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Just before we get started:

Tim Flannery’s comments on water shortages in Perth have been supported in The Australian and by Colin Barnett, Liberal Party Premier Of Western Australia, here. And TF does not believe that the planet Earth is a living God or self-aware entity named Gaia.

Due to his high profile, Climate Change Commissioner Tim Flannery is a favoured target of Climate Denialists. In this post I will compare comments made by Flannery against the intentionally distorted versions of his comments put forward by the denialist commentariat.

First, Flannery did not say that Australian dams will never fill again. Andrew Bolt, misrepresenting Flannery, draws attention to a Feb 2007 Landline interview with Flannery in which Flannery said:

even the rain that falls isn’t actually going to fill our dams and our river systems

Denialists like Bolt claim that Flannery meant by this that our dams would never fill again at any time for any reason from the date Flannery was speaking. However, what Flannery was actually saying that climate trends at the time indicated a long-term outcome of normalized water shortage consistent with IPCC projections

Flannery’s comments were to the effect that Australia was at the time currently experiencing a 60% fall in run-off going into dams due to hotter soils and greater rainfall take-up by drought-stressed vegetation and that this would be indicative of what we could eventually expect as a consistent and normal outcome in the future.

He did not say that the dams would never fill again at any time from the date he was speaking, which is the thick-as-a-brick intentionally distorted view presented by Bolt and fellow travellers. Flannery was pointing to a long-term outcome of normalized water shortage based on current data and climate trends.

Flannery’s quote in context is:

We’re already seeing the initial impacts and they include a decline in the winter rainfall zone across southern Australia, which is clearly an impact of climate change, but also a decrease in run-off. Although we’re getting say a 20 per cent decrease in rainfall in some areas of Australia, that’s translating to a 60 per cent decrease in the run-off into the dams and rivers. That’s because the soil is warmer because of global warming and the plants are under more stress and therefore using more moisture. So even the rain that falls isn’t actually going to fill our dams and our river systems

Bolt knows, but pretends not to know, that Flannery was applying IPCC modelling and projections to (then) present circumstances in relation to reduced rainfall and that Flannery’s statement are in accordance with those. Bolt also knows that IPCC projections include intensified (i.e. more severe) but rarer flooding events, which of course would fill the dams.

Minister For Climate Change, Penny Wong, stated in a Lateline interview 2nd September 2008:

by 2050 that Australia should expect around about a 25 per cent reduction in rainfall in the southern part of Australia.

Flannery, by starting his Landline comments with ‘We’re already seeing the initial impacts’ places Australia’s (then) current 20% decline in rainfall in relation to the IPCC projections, exactly as Senator Wong did.

In fact it is Flannery’s usual practice to speak of climate and rainfall trends in the context of a 50 year projection. His Landline comments of 2008 perfectly mirror remarks he made to the Sydney Futures forum in 2004 in which he extrapolated Sydney rainfall data into the next half-century to warn of highly adverse outcomes if currently observed climate effects were to be continued to be ignored. More on that statement below.

Climate Change Entails Heavier Flooding

As Climate Change Commissioner, Flannery is perfectly aware that intensified but rarer flooding constitues part of IPCC modelling. As such it is patently absurd to state that Flannery believes Australia will never again experience floods or that dams will never fill again.

In asserting that Flannery believes Australia’s dams will never fill again, Bolt would have us believe that Flannery is aware of only the ‘drying’ aspects of Climate Change and is unaware of the ‘wetting’ aspects. This shows how dishonestly Bolt handles the Climate Change topic.

For the benefit of denialists like Bolt I produce here an extract, via Deltoid, from the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR)

To summarize the rainfall results, drier conditions are anticipated for most of Australia over the 21st century. However, consistent with conclusions in WGI, an increase in heavy rainfall also is projected, even in regions with small decreases in mean rainfall. This is a result of a shift in the frequency distribution of daily rainfall toward fewer light and moderate events and more heavy events. This could lead to more droughts and more floods.

