2015 Running Out? Water in Western Australia, Crawley, UWA Publishing.

For nearly 200 years the visions and aspirations of the people of Australia’s west have been characterised by an unquenchable thirst. Ruth Morgan uncovers the fear of running out of water — a fear that has long gripped the region’s inhabitants and loomed large on the state’s political agenda. It has shaped how urban and rural Western Australians learned to live with the effects of a variable climate on their water supply, lifestyle, and livelihood.
This is a story of hardship and persistence; of inclusion, exclusion and defiant profligacy in the face of growing scarcity, through a period of great development and social change. An engrossing environmental history that offers a new understanding of the past Running Out? questions this way of life as we approach an uncertain future in a drying climate.


Morgan’s subject is topical and most relevant to Western Australian readers, but it also has a wider appeal. It presents impeccable research and referencing, while Morgan’s wit and humour is engaging. This is a pioneering study of value to other scholars, and the seriously interested reader.
— Winner, State Library of WA Western Australian History, WA Premier's Book Awards, October 2016
In Running Out, Ruth Morgan takes a seemingly narrow topic—the history water in a single Australian state—and weaves a complex tale that accommodates diverse standpoints and scales. Settler and indigenous perspectives appear alongside changing attempts to balance political, scientific and public demands, while Morgan’s focus shifts fluently between the vast scale of the planet’s environment and the small scale of local and regional history. At once a study of changing ideas about water and appropriate water usage, a history of how those ideas constrained or shaped policy choices, an analysis of changing environmental conditions and environmental science, and a survey of how ideas and policies around water came to affect individual lives and social structures, Morgan has written a model environmental history. In a remarkably engaging way, her work tackles the history of one of our most intractable problems and suggests how crucial it is to learn from the past.

Praise for Running Out?:

Ruth Morgan has written a book that wears its scholarship easily and tells its story briskly with grace and skill ... an analysis that has relevance well beyond Australia.


Lucid and engaging, this book tells a compelling story with vital implications for the nation’s future ... This is environmental history at its best. 

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.
Morgan weaves the different elements of this story of water in Western Australia in such a skillful way that the reader is never lost, never overwhelmed and telling appears effortless. ... [A] brilliant analyst who draws out the significance of all that she describes in a highly succinct fashion.
In this masterfully crafted history of water in Western Australia, Ruth Morgan provides a discerning account of social forces, political manoeuvring and ecological constraints that have shaped the region’s environmental identity. This is environmental history at its best, captivating in story-telling, considered in analysis, wise in conclusions. ... Among the more compelling insights of Morgan’s book is that the origins of the chronic hydro-vulnerability of the Australian southwest for the most part lay in an equally chronic mismatch between the political ambition and the level of environmental knowledge among decision-makers and publics alike. This may be as simple as it is self-evident, but it captures the historically obstinate collision between the politics of growth and the realities of its consequences. That the hydro-vulnerability of the southwest continues is not striking; what is striking is the amnesia about the lessons that could have been learned if the history was heeded with respect. It is of some distinction that Running Out helps us learn this fundamental lesson and that it does so with conviction, grace and acumen.
Should (Californians, South Africans and other water-stressed societies) want to learn from the Western Australian experience – and they should – then there is no more clear-eyed, tough-minded, and definitive guide than Ruth Morgan’s compelling study.
Ruth Morgan’s important book gives us urgent food for thought. ... And because this book is so fluently and accessibly written, it will reach across the fields of science and history to offer a vital contextualisation for the urgent decisions which need to be made in the present.
This is a cautionary tale on environmental un-consciousness or if you prefer, wilful disregard. ... We seem to have learnt little on the limits of supply, preferring to dam another river, or drill bores, than face up to where, or how we live. ... I recommend this book as useful warning: proof that only in understanding history can we learn lessons for a shared future.
Running Out? is driven by a contemporary problem: escalating water use combined with declining rainfall due to climate change. But as a good contemporary historian should, the author takes a long view of this present dilemma. ... In explaining developing attitudes to water in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, she lays a strong foundation for understanding the situation in later decades. ... Although the author’s focus is firmly grounded in the environmental and political realities of the southwestern region of Western Australia, this book’s applicability extends far beyond this region and this nation.

