The PM can forget about helping solve the world’s food shortage, so long as his government insists on taking 3,500 gigalitres of irrigation water out of production in the Murray-Darling Basin. Patrick J. Byrne reports.
Taking 3,500 gigalitres out of production, under the federal water plan, is the equivalent of taking all the water allocated for irrigation to all the NSW and Victorian farmers along the lower Murray irrigation system. It is the equivalent of taking all the water normally stored in the Hume Dam, or 90 per cent of Dartmouth Dam, or seven Sydney Harbours.
In economic terms, it will cripple Australia’s richest food-producing region. Across Australia, “80% of farm profits were generated from around 2% of the [Australian agricultural] landscape… — and this was largely irrigation areas in the Murray-Darling Basin.” (The Living Murray, Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, 2002) Yet governments are targeting water from this highly productive irrigation land along the Murray.
The Greens and Labor support a direct buy-up of 3,500 gigalitres and, when the calculations are done on how much water would be purchased under the Coalition’s $10 billion water plan, it also amounts to around 3,500 gigalitres.
Governments are targeting the most regular, reliable water supply in the Basin, in order to deliver increased environmental flows to the Murray River. This is the water normally stored in the Hume and Dartmouth dams.
Because of their high reliability of supply, these dams supply irrigation water to the permanent plantings in agriculture, such as fruit and nut trees, grape vines and dairy pastures. These farms were guaranteed full water allocations 95 years out of a 100, because these forms of agriculture require 100 per cent of their water needs every season to supply a crop. Should trees and vines die off in a drought, they take up to seven years to mature and reach full production again. Pastures also take years to re-establish.
Irrigation turned this low rainfall area into one of Australia’s highest-value output agriculture regions — but not for much longer, if current trends continue.
To have the federal and state governments purchasing water from drought-stressed, debt-stressed farmers in the middle of the worst drought in the Basin’s history is unconscionable. Irrigation groups have accused federal and state governments of adding insult to injury by colluding to buy the water at the lowest price possible.
Incredibly, the draconian water-purchase targets were set before any Basin plan has been put in place.
The latest Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in March called for the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) to have a plan ready by 2011. But what plan?
The MDBA plan is supposed to include an audit of the Basin’s resources. To put this proposal in perspective, reform of the Basin’s water allocations began under the National Water Initiative, way back in 1994. Since then, the audit has been promised time and again.
• there is still no audit of the Basin’s water;
• there is yet to be any major scientific, environmental study of the 22 issues affecting the health of the rivers and their surrounding regions, to determine an evidence-based environmental strategy for the Basin’s rivers; and
• there is yet to be any study of the social and economic impacts of permanent water-trading, which has been happening on a limited scale for several years, and to which farmers and communities have been bitterly opposed.
By any sensible measurement of outcomes involving $10 billion of taxpayers’ money, these three steps should have constituted the very first phase of developing a water policy.
Instead, both Coalition and Labor governments, federal and state, have embarked on an expensive plan to buy out and shut down Australia’s most productive farming region before they have a plan in place.
They don’t even seem to realise that the Basin waterways are desert-rivers that experience flooding, then long dry periods. Constant high levels of water down these rivers will actually do more environmental damage, by keeping the banks wet, causing bank erosion and high water turbidity.
Even a bipartisan federal parliamentary committee was scathingly critical of the water buy-up plan.
In 2004, the federal parliamentary committee on agriculture conducted the first comprehensive review of the Living Murray plan to buy up water for environmental flows.
The committee was shocked by the lack of science behind the proposal, and its interim report strongly recommended that the $500 million for purchasing water be used instead to do a comprehensive scientific study of the Basin’s environmental needs.
It is time for irrigation peak bodies to put a moratorium on selling water to governments.
It is time governments were made accountable. They need to urgently do the audit, the environmental studies and the socio-economic impact studies, and then devise a plan, instead of pursuing a single-fix policy that will end up doing more environmental harm than good.