Dam-nation at Traveston. Queensland, Australia.

In our spare bedroom at home I have a poster on the wall that is titled: Everything I needed to know about life I learned from Mr Spock. It lists a series of succinct Vulcan bon mots to live by. For me, the most resonant maxim is “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.

Recently I visited the site for the proposed Traveston Dam as part of a tour of dams in the SE Queensland region. Of the six dams we visited, Traveston was an anomaly in that it was not yet built, but was merely a proposed dam site.

One of the major issues facing Australia is the security of water supplies into the future as we face global warming and climate change. This has been brought forward as a priority because of several recent years of drought and many of the dams in Queensland are at record low capacities. You know things are bad when engineers are almost ecstatically happy when a dam is only 40% full, because up until recently, some have been as low as 16%. The proposed dam at Traveston Crossing will help manage the flow of the Mary River to mitigate flooding and to supply water to the larger urban areas to the south.

About half an hour before we reached the proposed dam site at Traveston Crossing, we were shown a slickly produced video (it sounded suspiciously like propaganda) that addressed environmental and community concerns. The video also made a point of informing us that a panel of seventeen eminent engineers and three engineering professors were involved in the selection of the dam location and design. Interestingly, of the 1.6 billion dollars allocated for the construction of the dam, two-thirds of that money has been earmarked for peripheral projects including forestry plantation as a carbon offset; upgrading local roads and fire-fighting facilities; provision of sporting facilities for local clubs and 32 million dollars for a freshwater fish and turtle study centre associated with the University of Queensland.

Looks like everybody has their snout in the trough.

One thing I noticed with the video is they kept on referring to the water usage on the Murray River, located about 1000km away. It seemed to me that they were comparing apples with oranges as the Murray has been dammed for 100 years, with 70% of its water removed from the system by irrigators. According to the video, the Mary River was only going to have 10% of its water diverted, and I couldn’t see why they continually referred to the Murray as it seemed to be such a different case.

Another issue addressed by the video was the compensation packages to local landholders, which to me as an outsider with no vested interest in the area sounded like an exceptionally generous offer. Apparently 65% of the people affected by the dam have already taken up the government’s offer to buy their land and then lease it back from the authorities at a peppercorn rent for the next three years. After that, they would be charged rents at 25% of the going commercial rate until the property is inundated.

This government offer sounded to me like an excellent opportunity for the savvy operator to purchase another property while working their original property until it is no longer viable and it seemed to me to be a fair proposition. I thought the whole video presented the government as being not only concerned but also very understanding and generous towards the people it was about to dispossess.

It seems I was not alone, as there were sympathetic murmurings among the engineers on the bus, saying ‘it was the only right thing to do anyway’. As an outsider, I was pleasantly surprised by how thoughtful, considerate and magnanimous everybody involved seemed to be. Not at all what I would have expected, and it made me feel proud that I live in a country with such decent attitudes.

So it came as quite a surprise as we turned off the main highway towards the proposed dam site, that a ute (pickup truck) with a “NO DAM” sign on its back window pulled out in front of our coach to reduce our progress up the road to a walking pace.

The ute was one of those large-engined, high-powered vehicles owned by testosterone-fuelled meathead types, so it occurred to me that his concerns probably weren’t environmental.

As we turned into the proposed dam site area we were met by local landowner protestors carrying placards printed with “NO DAM”, “DON’T MURRAY THE MARY” and “THE TIME IS NIGH FOR BLIGH” (the Queensland premier).

On the bus with the dark forces

As we passed the protesters, one of them ran forward to hit the bus. This futile and impotent rap on the side of the bus elicited rolled eyes and stifled snorts from the engineers on board. There were security guards at the gate that did not let the protesters through with the bus and we were taken to where the dam wall is to be located for a talk and refreshments. As we got off the bus, I turned and asked one of the engineers who was nearby: ‘why are the protesters comparing the Mary with the Murray?’ ‘Because people like that don’t take the time to read all the reports and don’t understand the facts involved.’

During the presentation of the proposed dam’s layout and specifications, a media helicopter circled overhead. All of a sudden I had the sensation that I was in the camp of dark forces and that somehow I was involved in something that was wrong. Or at least that’s how I thought it would be perceived by somebody who was on the outside, looking in.

During our lunch, I spoke to various engineers about the protestors, and every single one of them said that people have a right to express their displeasure at projects that they didn’t agree with and that it was entirely understandable that some people would never be happy about leaving their homes; no matter what the compensation package was.

