After the railways, the water problem

The work of extending a system of railways across New South Wales was spread over many years, largely because of the need to finance such a large scheme in stages. The line from Goulburn to Cooma, for example, cost well over a million pounds. Once such works were completed, there was the question of what should be done next.

It was obvious that climatic conditions presented the country with major challenges. The availability of water was very variable. Drought was frequent and severe. The persistent dryness of much of the land, and alternating patterns of drought and flood, were extremely frustrating. Given the magnitude of the problem, could successful responses be devised that would provide farmers and pastoralists with stable conditions from year to year?

In October 1886 the Queanbeyan Age reported a speech delivered in the NSW Legislative Assembly by Hon. Edward O’Sullivan, the member for Queanbeyan. Mr. O’Sullivan argued that, ‘we had already done our duty to the people in the matter of railway construction, and other public work, and the next great national work which would have to be undertaken would be that of the conservation of water and distribution of water.’ The entire community suffered, in inconvenience and expense, through not having a national scheme for these purposes. It was a case of human ingenuity against the forces of nature:

We must, in fact, show that human intelligence was superior to nature by initiating a comprehensive scheme of water conservation and irrigation.

This meant storing and diverting water, creating irrigation systems, and multiplying wells, tanks and dams. Mr. O’Sullivan was optimistic that this could be done. There were already natural features to assist. The snow in the Snowy Mountains provided water that could be diverted into the Murrumbidgee and the Murray, for example. There were natural reservoirs such as Lake George that could store flood-water. Private enterprise had already shown on a small scale that irrigation could increase yield and support stock. Other countries, such as India and Spain, had successfully employed irrigation systems with rainfall at similar or even lower levels.

There was already in progress in New South Wales a Royal Commission on the Conservation of Water (10 May 1884 – 9 May 1887), set up ‘to make a full inquiry into the best method of conserving the rainfall, and of searching for and developing the underground reservoirs supposed to exist in the interior of the colony, and also the practicability, by a general system of water conservation and distribution, of averting the disastrous consequences of periodical droughts.’ Mr. O’Sullivan drew on some the findings of the Royal Commission to support his arguments.

These were some of the early efforts that eventually led in the twentieth century to the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the extensive use of irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin, and other water conservation and irrigation measures.

We are in a better position now to judge whether ‘human intelligence’ is ‘superior to nature.’

‘Water conservation and irrigation’, Queanbeyan Age 9/10/1886, pp. 2-3. ‘Royal Commission on the Conservation of Water’, NSW State Records. Bruce E. Mansfield, Australian Democrat: The Career of Edward William O’Sullivan, 1846 – 1910, Sydney, Sydney University Press, 1965; idem, ‘O’Sullivan, Edward William (1846-1910)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 11, 1988, pp. 106-108, and online. ‘Mr Edward William O’Sullivan (1846-1910)’, NSW Parliament website.

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