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5 June 2012
The days have long gone since salt was a valuable commodity and Roman soldiers were paid in it, but for Deakin University's Research Professor in Public Policy, Professor Michael Porter, the issue of salt, more specifically desalination will be worth $496,891 in research funding.
The prestigious grant from the National Centre of Excellence in Desalination at Murdoch University is part of a $1.1m project which will look at the long term and strategic role desalinated water could and should play across an expanding Australia particularly the west, east and northern regions .
The focus of the project will be on desalination within Australia's future water networks, and will demonstrate how water grids including desalinated sources can enable us to secure a broader, more decentralised, sustainable and thus less vulnerable pattern of economic development.
Significantly the project will involve more than the economics; bringing in cross disciplinary expertise from the Smart Water Research Centre at Griffith University and Deakin University's Centre for Memory, Imagination and Invention and School of Accounting, Economics and Finance.
"Technology is making great advances in extracting salt from water, in particular the sea," Professor Porter said.
"The costs are minor relative to the gains from regional development across Australia in areas within viable "pumping distance".
"An infinite resource can now be delivered from coastal areas at affordable prices and by doing so has expanded the limits on what was the great constraint on "dry" continents such as Australia."
Professor Porter said apart from in Western Australia desalinated or "insurance water" had been seen to have limited value, and recent rain in the Eastern seaboard had created a view that desalination plants were no longer needed.
"Reliable scientists generally indicate El Nino remains on the radar after 2012," he said. "The reality is the desalination option needs to be considered within the broader bulk water supply networks and that is what our project will be doing."
Professor Porter said the project team would model what Australia's economic development would look like both with and without a comprehensive desalination plant system.
"There are about 15,000 desalination plants worldwide; so in a way it is a surprise these issues are so new to economic and political debate in this the driest of continents," he said.
"Additionally we will use the expertise of Professor Paul Carter to communicate the results of these modelling choices so people can see and assess things for themselves.
"Imagine - rural areas will know that drought will not mean piping water to cities from "the bush"; cities will have affordable and effectively limitless long term access to near zero risk water.
"The damaged aquifers of Asia and demand for Australia's safe food creates scope for a decentralized and expanded urban and rural Australia."
Professor Porter said at the moment many people still see Australia as "water constrained".
"This is despite the huge investment in desalination capacity to date and the scope this provides for supplying new towns, expanded cities and developments," he said.
"Many people think the energy used to desalinate water is excessively large, whereas it is small in cost when compared with the economic benefits of new developments.
"People are also generally ignorant of the huge potential for economic development that accompanies a completely reliable water supply as it lowers the risks of investment and lowers the costs of capital required."
Professor Porter said there were also huge economic and social amenity losses associated with water restrictions.
"If we are successful the debate will move beyond short term politics and instead create a climate of debate looking at long term development, decentralisation and the end of rationing and the creation of new towns based around new mineral exports with new access to potable water."
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Professor Michael Porter
Professor Paul Carter
Good rains on the eastern seaboard have created a view that desal plants are no longer neeeded. Pictures Donna Squire, NCEDA