To pretend, as Bolt does, that Flannery is unaware of this is shamefaced dishonesty and deliberate misrepresentation of Flannery.

In fact, in 1997 the IPCC Special Report on Regional Impacts of Climate Change noted specifically that Enhanced groundwater recharge and dam-filling events were expected from more frequent high-rainfall events.

Water Supply and Hydrology: Possible overall reduction in runoff, with changes in soil moisture and runoff varying considerably from place to place but reaching as much as ±20%, was suggested for parts of Australia by 2030. Sharpened competition was expected among water users, with the large Murray-Darling Basin river system facing strong constraints. Enhanced groundwater recharge and dam-filling events were expected from more frequent high-rainfall events, which also were expected to increase flooding, landslides, and erosion.

We can see here that Flannery’s 2007 Landline interview is basically a direct citation of this 1997 report. To wit: decreased water run-off from soils resulting in a 20% decrease in water flow into dams by 2030 i.e.over a 25-year projection (not immediately), that conditions in 2007 were indicative of this expected long-term outcome. And, incidentally, that this will occur in conjuction with more frequent flooding.

Of course, Bolt’s purpose is not to discredit Flannery, per se. It’s to discredit Climate Science and the IPCC. That Bolt can only attempt to do so through dishonesty shows that both Flannery and the IPCC inhabit a more secure intellectual and moral position than Bolt.

Flannery The Fundamentalist

A second smear against Flannery is that he is untrustworthy, indeed irrational religious kook, because he believes that the Planet Earth is a living God or self-aware entity named Gaia. The right-wing Australian smear think tank ‘Institute For Public Affairs’ published an article concentrating on this smear some time ago. The undated article written by James Paterson, their Director of Communications, is entitled Tim Flannery, Climate Prophet. Paterson wrote:

When appearing on the ABC’s Science Show in January this year, Flannery said: ‘This planet, this Gaia, will have acquired a brain and a nervous system. That will make it act as a living animal, as a living organism, at some sort of level.’

To be fair, Flannery is not the only scientist to embrace the kooky theory that Gaia has human properties.

Paterson thus states that Flannery believes the planet Earth has a brain and nervous system. Flannery does not believe this. Paterson is guilty of lazy research here, but his overall objective is to paint Flannery as a crackpot so I doubt he was trying very hard to genuinely understand Flannery’s conception of the Gaia hypothesis.

In fact, Flannery does not think that the Earth has a brain or nervous system. What Flannery says is that human beings, really scientists, constitute the Earth’s metaphorical or virtual brain and that the Internet has the capacity to constitute the Earth’s metaphorical or virtual nervous system and that therefore humans may potentially be able regulate the Earth’s eco-systems via planet-wide computer networks and other technologies. In other words Flannery’s view of the ‘strong Gaia’ is technocratic and scientific, not religious.

Really James Paterson should be ashamed of smearing Flannery in such a way. It reflects badly on both himself and the IPA and lessens its credibility as a serious researching entity.

Here is Flannery explaining his Gaia hypothesis to Robert Manne at Latrobe University 4th June 2009

Robert Manne:
I wondered first for the audience if you could give a reasonable succinct view of what [James Lovelock’s] conception of Gaia is and then I want to talk about your book a bit in regard to that.

Tim Flannery:
[…] Just over the last decade Gaia is on the threshold of acquiring a brain and that’s happened because the internet and changes in human society have for the first time ever, allowed us theoretically to deliver a single, strong message to Gaia, what we want from Gaia. And also, after four billion years, we have got now the intelligence to see Gaia from space and to actually enhance its working parts…

Robert Manne:
Is what you’re saying then, that human beings have to somehow become the regulator? Of processes that once we were not able to control or didn’t feel the need to control or whatever?

Tim Flannery:
By virtue of the process of evolution humans are destined to become the regulator.

