In this and over the next five editions of News Weekly, we will be publishing a series of articles to shed light on an ongoing social and environmental catastrophe: the Commonwealth Water Act 2007 and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan that sprang from it. It is a truly man-made disaster and a political scandal – and it has a political solution, which will become apparent to the patient reader before the end of the series. The first instalment, published here, provides an introductory overview of the issue.
In recent years community-minded water advocates from across northern Victoria and southern New South Wales have united for action to reverse or at least mitigate the destructive socio-economic impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP), and its underpinning legislation, the Commonwealth Water Act 2007. They have sought to bring to the attention of the general public the fact that the region that has been known as the nation’s “food bowl” – the irrigation districts in southern NSW and northern Victoria – is in danger of being reduced to a “dust bowl” due to cuts in water allocations arising from the Basin Plan.
It ought not to surprise us that such an essential commodity as water, especially as it flows through parched lands and through distinct administrative regions, should lead at times to acrimonious disagreements. The protagonists in the drama are the irrigating communities along the rivers, three state governments – New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia – and an interested but distant Commonwealth government.
Yet, for a brief period, not so long ago, all the actors did indeed come to a satisfactory modus vivendi. During the 1990s and early 2000s, community consultation with agencies, and participation in commenting and contributing to emerging policy issues, had been strong. River communities and local governments felt included, not ignored. Communities did not always win what they wanted but they were always consulted; and the water managers/experts almost always visited the communities and explained the nature and reasons for final decisions.
Now, however, for the last decade and a half, communication between government agencies – both state and Commonwealth, including the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) – and river communities have for all intents and purposes dried up. Nowadays, communities rarely see anyone in authority.
They had to fight to get any information at all during the Basin planning process; and when they make presentations to authorities about clear deficiencies or flaws in the Plan, they get very little reply. The mass protests over recent years are an indication of how they feel about being kept in the dark.
The fact is, the “food bowl” (which is responsible for staple food production) is in crisis as a result of the redistribution of both productive and environmental water from upstream communities and environs on the Murray and Darling rivers, to the end of the system and downstream production.
Environmental interests argue that the present Basin Plan and its controversial water re-adjustments are essential to move towards both preserving healthy rivers and maintaining sustainable irrigation communities.
The results of the 2007 Water Act have, in fact, been only negative – the Basin Plan has reduced the amount of irrigation undertaken and, as a consequence, contributed to the shrinking and even destruction of local communities and businesses dependent on the irrigation sector.
Nor are these the only negative consequences. The environment has suffered too. Rural communities have witnessed large-scale riverbank erosion and over-watering of the forests that were meant to be protected as vast volumes of water have been delivered downstream according to the Basin Plan.
In the Southern Riverina and northern Victorian food bowls, for example, the amount of water available for irrigation has fallen 30 per cent as water is reserved for the environment. In the dairy industry, it is estimated that the number of farms operating before the Basin Plan has fallen from 3,000 to fewer than 1,500 now. And the rice industry in recent years has produced less than 10 per cent of what is considered a “good year” crop due to a combination of a reduction in the productive water pool and reduced allocations from the water-sharing arrangements.
A large proportion of the water recovered for the environment will feed into the Lower Lakes system (Lakes Alexandrina and Albert) behind the barrages at the Murray mouth in South Australia, the aim being to keep these lakes fresh. This, in spite of the fact that the scientific evidence shows that, pre-barrages, the lakes were estuarine, not just fresh – that is, a mix of marine and fresh water.
If the Lower Lakes were allowed to revert, at least in part, to an estuarine state (as the science shows was historically the case), 40 per cent less water than mandated in the Basin Plan would be flowing out to sea. Just think what this 40 per cent of “mandated water” would mean to the food bowl if re-instated to upstream productive use. It would be an enormous stimulus to economic activity, and at a time when our country needs just such a stimulus.
