Pratt gives up on his water crusade

Article courtesy the Age

October 19, 2006 – by Rod Myer

BILLIONAIRE Richard Pratt has walked away from a plan to invest $100 million in Australia’s water sector, saying governments have not taken the issue seriously enough.

A spokesman for Mr Pratt said that “after spending about five years and $5 million of his own money on public advocacy for water solutions, Mr Pratt feels he has done all he can to raise awareness”.

In 2002, Mr Pratt proposed plans to improve irrigation and tap wet-season floods from northern rivers. This was superceded by plans to replace open irrigation channels with pipes to prevent evaporation losses, which can be between 40 and 80 per cent.

His proposals included his Visy group investing in a plant to make pipes from recycled plastic, and the issuing of water bonds by the Federal Government to underwrite necessary spending.

A study Mr Pratt commissioned on the Murrumbidgee region found that 1.3 million megalitres of water were lost or unaccounted for annually, and that 945 megalitres could be saved with irrigation and crop improvements. The report found that spending about $1 billion would boost income in the region by $651 million a year and create 4500 jobs.

Mr Pratt also teamed with the ANZ Bank to offer subsidised loans to farmers to improve irrigation methods. But the scheme was abandoned due to lack of take-up.

Mr Pratt’s spokesman said that Mr Pratt had come to the conclusion “that governments and bureaucracies do not really welcome private-sector involvement in water”.

“He (Mr Pratt) concluded that the only real impetus for significant action on a national scale would have to come from a water crisis such as we now seem to be experiencing.”

Water Minister John Thwaites denied that water was a low priority for the Government, pointing to yesterday’s release of the $1.3 billion central region sustainable water strategy.

“The Government is eager to talk with all sectors of the community on securing our water supply with water savings, recycling and connecting additional supplies,” he said.

Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister’s water secretary, said the areas Mr Pratt had focused on were “all key objectives of the National Water Initiative, and most of them have been the subject of specific funding from the Australian Government Water Fund. The Howard Government has given more priority and put more money into Australia’s water problems than any national government has ever done.”

George Warne, chief executive of Murray Irrigation, the largest irrigation region in NSW, said that Mr Pratt did admirable work in the Murrumbidgee. “There has been a mentality that it’s up to government to fix things in irrigation but it’s up to the private sector. He’s started something that won’t stop.”