Robert Manne:
And it connects, doesn’t it, to this idea of yours which is the capacity of human beings now to see what has to be done and to do it. Is that it?

Tim Flannery:
That’s right and it’s already happening. It’s not like this is theoretic. We actually have built a system now that allows us to send a single strong message to the part of the carbon cycle we want to deal with.

Flannery The Alarmist

The same IPA article decries Flannery as an alarmist by stating that his predictions on climate events have been wildy astray. This ‘alarmist’ meme is dominant in the denialist commentariat in regards to Flannery so I will use Paterson’s article as representative of the willing distortions directed at Flannery.

25 Metre Sea Level Rise

Paterson ridicules Flannery for approvingly quoting NASA’s James Hanson on the possibility of a 25 metre sea-level rise due to catastrophic ice melt and notes that such an eventuality would take thousands of years to materialise given current melt rates.

Unfortunately Paterson does not realise that Flannery agrees that such a change could take hundreds or thousands of years to eventuate and so has misrepresented Flannery as stating 25 metre sea level rise is imminent.

Of course Hanson’s actual prediction is based on Earth’s millenia-long climate history and anticipates that timeframe for its realisation, but Paterson ignores that to pretend Hanson and Flannery is warning of an imminent, practically immediate, 25 metre rise in sea levels.

Cities Running Out Of Water

Paterson spends some time running through a list of Australian cities Paterson claims that Flannery predicts were destined for imminent catastrophe, but which of course still survive. In this Paterson attempts to portray Flannery as a kooky, Gaia-fundamentalist doomsday prophet.

Paterson wrote:

In 2004 [Flannery] predicted that ‘Perth will be the 21st century’s first ghost metropolis.’ The following year, he said that Sydney could run out of water in as little as two years.

Undaunted by that botched prediction, he tried again in 2007, saying Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane would ‘need desalinated water urgently, possibly in as little as 18 months.’

Undeterred by their failure to dry-out, Flannery was at it again in 2008, arguing that ‘the water problem for Adelaide is so severe that it may run out of water by early 2009.’ Of course, even amid a severe drought, none of these cities have met Flannery’s doomsday scenarios.


Paterson plainly states that since Perth had not become a ‘ghost metropolis’ (in Flannery’s words) at the time of his article, then Flannery’s statement about Perth was kooky doomsday alarmism.

Paterson knows, however, that Flannery was not expecting immediate or imminent abandonment of Perth, but rather that he was describing a long-term step-trend of declining rainfall and water catchment. Flannery was not predicting, contra Paterson, the destruction of Perth within 5 or 6 years. The actual time-frame of his comments was 50 years. From the article to which Paterson refers:

[Flannery] said climate change tended to move in steps. In 1976, when the first step occurred, the south-western corner of Western Australia lost 20 per cent of its rainfall, and its catchment fell from 340 gigalitres to 111 gigalitres…In 1998, when the second step occurred, the world experienced the worst El Nino effect

Notice that Flannery describes Perth experiencing step-wise increases in climate change induced phenonema with two step experiences so far and 22 years between each step. On that trend we might experience a third step in approx 2020 and a fourth in 2042 with perhaps a fifth to knock Perth out in 2064. That would indicate a timeline of about 50 years from Flannery’s comments.

Paterson flatly misrepresents Flannery, artificially imposing a 5 or 6 year time scale, merely to better paint Flannery as a crackpot.

Of course, Flannery’s statements about the step trend decline in Perth’s water catchment and the inevitability of its exhaustion are fully supported by rainfall and catchment data (i.e. the real world) and by Perth’s city planners including Liberal Premier Colin Barnett. See here.