Peer-Reviewed Articles and Chapters

2017   'On the Home Front: Australians and the 1914 Drought', in Georgina Endfield and Lucy Veale (eds), Cultural Histories, Memories and Extreme Weather: A Historical Geography Perspective, Routledge (Research in Historical Geography Series, eds Simon Naylor and Laura Cameron), pp. 34-54.

Recent historical research into Australian climate histories encourages a closer examination of the effects of, and responses to, the 1914 drought in the young nation’s wheat regions. This chapter focuses on Western Australia, where the 1914 drought contributed to one of the driest years on the state’s record, and lingers as a meteorological and cultural marker of the severely dry conditions faced in the state’s agricultural areas. From as early as 1915, the drought was framed as both an aberration and opportunity, as a defining experience of character and belonging, and as a proxy for predicting the weather. Important to this framing process was the contemporary reportage of local newspapers, which provide insight into how the 1914 drought was perceived and subsequently portrayed. To bolster their assessments, these reports frequently deployed the meteorological records kept by individuals and the state. Close listening to oral history interviews with wheatbelt farmers and their families reveals the extent to which these reports aligned with personal experiences of drought and climate variability in the region. Drawing on these oral histories, meteorological records, and newspaper accounts, this chapter examines the ways in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Western Australians experienced and have remembered this drought, and how these memories shaped personal and state responses to subsequent periods of water scarcity.

2017   'AHS Classics: Australian Rural and Environmental History', Australian Historical Studies vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 554-68,

Studying rural history and environmental history in Australian Historical Studies reveals a shared effort to challenge the colonial narrative of the settlement of rural Australia that continues to hold sway in popular representations of the national past. Rather than finding distinct spheres of urban and rural Australia, it reveals instead the processes by which these areas have been mutually constitutive, whether through cultural representations, economic exchanges, or the application of science and technology. Rather than confirming the dichotomy of nature and culture of the city and the bush, it highlights instead the wider cultural and ecological implications of settler Australians’ diverse engagements with an ancient and Aboriginal land. By transcending disciplinary and spatial boundaries, rural and environmental historians reveal the complexities of colonisation and the networks of exchange that have shaped Australians and their environments since 1788. In their hands, history becomes an important form of knowledge for making sense of rural and environmental change in the twenty-first century.

2017   'The Allure of Climate and Water Independence: Desalination Projects in Perth and San Diego', Journal of Urban History , 10.1177/0096144217692990.

In the past decade, Perth and San Diego have both added desalination technology to their suite of water resources. In both contexts, the “independence” that desalination purportedly offers is a shorthand for diversification and drought-proofing in places where future water supplies appear uncertain. Yet the rhetoric of independence may be little more than an illusion, at best, simplifying, or at worst, misrepresenting, the complexity of water management in the face of climate change, climate variability, and population growth. Focusing on desalination, this article examines the different paths that Perth and San Diego have taken toward “independent” water supplies. It explores the cultural and political resonance of independence in these Western contexts, and argues that the invocation of independence is more a rhetorical strategy for political gain than a realistic approach to urban water management.

2017   (with Meredith Dobbie and Lionel Frost), 'Overcoming Abundance: Social Capital and Managing Floods in Inner Melbourne during the Nineteenth Century', Journal of Urban History10.1177/0096144217692984

