Next NSW government must do much more on water and climate

Mar 23, 2023
Heart-shaped drop of water and the text world water day on a blue textured surface, in a panoramic format to use as web banner or header

Yesterday, 22 March 2023, the planet observed World Water Day, which highlights the sustainable management of precious water resources and raises awareness of the 2.2 billion people across the globe who are living without access to clean and safe water.

But here in New South Wales, water’s big day coincides with yet another mass fish kill in the Lower Darling-Baaka River at Menindee.

And it comes just a matter of days before voters decide who will form government in NSW for the next four years – a critical time for saving the Murray Darling Basin and trying to avert the climate catastrophe forecast by the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

The millions of dead rotting fish clogging the waterways in the far west of the state are a graphic testament to monumental policy failure when it comes to water management in New South Wales.

Government officials are only speaking half truths when they blame the die-off on dramatically reduced oxygen levels caused by a combination of hot weather and receding flood waters.

What they are wilfully ignoring is the gross mismanagement of the Murray Darling Basin by the Perrottet Government which has led to the “wall of dead fish” at Menindee and degraded water quality right across the network.

Despite all the recent rain, the river system is  stressed by a reduction of healthy flows due to too much water being diverted for irrigation.

In a callous act of environmental vandalism, the Government has handed out floodplain harvesting licences which could potentially see up to 1.5 trillion litres of flood waters snapped up by irrigators in the northern basin in a single year.

Despite the Upper House disallowing floodplain harvesting regulations a record 4 times, the Perrottet Government remains hellbent on giving away too much water to the detriment of the Basin and its incredible fish and wildlife.

The health of the river system is further compromised by WaterNSW’s priority to keep as much water in dams and other storage as possible.

Following the January flood, Menindee Lake was shut off to hold the water in, rather than being released to improve oxygen levels in the Lower Darling.

Officials knew what was coming given the very recent experience of the 2019 Menindee mass fish kill but still failed to do the right thing by the river and the local community.

Rebuilding native fish populations and reinstating a healthy aquatic ecosystem will depend on the next government implementing the Basin Plan in full and accepting that the entire network of rivers and other waterways must be managed as a connected whole.

This is especially pressing given the broad expectation that Australia will be gripped by a new drought forming el nino weather event later this year.

The new government must also act on irrefutable proof that the climate in western NSW – and indeed across the rest of the state and the entire country – has changed significantly.

This week’s landmark report card by the IPCC is a clarion call to both major parties contesting the election that they must urgently increase their climate action and hasten the transition of NSW to a clean energy economy.

According to the IPCC, the planet is on a “highway to hell” with a “rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

At least voters in NSW finally have a choice between two major parties that acknowledge the need to reduce climate pollution through a commitment to installing more clean energy, which is in sharp contrast to their competing approach to water management.

Both the Coalition and Labor have promised major funding to support renewable energy projects which will tackle climate change and drive down energy bills.

In doing so, they have recognised that doing nothing is no longer an option – any party fronting up to votes without a comprehensive plan to decarbonise the economy would be committing electoral suicide.

But the really hard work lies ahead for whoever is elected on Saturday.

The new government must leverage the strong community appetite for a cleaner planet and up its climate ambitions even further, which would start with managing the smooth closure of all five remaining coal-fired power stations that are polluting the state and shifting to 100% renewables by 2030.

Only then would NSW fulfil its boast of being a clean energy superpower.

There will be no turning back from here.

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