Can we save the Murray Darling?

The Hume Weir on the Murray River at the height of the drought in 2008.

The deluge of rain hitting south-east Australia has broken the 10-year drought that brought the Murray Darling Basin and many farming communities to the brink of disaster.

A few months of wet weather have brought the wetlands back to life. The rivers are flowing again, and farmers might even be able to harvest a bumper crop if they can beat the mass locust hatchings.

On October 8, the Murray Darling Basin Authority released The Guide to the Draft Murray Darling Basin Plan. It is an outcome of the Water Act of 2007, set as law the principle that human water use must remain within the basin’s ecological limits.

Irrigation-dependent communities have responded furiously to the draft. At consultations around the basin thousands are turning up to protest the threat to their livelihoods and their communities’ existence.

In Griffith on October 14, an estimated 5000 people attended the public information session. Griffith lies within the Murrumbidgee irrigation district, which stands to lose 32-43% of their water.

Farmers have criticised the plan for underestimating the loss of jobs and the impact that would have on towns in these districts. Farmers are also concerned about the devaluation of property prices due to the proposed water cuts and banks moving to call in loans.

The NSW Irrigators Council will convene a summit on October 25 to formulate a collective response to the plan.

The plan proposes cuts to water use by between 27% and 37%, ranging as high as 45% in some regions. It proposes cuts to the use of ground water of up to 40% and looks at the impact of plantations and farm dams to water flow within the catchment.

It also proposes the expansion of water trading and the elimination of the restrictions of trade, such as the 4% cap on trade of permanent water licences out of Victoria.

The main mechanism for changing water usage in the basin has been the creation of a water trading system. The National Water Initiative that COAG (meeting of federal, state and territory heads of government) agreed to in 2004 included the adoption of cost-reflective pricing for water, the development of water trading systems around the country, separating of land titles from water titles and the provision of water for the environment.

The separation of water title from land title was significant because it meant permanent water allocations could now be traded, not just temporary water allocations.

A predictable consequence of water trading was rampant speculation on the price of water during the drought. Market highs of $1000 per megalitre (1 million litres) made any farm operation forced to buy water to run at a loss.

Furthermore the government purchase of permanent water titles as a way of securing water for the environment is probably the most expensive way to manage water.

The drought is the time that more irrigators are compelled by financial circumstance to sell entitlements, but it is the expensive time to buy.

The higher price of water due to water trading is seen as an end in itself, negating the need to massively upgrade the water efficiency of irrigation delivery systems. The government has allocated $5.8 billion for infrastructure upgrades over ten years.

But it is relying on buying back permanent water entitlements to account for the needed water savings at an estimated cost of $6 billion.

The authority says that fully restoring the rivers requires an extra 7600 gigalitres (1 gl equals a billion litres), but the three scenarios modelled by the authority would deliver only an extra 3000gl, 3500gl or 4000gl to the environment.

In response to the mass anger in the bush, the federal government announced on October 14 that Independent MP Tony Windsor would chair a parliamentary inquiry into the impacts on communities of the water reforms in the basin. It is due to report its findings in April 2011.

Windsor has raised concerns over the plan and said he doesn’t think the proposals will be passed by the current parliament. He has urged a greater focus on infrastructure upgrades and the delivery of water from north Queensland into the basin. Windsor’s electorate will be affected by the water cuts.

Farmers are right to be angry. Family farmers have borne the brunt of structural adjustment in agriculture for the last 30 years. For example, over the past ten years 60% of WA dairy farmers have been forced out of the industry due to the deregulation of the dairy industry.

Those dairy farmers left are making little return on the massive investments they spent in expanding production to remain viable. Dairy farmers elsewhere around the country face a similar experience.

Rural communities have been depopulated as farmers leave the land and the remaining farm operations get bigger and bigger. Government health and education services have been rundown or closed.

The downgrading of these and other services, and infrastructure such as telecommunications, the regional rail network, and the closing down of many Department of Primary Industries facilities, have all taken jobs away.

