The Murray Darling Basin Plan

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The debate around the Murray Darling Basin Plan is deeply disappointing, not least the political debate, which is characterised by opportunism and meekness respectively. It doesn’t help that the Basin has been a political football for decades, most recently in 2007 when Howard tried to use the Basin to buttress his non-existent environmental credentials through the “National Plan for Water Security”.

I’ve done a bit of policy work on the Murray Darling Basin (MDB), looking at water trading. Australia urgently needs action in the MDB, and I would argue that water trading is an important part of the solution to the current long-running crisis. I wrote this back in 2007:

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s largest river catchment, and extends from Roma in Queensland to Goolwa in South Australia, and runs through New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT. Two million Australians rely directly on the Murray-Darling Basin, and a further one million are heavily dependent on its resources. Forty per cent of Australia’s gross value agricultural production is derived from the Basin, which accounts for seventy per cent of Australia’s water usage.

Australia is now experiencing one of the most prolonged and severe droughts in its history, the result of which has seen the levels of the Murray River and Darling River drop to record lows. The Murray-Darling Basin, as at June 2006, was at sixty per cent of its previous minimum levels. This drought has resulted in serious water shortages for agricultural use and environmental flows, and placed domestic use at great risk.

Until recently, most environmental use of Australia’s water resources have been seen by public policy makers as ‘wasted water’. The water that runs from rivers into the oceans or evaporates in wetlands, were viewed to have had much more productive uses. There is now recognition of the essential need for environmental flows as a public good: environmental flows help sustain vital ecosystems that benefit society and the economy, such as the fishing and tourism industry, and also help improve the quality of drinking water.

It would appear that the Basin is still very much a political football.

The Plan that is being attacked by conservatives inside and outside Parliament is required by the Water Act – and received bipartisan support – twice!

The scare campaign that is being run is simply aimed at spooking the ALP – who have proven themselves very skittish. Irrigators are using this as an opportunity to put their hand out. Over the past decade we’ve had around a 70 percent decline in water, but only a 0.12 percent decline in the economic value of irrigation production – this shows that our farmers can innovate and get more value from the water they use. Since 2007, billions have been spent on water efficiency measures, like fixing leaky pipes.

In Australia there currently exists a public mood for change on the issue of water. A recent poll showed that 80 percent of Australians agree that water should be returned to the Murray Darling Basin. Water restrictions and the drought have raised this as a priority issue for many Australians. Populated areas must be guaranteed drinking water.

Business and industry needs security and certainty of water access. Our agricultural sector must be made drought-proof and more suited to Australia’s climate. Environmental flows are needed to relieve stressed river systems. Without environmental flows keeping the Basin alive, there won’t be an agricultural industry.

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