water-towers in the Mallee

Although it is  the grain silos along the old  railway lines that dominate the landscape in the Mallee, the odd-looking,  elevated  water-towers in the various towns also stand out. These water towers suggest that water is scarce in the Mallee, and that it needs to be either piped in from a river,  or drawn from the underground aquifers. Even though the Mallee  lacks water  due to the low rainfall and no  rivers, and is is a dry country prone to drought and dust storms, the development of the Mallee through agriculture were deemed to be the key to economic growth.

If  the Mallee was to be a prosperous and cheerful place to live in, with the small wheatlands settlements being  the nucleus of community life,  then the country  needed water.  The photo below is  an  example of an elevated  water tower  in Karoonda, South Australia. I assume  that water is pumped into the tower  from  some form of  earthen  storage:

Water tower, Karoonda

The initial form  of  water infrastructure  in the Mallee  was  bore water, sourced  from drawing from  the ground water in  the various acquifer systems underlying the Mallee.  The main aquifer system is the vast underground artesian basin in which the water  from  the Grampians filters through the underground coral acquirers as it flows toward the River Murray.  A line of bores powered by windmills was  put down from Underbool to the South Australian border by the Victorian government prior to World War 1,  and the increase in  water supply, along with the rail link  from Tailem Bend to Ouyen,  enabled  the rapid settlement of the Mallee. This largely took the form of small blocks.

The next step in  the  Mallee’s publicly built water infrastructure was the  open,  earthen channel system, known as the Dennying Channel,  was a   stock water supply and irrigation infrastructure  that ran from the Grampians ranges south of Horsham, north beyond Ouyen to Manangatang in the northern Mallee.  It was 17,500 kilometres long and it delivered water to storage dams across the Victorian Mallee. The water was extracted from the Wimmera River  but the channel  was inefficient means of transporting water, due to silt, weeds, drift sand and high levels of seepage and evaporation.  Up to 90 percent of the water extracted from the Wimmera River was lost through evaporation and seepage.

The most  kind of  water infrastructure  is an extensive network of pipelines. The first  network to be constructed was  the Northern Mallee Pipeline  (NMPP), which  was built between 1992 and 20o2.  It  takes water comes  the Murray River  to supply towns in  Victoria’s northern Mallee  region boarded by Ultima, Sea lake, Inderbool, Wemen, Kooloonong and the Murray River. The southern part of the Dennying channel in  the Victorian Mallee was  then replaced by the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline in the first decade of the 21st century (completed in 2008), with the  water  taken from The Grampians headwaters.water tower, Walpeup

Despite the shortage of watering The Mallee,  there appears to  be limited investment  to   recycle water in the towns. The  public investment continues to be  on extending  the pipelines throughout the region to support agricultural expansion   and on mining the ground water  to grow potatoes, onions, pistachios and olives. The   obvious danger is  the risk of overdevelopment, not just in the traditional form of  over-grazing and over-cropping, but in over using  the ground water  and over extracting the water from the rivers.  The risk is  one of  using the  water resources  beyond their capacity to replenish  themselves.

In the realist aesthetic tradition photography needs a world of objects to be seen, but the aquifers and underground pipelines  are beyond the realm of the visible—they are invisible to the realist photographer.  So we have gaps between sensing, making sense of, framing and persuasion. Another  example go what  is  invisible  to the realist photographer is how  the  large scale clearing of the perennial,   deep rooted native vegetation  in the Mallee  in order to grow shallow-rooted cereal crops has contributed to the increase in salt discharge into the  Murray and Wimmera rivers.

Whilst researching material for this post I came across very  little photography in the British colonial states of  the Mallee before the  great clearing in the early 20th century to develop the land. The colonial photography, which was designed  to  record and legitimise the value of the  colonial effort in South Australia,  did not represent  19th century pastoralism in the Mallee. This  absence in the archives of the state archives  means that we start with  the  historical photographs  of  settler capitalism’s agriculture development  in the early 20th century. The images of this settlement  were  made by those living on land,  and they  usually take  the form of photographs of the smallholder settlers in the wheat growing districts  struggling  to conquer the land,  establish  their farmland  and civilise the Bush.   

These struggles were in marked contrast to the rural ideal of a green, well-watered countryside  of farms and villages that has helped to shape  European thinking about the Australian continent for more than two hundred years. Making the brown’ and ‘sunburnt’, sparse and sprawling,  ‘bush’ into ‘countryside’ was what colonial Australians often aspired to do. Country Life was deemed to have moral superiority over city life. This was still the case after 1945. B.A. Santamaria and his Catholic Rural Movement contended that Country Life  was better, physically, socially and morally, than city life; and that some of its virtues derived from the farmer’s arduous struggle to conquer and dominate  nature.  For most of the 20th century politicians believed that country life was a national good that should be supported by the taxpayer, that the state could promote and strengthen this mode of life, and that  agriculture expansion was  central to the economic and emotional revitalisation of the nation.

All that changed in the 1970s with  the emergence of a neo-liberal of governance in Australia.

2 Responses

  • […] The other reason for it being a fruitful road trip was that though my extensive scoping–  several days spent driving  along  both the Henty  and Sunraysia Highways from Swan Hill to Horsham and return — uncovered  new subject matter beyond agricultural fields with solitary  trees,  silos and  rundown,  decaying buildings.  It was  water, or rather the lack of it,  in the form of dried up creeks such as the Yarriambiack Creek and the low levels of the rivers, such as the Wimmera.   This take me beyond my first cut at water, namely photographing the various water towers. […]

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