Before effective drainage and flood protection systems were built in the early twentieth century, areas of inner Melbourne close to the Yarra River were prone to flooding. An overabundance of water and a need to limit its impact on lives, livelihoods, and the built environment drove changes in the engineered structure of a rapidly growing city. Through a case study of a working-class district, we consider how private citizens, drawing on stocks of social capital, responded to major floods in 1863 and 1891. In addition to the process of “top-down” governing, as revealed in public documents, less visible “bottom-up” pressure from local communities played an important role in influencing improvements in water-related infrastructure, such as flood mitigation works. By the turn of the twentieth century, this local pressure increasingly manifested in a centralist approach to water management, whereby metropolitan-wide public authorities took greater charge of local environmental problems.
This article presents an overview of the management of fresh water in the British Empire from the 1860s to the 1940s. We argue that imperial water management shaped and responded to the imperatives of diverse ecologies and topographies, contrasting political and economic agendas and, not least, different colonial societies, technologies and lay expertise. Building on existing studies, we consider the broader ecological and social effects of water management on irrigated agriculture and cities as well as water supply and drainage, with a particular focus on India and Australasia. Although imperial ideologies of improvement impelled settlement, drove resource extraction and transformed environments, we argue that at times they also diminished the availability, quality and distribution of water. Engineering projects also benefited some groups but not others. We show that normative Anglo assumptions of productive lands and watered environments were often ill-matched with colonial ecologies and water availability, in some cases prompting anxieties about the quality and quantity of water. While these anxieties encouraged further hydrological interventions, we show that they often had unexpected and undesired consequences. We introduce the concept of ‘hydro-resilience’ to demonstrate how interventions in water management diminished the quality and quantity of water in ways that impacted unevenly on peoples and ecologies across the British Empire.

2015   ‘Salubrity and the survival of the Swan River Colony: health, climate and settlement in colonial Western Australia’, in A. Varnava (ed.), Imperial Expectations and Realities: El Dorados, Utopias and Dystopias, Manchester University Press, pp. 89-104.

Transportation aside, historians have placed little emphasis on attempts to populate and stimulate the Western Australian colony during the nineteenth century after its near collapse in the 1830s. Drawing on promotional literature and travel accounts of Western Australia, this chapter examines the enduring emphasis on the salubrious climate conditions of the colony prior to 1901. The advertisement of a ‘health climate’ was a common theme of this particular genre of writing, representative of the prevailing environmental anxieties associated with imperial mobility and migration. For Western Australia, its salubrious climate was one of the few attractions of this apparently inconsequential possession of empire. This chapter explores how officials and visitors frequently promoted the colonial climate in concert with the Swan River’s proximity to India, Britain’s jewel in the crown, from colonisation to Federation. The repetition of this rhetorical pairing, I contend, reveals Western Australian efforts to exploit the environmental anxieties of health and race in British India for its own benefit. In doing so, I widen the historical gaze of colonial Western Australia beyond the other Australasian colonies to consider its place in the wider web of empire and the expansion of the Angloworld. (90).

2015   ‘Ghosts of the water dreamers: water histories between the desert and the sea‘, Griffith REVIEW , vol. 47, pp. 172-80.

WHEN HE VISITED Perth in 2012, Arizona water specialist Robert Glennon remarked: ‘I expected a dry city on the driest continent would be at the cutting edge of water conservation and instead I’m hearing stories about groundwater wells in everyone’s backyard and everyone has a lush lawn.’ Had he known the state’s water history, he might not have been so surprised.

2014    ‘Imagining a greenhouse future: scientific and literary depictions of climate change in 1980s Australia‘, Australian Humanities Review , no. 57,  pp. 43-60.

The comparison of CSIRO and Turner’s novel situates these imaginings of the future, one scientific, the other literary, in terms of the rise of anthropogenic climate change in the late 1980s as an issue of Western political concern. The purpose of the comparison is not to undermine the credibility of climate science by suggesting it is a form of speculative literature or science fiction. Rather, pairing these texts allows for the examination of two representations of the enhanced greenhouse effect in terms of the emerging fears and anxieties about an uncertain future in the late 1980s. Both the historical context of these scenarios and their nature and substance demand an examination that considers their relation to the notion of the ‘risk society’, which was emerging in Germany at this time, and the development of a popular ‘climate as catastrophe’ discourse in Australia and elsewhere in the 1980s. The comparison of these imaginings of Australia’s greenhouse future offers important insights into the ways in which possible futures are constructed and depicted, and their implications for political action. This article considers these implications from the perspective of environmental history and argues for the role of the creative arts and humanities in helping restore people to mainstream narratives of anthropogenic climate change.

2014    ‘Farming on the fringe: agriculture and climate variability in the Western Australian wheatbelt’, in J. Beattie, M. Henry, and E. O’Gorman (eds), Climate, Science and Colonization: Histories from Australia and New Zealand, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 159-76.