According to Paterson Flannery in 2005 said that Sydney could run out of water in as little as two years.. Flannery did not say this. What he said on ABC’s Lateline on 10th June 2005 was that if the prevailing drought conditions persisted then Sydney would have ‘extreme difficulties with water’

TIM FLANNERY: Well, the worst-case scenario for Sydney is that the climate that’s existed for the last seven years continues for another two years. In that case, Sydney will be facing extreme difficulties with water

This is in consonance with his 2004 statement, made at the same time as his comments on Perth, that by approx. 2050 Sydney would have 60% less water.

The next 50 years offer Sydney the last chance to avoid catastrophic climate change that would devastate south-eastern Australia, the scientist Tim Flannery has warned.

Speaking last night at the State Government’s Sydney Futures forum, Dr Flannery warned of a city grappling with up to 60 per cent less water.

Again, Paterson flatly misrepresents Flannery merely to better paint him as a crackpot.

Brisbane, Adelaide

John Dawson, writing in Quadrant in August 2011, drew heavily on Paterson’s article in framing up Flannery in exactly the same terms as Paterson. Dawson a quote from Flannery in May 2007 where Flannery remarked that Brisbane and Adelaide could run out of water by the end of 2007. Since those cities did not run out of water by the end of 2007, Dawson characterises Flannery as an idiot doomsday alarmist.

Unfortunately for the credibility of Dawson and Paterson, Flannery was correct in his statements. In April 2007 Adelaide had 40 days of normal unrestricted usage available in its dams, an amount which could be extended to 30 weeks with restrictions. Seven months of restricted usage from the end of April means water supplies would be exhausted by yesr end 2007, just as Flannery said.

The source of this data is Professor Cullen of the Wentworth Group Of Concerned Scientists, speaking on ABC’s AM program April 21, 2007 “Adelaiade’s Water Supply Drying Up”

From the AM transcript:

NANCE HAXTON (AM): Adelaide’s water supply has now reached an unprecedented tipping point.

PETER CULLEN: Historically we’ve never seen anything like this, and this is the second year that we’ve had it. I mean, last year was the lowest inflows to the Murray on record, and I don’t think any of us thought we’d have one as low as that again. This one could be as low as last year again.

So the system is virtually empty.

NANCE HAXTON: Traditionally, Adelaide has sourced its water in varying proportions from the River Murray and the Mt Lofty Ranges. If one of those areas was suffering drought, the other source would be relied on more.


PETER CULLEN: You only have 40 days’ storages, because you always have had a reliable supply from the Murray, and so all the time you’ve been pumping from the Murray you don’t have to store a huge amount, so you haven’t got a big dam that you can sort of fill up or whatever. Now, if the Murray goes off then you have about 40 days left.

The portrayal of denialists like Dawson, Paterson and Bolt is that Flannery was saying ‘by years end the water will definitely all be gone and never return’. Of course, Flannery never said this. He said, ‘the situation is dire’ and recommends the construction of desalination plants to secure water supply. Denialists like Dawson can only sustain their ridicule of Flannery by deliberately twisting his words. Regrettably for the denialists, Flannery’s statements are firmly based in fact.

Campbell Newman Agreed With Flannery

And so it is with Brisbane. Contrary to Dawson and Paterson’s childish caricatures of Flannery as a hair-shirted lunatic who think that the Planet Earth is a gigantic human being, Brisbane’s water issues in 2007 were, as Flannery said, dire.

In this he had the agreement of all those responsible for Queensland’s water supply naturally including the Queensland Water Commission. In March 2007 the QWC forecast dam holdings of 5% by year end. Said then Premier Anna Bligh,

“I am advised by the Commission that, with the assistance of level 5 restrictions, we will have five per cent dam levels in December 2008…”

Dawson, Bolt and Paterson choose to elide all of the above from the record, and what is elided is that all experts, all water consumption and dam inflow data, the actual real-life situation facing Brisbane was exactly what Flannery said it was.

In April 2007 South-East Queensland existed on Level 5 Water restrictions and dams were down to 20% capacity. This fell to 17% in August 2007. Level 6 water restrictions were enforced from 23 November 2007 with the Queensland Water Commissionobserving a significant threat to sustainable and secure water supply in the South Eastern Queensland region because of extended severe drought conditions.

