesity epidemic and related health disorders associated with high-sugar and high-preservative based foods and drinks – tooth decay, mood swings, self-harm, aggressive behaviour and ADHD, each especially prevalent in young people. But with all their products industrial-scale polluting is unavoidable and no amount of greenwashing or positive PR can remedy the fact that bottled water is a brown industry dressed up to look green. Opie told me that Coca-Cola Amatil is a model corporation with whom he's proud to do business.

The water Michael Opie is privileged to use and sell for profit in real terms still belongs to the Dja Dja Wurrung people. Several years ago Dja Dja Wurrung elder Aunty Sue Rankin 
asked the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment to produce documents proving that the Crown has the right to occupy these lands. According to the Daylesford Advocate newspaper on June 2, 2004, local DSE officers acknowledged that they "cannot produce these documents and doubt that such documents exist". Since the Dja Dja Wurrung's almost total genocide (through cultural coercion, European diseases and mass killings) in the mid-nineteenth century, the Monarch of England has "owned" this precious resource, although it is also argued it now belongs to the people of the Hepburn shire by proxy. In all this we can see that the ownership of groundwater, like all other natural resources in Australia, is at first sight ambiguous. But the ambiguity only comes from the fact that many of us do not actively acknowledge the chequered, abusive, colonising past on which most of our industries are enculturated; a past, on the back of which, Michael Opie has secured 'his gift'.

Click for bigger.

Since June 12, 6 days ago, we can see above that 336,000 litres (12 tankers) of groundwater have been transported to Cadburys in Melbourne. This is just one commercial bore of many in this area. Official charts and figures, such as these, are designed to mask the violence of environmental abuse by making this activity look rational and sane. To be fooled by this is to fool ourselves that our culture, based on aggregate-growth economics and the transportation of resources, can ever be sustainable and at peace with the world. 

Future models are already among us, be they ancient or modern permacultures, and it is very evident that corporate capitalism – millions of people all acting selfishly at the expense of others and the environment – is not one of them.

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