Australia: Veteran Environmental Campaigners Gear Up for a New Battle
Lotus News Feature By Kalinga Seneviratne This article is the 45th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.
CHANNON (IDN) – In the late 1970s, they were breastfeeding youthful mothers seen on national television blocking the path of bulldozers sent in to fell timber forests in Terania Creek close by. Today they are grandmothers still living in this pristine rain forest area gearing up for possibly another epic battle, with the same passion, to stop the local council and developers building a dam here and flooding precious rainforests and sacred Aboriginal sites.
“We have run a lot of (environmental) campaigns in this region. We are good at it. We will do everything possible to stop this dam,” Annie Kia, spokesperson for the newly launched Water Northern Rivers Alliance (WNRA) told IDN. She described the local Rous County Council (RCC) plan to build a dam here as “going back to the 20th century” and not making use of “21st-century technological options”. The area here with Channon and Nimbin as its centre surrounded by unspoilt greenery, creeks, mountains and scenic farming valleys have for over four decades held the mantle of Australia’s mecca of counterculture and activism. It all started with the 1973 Aquarius festival in Nimbin that was modelled on the famous Woodstock festival held in the US four years earlier. Many of the young “hippies” who attended this festival stayed back, bought the property and developed a lifestyle based on a philosophy of living simply in tune with nature. “I moved here with my husband in the 1970s to live a poor self-sufficient lifestyle. Soon as we arrived, we found that Terania Creek rainforest was to be felled. We fought for many years to protect that and protect other rainforests as well,” Nan Nicholson, recalled in an interview with IDN. “There’s great many (greedy) people that want to make money from ‘development’ on the coast (but) those living on the coast don’t want it – they like their lifestyle,” she added. In 1979, the epic successful battle to save Terania Creek rainforests from the saws of the loggers is a landmark in Australian environmental activism which gave rise to many other battles across Australia to stop dams, resort chains like Club Med, setting up shops on the coast close by and many other battles with so-called “developers”. Nan and husband Hugh who went into farming upon arrival organised a grassroots environmental blockade that is believed to be the world’s first successful direct action anti-logging protest. The win at Terania Creek helped to build a nationwide environmental movement, that fed straight into the successful battle to stop a dam on the Franklin River in Tasmania in the 1980s, which in turn has given rise to Green Parties and politicians who have often played an influential role, especially in state parliaments. Today federal and most state upper houses have Green Senators elected by the people. The Gasfield Free Northern Rivers movement began at Channon eight years ago and succeeded in evicting a gas company called Metgasco from their region. The latest battle brewing up is about a dam that is planned for at Dunoon, which is very close to Channon. RCC, which supplies the bulk of water to the coastal areas down the mountain ranges from here proposes the construction of a 50 Giga litre dam between Channon and Dunoon, and downstream from the existing Rocky Creek Dam commissioned in 1953. It would flood pristine rainforest areas and eucalypt forests that are habitats of koalas who are threatened after last summer’s bushfires. It will also flood Wijabal Wia-bal land which is sacred Aboriginal burial grounds, that local indigenous people believe connect them to their heritage and the land. The proposed dam will be 3.5 times larger than Rocky Creek Dam and will cost over $ 200 million to build.
“This dam has been on the cards since 1995. It has been put up and discarded a number of times, last being in 2014,” said Nicholson. “This area is what is called ‘Big Scrub’, where rainforests have grown fertilised by the lava of a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. Only one per cent of it is left now”.
Kia says they will “put their bodies on the line” to save what remains of this rainforest. RCC argues that new developments on the coast where tourism is booming, and people are moving in from other areas, will increase its population in the coming decades and more water is needed to support these populations. While environmentalists don’t oppose people moving in to these areas, they argue that dams are “20th-century thinking” to address these water needs and new solutions need to be considered.
According to WNRA, major concerns about the dam have not changed since 1995 and 2014 when the proposal was rejected. Important Aboriginal heritage would be obliterated by flooding and the dam would destroy approximately 60 hectares of lowland rainforest, comprising 6 per cent of the remaining 1 per cent of the Big Scrub. “The dam has very poor catchment and in a drought, it won’t have enough water”, says Nicholson. Referring to a study by Sydney’s University Professor Stuart Khan, she says there is at least 25 per cent wastage of water in the RCC distribution system due to cracks in pipes, leaks, etc. “We need to do an audit and fix those problems.” She also added that the biggest water users are tourist resorts along the coast, and Australia’s water quality standards are high, and a lot of this water is used to flush toilets.
Referring to Prof Khan’s study, Kia says that a resilient system would have 30-50 per cent of water coming from sources that don’t depend on rain, such as purified recycled water or desalination – both of which can be powered by renewable energy – and that the peak water utilities body Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) has described new dams as “high-risk investments” because they depend on rain in a heating climate.
.“They advise a complementary mix of strategies, including some that don’t depend on rain,” Kia told IDN, adding, “we have terrible droughts here and will increase with climatic change. We currently have sufficient water”.
RCC is due to reconsider the proposal to build the dam in mid-December and on November 20th, a flash mob assembled outside the council chambers in Lismore and presented to RCC a petition signed by 525 people opposing the dam. The chair of RCC Keith Williams has told the local Echonetdaily that they don’t have a procedure to present petitions to the council meetings, but it will be attached to a report that will be tabled during the December sitting. He has said that there have been nearly 900 written submissions to the council and 25 per cent of them support a dam to address “the increasing demand population growth is continuing to exert”.
WNRA and environmentalists are of the view that these future needs could be met with the adoption of new water technologies fuelled by green energy to power desalination plants, rainwater harvesting and purifying recycled water (such as for toilet use).
Even WSAA, while pointing out the risks involved in the dam option, has recommended a mix of strategies, including water efficiency. They say that for resilience in drought, it’s better if new supply is independent of rainfall.
“We think it (dam proposal) is driven by council engineers because they like building big things. They and our water utility is so fond of these projects and don’t pay attention to alternatives available” says Kia. She confirmed that the new dam is not planned to produce hydro-power (electricity) nor water for agriculture, which are amply provided here.
Nicholson – who is a rainforest botanist has documented along with her husband, the value of rainforests, its plants and herbs in books and video – says that those who promote schemes like this dam don’t respect their right to a green lifestyle. “They just don’t understand it … those of us who want to protect our native forests don’t have a lot of say (in their forums),” she laments.
But, Kia adds, “I have no doubt that if we are not able to stop them (RCC) at this point, we will resist with non-violent action, in the way we have done for other things”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 30 November 2020]