According to a certain Lord Mayor Campbell Newman it was the worst water supply crisis in living memory. Said Mr Newman,

Cr Newman said the cost of the drought was outpacing the cost of the North-South Bypass Tunnel – part of the TransApex bridge and tunnel scheme – as Brisbane poured hundreds of millions of dollars into water infrastructure.

He said water infrastructure projects were costing over $700 million.

“We have no option but to fund these water initiatives due to the water crisis,” Cr Newman said.

Ivory Tower Denialism

Bolt, Dawson and Paterson isolated and insulated in their Ivory Towers, content and well-fed in their chosen occupations as disseminators of absurd propaganda are freed from the real-life concerns of actually supplying water to a major city.

Mr. Newman, unlike them had real responsibilities to attend to, and acting on the same reality as described by Tim Flannery, took concrete actions to secure Brisbane’s water supply, committing the gigantic sum of $700 million to address what all were plainly experiencing as a crisis.

In this Newman acted in consonance with others for whom planning and securing the well-being of real-life humans was part of their job, the like-minded being Flannery as Climate Change Commissioner, the numerous Shire Council Mayors and the scientists of the CSIRO.

Flannery and Campbell were working from the same set of facts: a crisis requiring response. Which is why Flannery said, so absurdly reviled by Bolt:

“In Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane, water supplies are so low they need desalinated water urgently, possibly in as little as 18 months.”

Please note the difference between that statement by Flannery and Bolt’s block-headed distortion of it which was:

In 2007, Flannery predicted cities such as Brisbane would never again have dam-filling rains

Wrapping Up

We could continue to debunk the denialists slurs directed at Flannery but, in short, here is the story:

Flannery describes long-term trends which denialists willingly distort as as immediate statements about the present then excoriate Flannery because the present does not correspond to their distortions.

Flannery never said dams would never fill again.

What Flannery said was that in the long-term, commencing in about 2040, the normal rainfall situation will be that of long-term water shortage. Naturally this excludes floods and occasional wet years.

The IPCC’s climate change modelling predicts an increase in heavy rainfall events along with normalised hotter temperatures i.e. its a more extreme climate with both more intense droughts and more intense rainfall.

Flannery’s remarks about the water situations in Australian cities were to the effect that the water situation of those cities was dire and would continue to be precarious in to the future. He did not say that Australian cities would run out of water and never have water again. He did recommend desalination plants as a means of securing water supply.

Those remarks were supported by all data, all experts and represent the truth about the the water situation in Australian cities at that time.

Flannery never said it would never flood again.

Flannery is not a religious devotee of Gaia.

In short Bolt, Dawson and Paterson enagage in systematic and deliberate untruths about Flannery and it is they who merit portrayal as hair-shirted religious lunatics, not him.

The denialists are attempting to defend their entrenched anti-Green and/or knee-jerk anti-regulatory ideologies by the basic strategy of character assassination of Flannery. To do so they distort Flannery’s statements, ridicule him without foundation and ignore sound science. Their campaign would be pitiable if it were not so destructive.


I emailed James Paterson of the IPA and also Tim Flannery seeking comment on the above remarks. You’ll be the first to know if they respond and give permission for their remarks to be published.

James Paterson Responds (Almost)

James Paterson of the IPA gave me the courtesy of responding by email but refused to engage in discussion about his article. Paterson’s rationale was that since my blog said he was a denialist then there was no point discussing anything with me because my mind was already made up about him.

In my view Paterson is hiding from critique.

Yes, I think Paterson is a denialist but this does not prevent he and I from engaging in debate about Flannery’s statements or about how Paterson characterises Flannery.

In my view Paterson is merely closing the curtains inside his Ivory Tower, steadfastly determined to remain insulated from critique.