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Issue #1793      September 6, 2017

Editorial

Water: Harsh reality, real solutions

Despite denials of innocence by the major irrigators, the major reasons for the Murray-Darling crisis were undoubtedly over-allocation of water for irrigation projects, in particular the “water guzzling” cultivation of rice and cotton (the main target of the Plan), combined with long periods of drought.

And it is no good just blaming the weather, as some commentators have done. In hard times we can reduce water consumption, but there is nothing we can do about the rain. The solution does not lie in the construction of more dams, given that the existing dams and other water diversion systems have been a significant factor in the environmental deterioration of the river system.

The Murray-Darling Plan is based on the assumption that climate change is a reality. It also accepts as accurate scientific predictions of a decline in average rainfall within the Murray Darling catchments.

There are certainly long-term prospects for the adoption of agricultural and industrial activities by means of which Australia could play its part in modifying the impact of climate change on rainfall. They include a dramatic reduction in the nation’s per capita emission of greenhouse gases, as well as the preservation of “carbon sinks” such as existing forests, and large-scale reforestation, particularly in degraded areas.

In the immediate term the Murray-Darling system must achieve an overall reduction in the agricultural water allocations, by restricting our agricultural activities to those most appropriate to our climate, soil types and material conditions, and by phasing out the broad-acre irrigation cultivation (which results in maximum loss of water through evaporation), particularly of rice and cotton, whose growth requires huge quantities of water.

This cuts across the vested interests of major agricultural irrigation corporations, who have been the most vocal opponents of the Plan. Their complaints have centred on the impact of implication of the Plan for rural communities, and on rising food prices – but not on their corporate profit levels.

To date, rescuing the Murray-Darling Basin has enjoyed support from a wide spectrum of political organisations. The 2007 Water Act was formulated under the Howard government. The Plan itself had the nominal support of the ALP government, the Greens and two federal Independent MPs. It had widespread support from Indigenous communities and many small farmers.

However, given the monumental influence that major corporations have historically exerted over Labor and conservative Coalition governments, the Plan has been a political football between the two major parties.

The Plan only provides broad outlines of the allocation targets (the “sustainable diversion limits”). Responsibility for implementation of the Plan was left with the various states, which between 2012 and 2019 were to produce their own water resource plans.

Failure to continue to implement the Plan will ruin the environment of the Murray-Darling system which is home to a world heritage site and 30,000 wetlands, providing habitat for 95 threatened Inundation-species of flora and fauna. It would also ruin much of Australia’s agricultural production, changing the nation’s status from food exporter to importer.

The Plan will require modification, for example to allow for existing differences in water use efficiency between different users. However, it is crucial for the government to maintain the overall water allocation cuts with the recommendations converted into law, and if necessary strengthen the provisions to protect the river environment.

Next article – Road transport safety

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