As a drought-stricken area in Australia struggles, a Chinese company moves to bottle its water

Queensland, Australia.
Queensland, Australia.
Image: Reuters/David Gray
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Drought has been a chronic issue in southeastern Australia for years. In regions such as southern Queensland, months can pass without rain. Local communities have to ration water or risk running out.

Yet a company owned by Chinese investors based in Brisbane still got approved last week to run a commercial water-mining operation in the area. It plans to transport the water to a facility where it can bottle and sell it.

The regional council for Southern Downs, an area along the border of Queensland and New South Wales, signed off on the application by Joyful View Garden Real Estate Development to run a water-extraction plant on its large Cherrabah resort property in the area. The property’s owners had previously applied in late 2018 to set up the facility but abruptly pulled the request. Earlier this month, the plan landed back on the table of the regional council, according to a local paper.

Despite complaints by neighboring property owners, the council approved it—even as it prepared to implement extreme water rations in the area. In the nearby town of Stanthorpe, plans are underway to truck in emergency water, to ensure it doesn’t run completely out. Joyful View, meanwhile, intends to pump water out of the ground at Cherrabah and move it in tankers to a bottling plant on the Gold Coast.

These practices aren’t limited to Australia. In the United States, corporations have been extracting water in dry parts of California—even during drought—and draining aquifers in Florida in order to sell it. The case in Australia comes as the country suffers under record heat and contends with devastating bushfires in nearby New South Wales.

After the decision, some council members told the Southern Free Times they had no choice. The government of Queensland— not the council, they said—decides how private property owners can use water they draw from their ground. (Update: The council released a statement reiterating that it does not manage water licenses.) The owners of the Cherrabah property first got a license from the Queensland government to extract water in 2008. In 2016 they received an extension granting them the right to collect 96 megalitres of water per year until 2111, nearly a full century.

One person on the council, deputy mayor Jo McNally, said they knew of several property owners pumping water from the ground to sell commercially elsewhere, but there was little they could do. “This is happening all over the region and here we are singling out one landowner,” she said.