Farmers and rural communities are now being asked to walk the plank again.

But there also is an objective ecological problem in the basin.

Conventional agriculture is destructive to the ecological systems that underpin it. Continuing business as usual in a wet year may seem viable but the next dry spell will place everyone back in the crises we have just come out of.

There needs to be change.

The alternative is publicly funding a radical transformation of Australian agriculture.

The government should start by scrapping its plans to buy water entitlements and use the allocation system to guarantee the necessary water for environmental flows.

The $6 billion could then be spent on supporting farmers and their communities as they adjust to the lower water availability and become ecologically sustainable.

A pioneer in sustainable farming in Australia was P.A. Yeomans who developed the keyline farming system and the “Yeoman’s plough” in the 1950s.

His book Water for Every Farm outlines how to use swales on a slopes contour to facilitate water absorption into the landscape. His system has been popularised by permaculture texts and implemented by farm designers in many countries to great effect.

Peter Andrews also shows that it is possible to farm successfully and strengthen the natural movement of water in the soil, restore the health of creek and river systems and by doing so increase the productivity of the land.

His system of natural sequence farming has met with resistance from the water management officials who see the creek and river systems mostly as a drainage system.

Andrews argues that the creek and river systems before white settlement acted as dispersal systems to rehydrate the landscape, maintaining high water tables.

This storage of water in the landscape both supported vegetation above ground and fed back into the river systems, maintaining both in the absence of rainfall.

Both high soil carbon levels and the wetlands systems were key to the movement and storage of water in the landscape and the maintenance of healthy rivers.

By replicating the natural movement of water in the soil and supporting a high water table on the creek and river flats on properties he redeveloped, Andrews has created highly productive farms without the need for irrigation.

Andrews argues in his books Back from the Brink and Beyond the Brink that his system could be replicated across the Murray Darling Basin or any other catchment.

Government policy has generally been aimed at helping small “unviable” farms exit the industry. There needs to be a just transition for family farmers.

How are we to support a transition to sustainable agriculture that also builds rural communities? The key is government investing in rural infrastructure such as rail and telecommunication systems.

Increasing health, education and other government services, as needed and directed by the communities, is urgent.

The government should fund the redesign of farm and catchment irrigation systems that restore the catchment’s natural hydrology.

Rapidly raising soil carbon levels through ecological farming systems — by funding the training, the biological inputs and the modification of farm machinery to do so — is also urgently needed.

Farm debt has tripled in the last 10 years of drought to reach $62 billion. There needs to be a publicly owned and controlled bank that offers farmers refinancing and affordable credit during the transition.

The threat of foreclosure due to rebalancing water allocations in the Murray Darling shows how the banks will put profit before the environment and farmers.

Faced with the threat of human-induced climate change, it is in the long-term interests of both farmers and workers in urban areas, especially in Adelaide, to see the health of the Murray Darling Basin restored.

Then, as well as being a food bowl, the region could become a carbon sump, a bastion of biodiversity through the renewal of our wetlands systems, and a model of sustainability.


Great article Nick, I saw this on the back of a newspaper whilst visiting a friend. I have quite strong feelings on this matter and was interested to see what the Green Left had to say. I was expecting a strongly environment focussed diatribe about how farmers have ruined the Murray Darling Basin. Needless to say, that is not what I got and your comments are both rational and, most importantly, accurate.
Most Australian's would agree that we need to maintain rural communities and the environment, but, this debate is so poorly understood that it is near impossible for a rational outcome to prevail. Government needs to take a step back, look at what needs to be done and work with rural communities to achieve it. Australian farming practices are unsustainable in many instances and this must be addressed. But for this to occur we need a dramatic reassessment of our farming ideals and the practices that best suit our environment. There is a lot of work to be done here, but it is, in my view, the only viable way forward. Thanks for adding some real value to this poorly understood and misinterpreted debate.

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