Billy Griffiths reviews 'Running Out?' by Ruth A. Morgan

Water courses through the history of Western Australia. When historian Ruth A. Morgan began writing Running Out?: Water in Western Australia in 2007, the state was in the grip of drought, climate change was at the fore of public debate, and Perth’s first desalination plant was a year old. The 2005 state election had hinged on the ‘Kimberley–Perth canal’, an impractical scheme to water the gardens of Perth via a 3,700-kilometre canal from the Fitzroy River in the state’s‘empty’ north-west. Long-simmering fears of ‘running out’ were bubbling to the surface.

In this compelling scholarly history of water in Western Australia, Morgan probes the anxieties and aspirations that accompany life where the desert meets the sea. She charts the rise of the state’s current water regime and questions the lush green gardens that defiantly line the parched streets of Perth. Western Australia has not experienced ‘average’ rainfall since the 1970s. In that time, precipitation in the South West has declined by about fifteen per cent. It is an extraordinary shift, and an ominous sign of the dangers of anthropogenic climate change. Yet many residents remain sheltered from these environmental realities. Western Australians are the most profligate water-users in the country. ‘How,’ Morgan wonders, ‘did the people of Perth become so thirsty?’

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