I also found it interesting when talking to different engineers, how varied their opinions were about what was the best dam design for the area. When I pointed out the variance of their opinions, they just laughed and said “you’ll never get 100% agreement on these issues; the only way you’ll ever get agreement is to take the interested parties, lock them in a room and don’t allow them to leave until they’ve come to a consensus”. Now I know why the video made a point of alluding to the eminent engineers and professors; because they know that whatever they put forward will get questioned, and that shattered the illusion I had that engineers deal in concrete facts and absolutes.

After our short stop, we returned to the coach and were taken via a side road to avoid the protesters to see the next dam on our schedule. Borumba Dam was of interest to the tour group due to recent upgrade works to raise the dam wall height as well as repairs that had been performed on the spillway and plunge pool after some particularly heavy rains several years ago. Our coach was taken into a roped-off area guarded by security personnel (this had not happened before at the other dams) and the police were also in attendance. As we exited the bus we were led over to a covered area to hear another presentation by the project engineer responsible for the upgrade works. As we sat listening to his talk, the protesters from the previous site visit turned up. There were about twelve or fifteen of them and they waved their placards in our direction, trying to attract our attention. One large sign even said ‘feel free to talk to us’. They were quiet and very well behaved and stood behind the roped-off areas, under the gaze of red-shirted security and the police.

After the presentation, I noticed a few of the engineers talking to some of the protesters and their interactions seemed quite friendly and cordial. As I passed by the protesters myself to use the toilet facilities, I was handed a leaflet by one of them and engaged in conversation.

The spokesman for the protesters and his mate

The protester told me how they wanted to stop the dam because they didn’t want the Mary River to become overutilised like the Murray. And I told him that according to what I had heard, its utilisation was going to be nowhere near as high. He then shifted his tack, to say that the environment was going to be impacted and I pointed out to him that it was all happening on existing farmland, hardly pristine wilderness, and that the water quality downstream is expected to improve on completion of the dam. He then said to me ‘but everybody – that’s over 1000 people in the area – is against the dam’. I pointed out that 65% had already taken up the government’s offer, to which he said there are many people who do not want to leave, and some are suffering great mental stress due to the strain of having to consider moving from a place that they have lived in all their lives. He then went on to say that there had only been 18 consultations with the community and that even though the community had poured out their hearts to the consultation panel, the panel had advised that the dam should proceed. To add insult to injury, the head of the panel was put in charge of the land acquisitions.

The protester then told me that there had not been a study done to assess the risks associated with a dam collapse, so I asked him how he thought the dam would collapse? Earthquakes? He gave me a blank look and I could see he hadn’t really thought about this. So I told I him I had attended the recent dam conference with my wife, who is the engineer – not me, and one of the interesting facts presented was that earthquakes only cause 1.5% of dam failures and most dam failures are caused by overtopping of the dam during floods. Another presentation I saw a few years ago at another conference presented new research that had been done on Probable Maximum Flood estimates (based on archaeological evidence going back thousands of years). With this more current and accurate information new dams are far less likely to be overtopped than those that make up the statistics. As I spoke with the protester, I became aware of what an emotional issue it was for him, and that scientific facts and statistics weren’t really of any interest or use to him. The main fact that affected him was that he did not want to move from an area that he loved.

I later read the pamphlet that I was given and many of the points raised seemed quite valid. I found it interesting that the protesters were calling for more studies to be made about environmental impacts, potential disaster mitigation and possible upstream flooding. What really struck me was as I said goodbye to the protester, he said to me ‘this dam is never going to go ahead. We WILL stop it’. With those words I realised: no amount of studies are going to satisfy him, all his demands for further research seem to be merely delaying tactics.

No matter the social benefits of large public works, there is always going to be a section of the population who will feel aggrieved. It’s very easy for me as an outsider to say that I feel as Spock had said, that the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, because it’s not me that’s having my home taken from me.

The fact that there is always going to be a disaffected section of the population fills me with despair when I think about large infrastructure projects that are necessary and those hard decisions that must be made to bring them to fruition. It makes me wonder how anything ever gets built.

Seeking consensus amongst any group of people, be they hard-nosed engineers or emotionally driven protesters is like trying to wrangle cats and for this reason I sometimes think that anybody who gets involved in politics must be either insane or a borderline sociopathic egotist.

What kind of personality would it take to get up in front of thousands of people and try to convince the audience to become of one mind in agreement with them? In reality, there is no such thing as unanimity and the whole concept of a win-win situation is just airy-fairy wishful thinking. There’s always going to be winners and losers and nobody likes to lose.