It is little wonder that affected communities are fed up with this debacle and are demanding that the MDBA and the states immediately agree to review the planning assumptions and the defective environmental science that determined the volumes of water required. These are major questions into which impacted communities had next to no input, yet they have had to live with the consequences.
The Commonwealth Water Act 2007 was drafted with no community consultation whatsoever, as was the subsequent Basin planning process, as set out in the Guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
To repeat, there was no consultation with any of the regional communities in the 15 or so separate river valleys within the Basin on the content and intent of the Act, nor on what was planned for the Basin planning process that flowed from the Act. No discussion about what basic scientific information was to be relied upon; what were the critical/essential environmental assets that were identified for enhancement and “improved health”, or why were these chosen; what models were used to assess water-sharing options; what might be the socio-economic impacts at various levels of environmental improvement. This has led to community frustration, distrust and anger from day one of the water reform process.
Yet this high-handed, non-consultative approach to Basin planning had not always been the case. Prior to this disastrous Water Act 2007, the then Murray Darling Basin Commission and the member states had developed a model of participative, consensus-building water
resources management. It was a knowledge-based, consultative model that sought acceptable trade-offs between environmental, social and economic needs, through strong community / stakeholder involvement.
This process can often be slow as it aims to “inform, consult, debate, review and then resolve” with the community not just on a draft final plan but at various stages during the planning process. Although water user groups remember plenty of arguments and disagreements during this consultative type of planning, by its very open and transparent approach, it created trust and a degree of acceptance by most stakeholders.
The Murray-Darling Basin Commission participatory approach to basin management was widely reviewed and the World Bank and other international organisations recognised it as the “world leader”. The World Bank adopted it as “world’s best practice” and used the principles to influence basin planning in China, Southeast Asia and India, and throughout Africa and South America.
So, why on earth did we throw it all out and create the horrible mess that we now have?
International water-resources expert Professor John Briscoe was the peak senior water adviser to the World Bank. He later headed the Harvard University Water Program and also received the 2014 Stockholm Water Prize (commonly referred to as “the Nobel Prize of Water”). The late Professor Briscoe made a submission to a Senate Standing Committee inquiring into the Water Act 2007.
In it, he noted that:
• The Water Act and its Basin Plan diverge a long way from internationally accepted “world’s best practice” in integrated water-resources/river-basin planning.
• The Act was born from political and environmental opportunism – seen to be responding to a perceived environmental need for political expediency.
• The Act was hatched in a very short time, with very little consultation with any of Australia’s experienced water professionals or its innovative farmers.
• It was built as a direct response to Australia’s obligations under international agreements such as the Ramsar Convention for protecting wetlands, and as a way of avoiding conflict with the states, who have constitutional rights for managing water.
• So, the Act had to become an “environmental watering act” – one in which Canberra would tell states and communities and farmers what to do.
• It thus was not, and could not be, a “water-management act”, which would have required a much more balanced approach to all issues.
Professor Briscoe concluded: “Australia cannot find its way in water management if this Act is the guide. I would urge the Government to start again, to re-define principles, to engage all who have a stake in this vital issue, and to produce, as rapidly as possible, a new Act which can serve Australia for generations to come. And which can put Australia back in a world leadership position in modern water management.”
Surely our governments can take account of this expert opinion, swallow some humble pie, and start an immediate process, with regional community involvement, to create a considered and balanced approach to Basin water management and an Act that adopts all the elements of world’s best practice – that is, a “Water Resources Management Act”, not an “Environmental Watering Act”.
In preparing this series of articles for News Weekly, information has been gleaned from available reports, published opinions and conference papers, and from talks with acknowledged expert water managers. In particular, the MDBA publication, Sharing the Water: 100 Years of River Murray Politics, has been consulted. Every effort has been made to ensure accuracy in statements of fact and expert quotations. Comment and discussion is welcome from anyone who may dispute our understanding and our conclusions. That is, come and speak to us, don’t just criticise.