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Issue #1788      August 2, 2017

Stealing the nation’s water

Cotton production is the biggest water guzzler in Australia. A report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2008 revealed that cotton production consumes some 20 percent of the water extracted from the Murray Darling system; in the Gwydir River in northern NSW the figure is 87 percent, and in southern Queensland’s Border Rivers catchments it’s 80 percent.

To steal water is a heinous crime. The substance, without which all life would perish, has for decades with the introduction of cotton growing and its influential political lobby been committing that heinous crime with impunity. This has included tampering with water meters and under-the-table allocation of water licenses.

Their current front man, National Party leader Barnaby Joyce (also the water minister), is now in denial in the face of ABC’s Four Corners program revealing massive water flows in the Murray-Darling River meant for the environment have been diverted to cotton farmers.

Joyce’s electorate is smack in the middle of cotton growing in northwest NSW and southwest Queensland. On a national basis cotton production consumes 8.6 percent of our total water use, but produces less than one percent of the total value of our agricultural-industrial production.

In 2007 the federal parliament passed the Commonwealth Water Act. This provided the basis for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s recommendations for extra water to be allocated to the Basin catchments for environmental purposes – and hence limits to the quantity that can be diverted for irrigation.

The Guide to the Plan recommends that ground and surface water diverted for irrigation should be reduced by 4,000 gigalitres per annum. According to the Guide, this is the minimum reduction necessary to save the rivers’ natural environment, while minimising the economic and social impact on Basin communities.

This, and other recommendations to address the urgent need to conserve water for the environment, have always come under fierce attack led by the by the big irrigators’ organisations.

The irrigators have learnt from the leaders of the big mining corporations that governments both Labor and Liberal will willingly buckle under pressure.

The continuation of “business as usual” will ensure that the rivers increasingly dry out, resulting not only in the loss of native flora and fauna, but also in massive damage to tourism, widespread outbreaks of algae, and terrible impacts on local communities and on sectors of agriculture other than those that are primarily reliant on heavy irrigation.

Our future as a food exporting nation – indeed, our future food security and our economic vitality, depends on the government taking steps to protect the natural environment of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The critical condition of the Murray-Darling river system is symptomatic of the crisis the entire planet is facing from changing climatic conditions, and the reduction in accessible oil reserves. This situation requires huge changes to the way we live and produce our goods and services, equivalent in historical significance to the impact of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Our use of coal and oil will need to diminish and eventually cease, and our electricity will have to be produced from zero-emission renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. Our towns and cities will have to be served by public electric rail networks, to minimise our reliance on the use of heavy trucks. Our cars will have to be powered by fully electric motors, rather than hybrid systems.

Our use of the land will also need to change. We should be using the land in a way which corresponds to its natural potential, i.e. with the greatest emphasis on crops and farming methods which require the least amount of water, and which provide the greatest potential for the long-term enrichment of the soil and the natural environment. Instead, we are growing crops and engaging in farming practices which require huge amounts of water and which eventually result in the ruination of the land.

Next article – Editorial – Left out in the cold

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