As histories of dryland salinity in the Western Australian wheat belt suggest, the allure of economic development has long led the state’s policymakers to reject scientific advice advocating caution in favor of agricultural expansion. This pattern of policymaking continued during the 1950s and 1960s as successive Western Australian governments promoted the state’s wheat belt for closer settlement. Although the program of land release stalled amid the droughts and economic pressures of the 1970s, the development imperative reignited agricultural expansion in 1980 around the Western Australian town of Ravensthorpe. The very areas earmarked for land release had been the focus of scientific concerns about the impact of increasing climate variability. Their research, I contend, was a late twentieth twentieth-century expression of what James Beattie calls “environmental anxiety,” those “concerns generated when environments do not conform to European preconceptions about their natural productivity or when colonization set in motion a series of unintended environmental consequences” that threaten agricultural development. This chapter shows that despite these climate anxieties, the combination of dogged developmentalism with declining investment in public water infrastructure and weakening terms of trade, put many wheat-belt farmers at a risk of drier conditions and meager financial returns in the future.

2013    ‘Western Australia and the Indian Ocean: a land looking west?’, Studies in Western Australian History, vol. 28, pp. 1-12.

When Captain James Stirling set forth his aspirations to establish a British colony at Swan River in 1826, he proposed the name ‘Hesperia’ – a land looking west to the setting sun – to describe the west coast of New Holland. Such a name reflected his designs for the colony, which he conceived as a strategic outpost of the British Empire in the Indian Ocean that would ‘command India, the Malay Islands, and all the Settlements in New Holland’. The reality fell far short of Stirling’s imperial ambitions, and as the contributions to this volume demonstrate, the Indian Ocean became a source not only of hope, but also fear.

2013     ‘Histories for an uncertain future: environmental history and climate change’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 44, no. 3, pp. 350-60.

In the wake of a decade of crippling droughts, cyclones, floods and fires, and warnings that as a result of anthropogenic climate change such events will be more frequent and intense in the future, historical research into Australian weather and climate is growing. The focus of these studies ranges from the quotidian to the extreme and from the lay to the scientific, offering insights into the experience, measurement, interpretation and prediction of weather and climates since British colonisation. In doing so, they engage with familiar themes of Australian environmental history, such as adaptation, local knowledge, expertise, Western science, sustainability and economic development, as well as demonstrating emerging interests in anxiety, risk and resilience. Here I consider this recent historical research on Australia’s climate and its variability, as well as the implications of anthropogenic climate change for the ways in which we undertake writing history.

2013     (with James L. Smith), ‘Pre-modern streams of thought in twenty-first century water management’, Radical History Review, no. 116, pp. 105-29.

In the context of the global water crisis, we seek an understanding of the histories of water management, their fashioning, and their legacy today. We juxtapose temporally diverse narratives to explore the premodern imaginings that have shaped our inheritance of hydrological thought. Rather than conceptualize their historical influence as a linear progression of ideas, from the primitive and magical giving way to modern religions and then to rational and empiricist sciences, we suggest a fluidity of hydrological thought whereby the sacred and the profane eddy and flow together over time. This article attempts to navigate these currents through an examination of how Western religious and scientific, spiritual and instrumentalist, worlds of water have together guided hydrological imaginings and interventions for more than two thousand years. It specifically analyzes the deployment of these imaginings to frame efforts to control water and waterscapes, as well as bodies and societies since antiquity. The interactions of these worlds of water have produced, we contend, a vast reservoir of influence upon water management in the twenty-first century.
Examining the history of the use and misuse of groundwater in Perth can help to break from this frustrating cycle and shine a torch through what author Michael Pollan calls ‘this fog of presentness’. In doing so, histories of groundwater can help make visible the resources and challenges that have been invisible or ignored for too long.

2011     ‘Diagnosing the dry: historical case notes from south-west Western Australia, 1945-2007’, Osiris, J. Fleming and V. Jankovic (eds), vol. 26, pp. 89-108.

