Revolution is needed to save the dying River Murray

Sep 20, 2023
The Murray River, the border between Victoria and New South Wales in Australia, wends its way through eucalyptus forest - seen from the air.

Many rivers around the world are dying from overuse, pollution, the effects of dams, river barriers and global warming; governmental failures and political squabbles are often paramount. How then do we save the Murray?

James Hansen states “it is now almost certain that the 12-month running mean temperature will exceed 1.5°C by May 2024 or earlier”. This suggests that an El Nino weather event is soon likely and drought conditions will prevail in Australia.

The international background to these events is the recent Planetary Boundaries Report which assesses the earth’s nine life support systems. Six have been progressively damaged and now approach the point of no return including climate change, biodiversity and ecological services.

The world is recognised to be in a water crisis by the UN and the life support system and planetary boundary of fresh water availability is already crossed.

Australia is participating in these failures, yet in our dry continent, water is still regarded as a “given”, and its provision for a growing economy is usually the main concern in government reports.

The new proposals for the Murray River

The most recent intergovernmental agreement on the Murray Darling Basin Plan, an extension of the Plan, aims to provide buybacks of 450ML of environmental water for the sick river by December 2027. The provision of 450 gigaliters from agricultural use was promised in the Plan a decade ago but incredibly only 26 gigaliters have been delivered. This failure has been caused by the power of major irrigators and by the States rorting the system for political reasons.

The failure has further damaged the health of the river, surrounding floodplains and vegetation which together comprise a functional ecosystem.

A South Australian reaction to the extension of the Plan was provided by The Commissioner for the River Murray in South Australia, Richard Beasley SC, who said that the current Basin Plan failed legally, scientifically and ethically and that it was supposed to use the best available scientific knowledge in its preparation of the Plan.

Trading in water rights

The future of the Murray Darling River and indeed the entire Basin depends on a better understanding of the basic cause of environmental decline in Australia whether due to land clearing, population expansion or ‘development’.  In the words of economist Herman Daly “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment – not the reverse”.

The current system of trading water rights aims to allocate water to its most productive and profitable uses while reducing extractions to sustainable levels as detailed in my previous article on the Murray River.  Some would see water markets as the delivery of a neoliberal fantasy to manage a life support system for humans and all species. Financial markets operate on a philosophy of greed is good, on clever manipulations. Banks and Hedge funds trade water in the same way as commodities and financial products with market manipulation, profiteering and conflicts of interest.

The extended Plan fails to address trading rights, reform or replacement to ensure environmental sustainability and human survival.

In any sustainable system the first priority is for human use as potable water. In the case of the River Murray this has not always occurred for South Australia. Priority two is growing food and priority three, possible use by industries if their need is limited.

Priority 2 decisions need to be made on the choice of crops and not to be decided by traders. For example cotton and rice use a considerable amount of flood plain and irrigation water but are more profitable than many other crops. Both have the advantage of being annual crops which can be sown according to current rainfall predictions whereas fruit cropping needs water every year, but many other criteria must be considered. The huge contiguous acreage of these crops damages biodiversity essential for all crops, and lack of tree breaks increases run off and erosion in storms. Run off of nitrogen fertiliser causes frequent growth of algae which poisons fish and other water life.

Cotton raises $2 billion p.a. from exports. If Australia is to retain a functional river, flood plain water needs to be increasingly returned to the river and the industry allowed to contract. The returned water will help the river and some could be deployed for crops more important to Australian consumption.

Such decisions could never be entertained by governments.

Murray River Statutory Authority for sustainability

Looking at the performance of governments over the past few decades, we would be deluding ourselves if we had any confidence in the survival of the River Murray.

The river has been long in intensive care, where its ailing heart is being treated by every dubious remedy available, some in the snake oil category. It is time for a heart transplant. A statutory heart must replace profiteering traders and rorting State governments. This Murray Revolution must bring management by a Statutory Authority. Surely the death knell of the current Plan is the departure of Victoria presumably to avoid delivering environmental water. What if Victoria could avoid the directive of the Reserve Bank Australia and raise interest rates to attract capital?

The new Statutory Authority must be established by an Act of Parliament with powers to manage the Murray with input from experts on environment, water, climate, farming sustainability and legal aspects.

The Voice

In this year of the Voice it is incredible, disgraceful and an injustice that after many representations from aboriginal communities, ownership of land and water in the Murray by First Nations remains at less than one percent. The sanctity of profit through a trading system is preferred to knowledge of sustainability inherent to Aboriginal culture. Many comprehensive proposals have been made and have been ignored. It would be difficult for Governments to ignore the issue presented via the Voice. Indeed the Voice must be regarded as a necessary part of a Murray Revolution.

There is an alternative to the Murray Revolution, continue as we are and let nature take its course. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we will be re-elected!

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