Long regarded for its reliable winter rainfall, the Southwest region of Western Australia was beset by unexpected dry conditions in the early 1970s whose persistence was baffling. The gradual growth of scientific interest in the region’s rainfall, as this article contends, was strongly influenced by political, social, and economic concerns about the challenges posed by drought and climate change. The experience of rainfall decline coincided with international scientific and political interest in the global climate and the perception that it was deviating from its “normal” state. Indeed, this extended “dry” provided an Australian link to international concerns regarding anthropogenic global warming. This article argues that the historical, political, and economic importance of the Southwest’s agricultural industries has led policy makers and researchers to perceive the region’s changing climatic conditions as pathological and in need of diagnosis.

2011     ‘Dry horizons: exploring the responses of Western Australian water managers to the enhanced greenhouse effect in the late 1980s’, History Australia, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 158-76.

In late 2010, ‘drought-breaking’ rains in southeastern Australia led the Victorian government to relax its restrictions on suburban water use. But are such ad hoc approaches to water management sustainable in the long-term? In this article, the responses of Western Australian water managers to predictions of a drier future for the southwest of WA in the late 1980s are presented as a ‘pragmatic precedents’ to guide decision-makers in the twenty-first century. This article considers the way historical analyses affect water management, challenging policymakers to not only look forward, but also back to the lessons of the past in order to devise a sustained and measured response to water challenges. Although a lack of certainty about the implications of anthropogenic climate change has been blamed for delays in policymakers’ adoption of adaptation and mitigation strategies, this article shows that environmental decision-making under uncertain conditions is possible if a ‘long view backward’ is valued and taken into account.

2011     (with Philip A. Keirle), ‘Teething Problems in the Academy: negotiating the transition to large-class teaching in the discipline of history’, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, vol. 8, no. 2

In this paper we provide a template for transitioning from tutorial to larger-class teaching environments in the discipline of history. We commence by recognising a number of recent trends in tertiary education in Australian universities that have made this transition to larger-class sizes an imperative for many academics: increased student enrolments in the absence of a concomitant rise in teaching staff levels, greater emphasis on staff’s research and service, and governmental and institutional pressures to maximize resource efficiency. All this, of course, taking place in an environment where staff are required to engage with discipline-specific pedagogies in teaching and learning to ensure that their departments, faculties and institutions successfully meet and maintain standards of quality in the delivery of higher education. The main challenge historians face here, we argue, is to ensure that the ‘higher order thinking skills’ associated with the discipline are developed in a learning environment often deemed incompatible with doing so. Dealing with this issue requires a particular approach to curriculum design, one that systematically unpacks the signature skills of historical thinking/writing/reading and engages with the pedagogy of large-class teaching environments. What follows is an account of our foray into unfamiliar territory, which, we hope, can act as a guide to academics moving in a similar direction.

2011     ‘A thirsty city: an environmental history of water supply and demand in 1970s Perth’, Studies in Western Australian History, A. Gaynor and J. Davis (eds), vol. 27, pp. 81-97.

The historic problem of ensuring sustainable water resources for Australians, particularly in the southern capital cities, has been an important issue of political and economic concern during the first decade of the twenty-first century.1 Perth residents have been subject to government attempts to limit their water use since at least the 1920s and their responses to these conservation policies warrant further examination in order to inform the management of water demand in the future. In this article, I examine how Perth households responded to a range of official water conservation measures in the 1970s, a decade characterised by regular episodes of water scarcity. It therefore serves as an historical case study of responses to water scarcity in an Australian capital city.

2010     ‘“Fear the hose”: an historical exploration of sustainable water use in Perth gardens, 1970s’, Transforming Cultures eJournal, vol. 5, no. 1.

Most of Australia’s capital cities and towns have been on water restrictions since at least 2007. As metropolitan and regional water supplies continue to dwindle in the southern regions of the continent, water managers will impose tighter conditions on the use of limited resources. It is thus important to examine human attachments to their outdoor spaces to better understand how residents will potentially respond to such policies. For policies designed to reduce the domestic consumption of limited resources to succeed, Australians must perceive them as equitable in both their design and outcome. An historical perspective on contemporary sustainability issues such as water scarcity is useful to explain how present-day values and behaviours towards resource use have been formulated, shaped and renegotiated by those experiences of preceding generations. As outdoor water use is an important focus of current water efficiency measures, a more nuanced understanding of the meanings historically invested in certain gardens can provide insights into how residents can react to disruptions in their watering routines. Using 1970s Perth, Western Australia as a case study through which to analyse such reactions, I argue that the water efficiency measures enacted by the then Metropolitan Water Board overlooked the variety of socio-cultural meanings attached to suburban gardens and as a consequence, affected households unequally.

Special Journal Issues

2014History of Meteorology, vol. 6.  

In late July 2013, the city of Manchester hosted the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine, in which nearly two thousand delegates participated in discussions regarding the theme ‘Knowledge at Work’. Among them were twenty members of the International Commission on the History of Meteorology (ICHM), who shared their research in a day-long symposium on the theme of ‘Gaining It / Losing It / Regaining It (?): Knowledge production in climate science – status anxiety and authority across disciplines’. The articles that feature in this volume are a selection of the exciting range of work presented there by scholars from Australia, the Americas and Europe, on topics ranging from the geo-engineering of colonial northern African environments to the histories of sunlight and health.
This volume recognises the renewed local and global interest in the Indian Ocean and its histories, and seeks to stimulate further work on the connections between the western third of Australia and this arena. ... Reorienting Western Australia and its histories westward might recast Western Australians as part of a ‘littoral society’ of the Indian Ocean, denoting a coastal people, ‘amphibious, moving easily between land and sea’, and surely fitting for a state of sandgropers.


2016   (with Lionel Frost, Andrea Gaynor, Jenny Gregory, Seamus O’Hanlon and Peter Spearritt) Water, history and the Australian city: Urbanism, suburbanism and water in a dry continent, 1788-2015Co-operative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities, ISBN 978-1-921912-38-2

Book Reviews

2016   Astrid Kirchhof and Chris McConville (eds), Transcontinental and Transnational Links in Social Movements and Environmental Policies in the Twentieth Century (Special Issue of Australian Politics and History) in History.Transnational (H.Soz.Kult)

2016   James Beattie, Edward Melillo and Emily O’Gorman (eds), Eco-Cultural Networks and the British Empire: new views in environmental history, in Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 62, no. 3, p. 491.

2016   Ian Tyrrell, Crisis of the Wasteful Nation: Empire and conservation in Theodore Roosevelt’s America, in Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 157-59. 

2016   Andrew Nikiforuk, Slick Water: Fracking and one insider’s stand against the world’s most powerful industry, in Australian Book Review, March.

2015     Jane Rawson and James Whitmore, The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change, in Australian Book Review, October. 

2015     Mike Smith and Billy Griffiths (eds), The Australian Archaeologist's Book of Quotations, in Australian Book Review, October.

2015     Quentin Beresford, The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd., in Australian Book Review, May, pp. 11-12.

2015     Deb Anderson, Endurance: Australian stories of drought, in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 26, pp. 93-94.

2014     Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking (eds), Making a New Land: environmental histories of New Zealand, in ENNZ: Environment and Nature in New Zealand, vol. 9, no. 2

2014     Robert Kenny, Gardens of Fire: an investigative memoir, in Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 38, no. 4, pp. 510-11.

2014       Matthew J. Colloff, Flooded Forest and Desert Creek: ecology and history of the river red gum, in Australian Book Review, November, pp. 15-16.

2014       Matthew Booker, Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s history between the tides, in Australian Economic History Review, vol. 54, no. 3, pp. 313-15.

2014       Peggy James, Cosmopolitan Conservationists: greening modern Sydney, in Australian Historical Studies, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 463-64.

2013      SueEllen Campbell (ed.), Face of the Earth: natural landscapes, science and culture, in Environment and History, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 119-22.

2011     Tony Hall, The life and death of the Australian backyard, in Limina, vol. 17,

2011     Libby Robin, Chris Dickman and Mandy Martin (eds), Desert Channels: the impulse to conserve, in Limina, vol. 17

2011     Kirsty Douglas, Pictures of time beneath: science, heritage and the uses of the deep past, in Limina, vol. 17

2011     ‘“Counting on the weather”: Review of Kristine C. Harper, Weather by the numbers: the genesis of modern meteorology (2008)’, in Metascience, vol. 20, no. 1.