Can we save the Murray Darling?

Members of the River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group. Photo: John Caldicott/Flickr

Murray Darling Basin Authority chief executive Rob Freeman recently proposed extending the consultation process on the draft Murray Darling Basin plan until 2012. This follows mobilisations by both farmers and environmentalists pushing competing claims.

Renowned anthropologist Diane Bell, chair of the River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group, spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Gemma Weedall about the Murray Darling debate.

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What is your overall response to The Guide to the Draft Murray Darling Basin Plan, recently released by the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA)?

I am delighted that we finally have a document to which we can respond and that the reports on which the MDBA has relied are being made available for public scrutiny. I was hopeful that the plan might succeed when I read the health of the river was being privileged and it was understood that 3-4000 gigalitres was the minimum required to achieve that goal.

However, I am dismayed that the MDBA has not been prepared to defend its report and has rather adopted the stance that it is all “negotiable” and the authority’s role is to listen and record any and all views, mostly without comment except to say that the Water Act 2007 requires the MDBA to attend to certain matters and to exclude others which are outside its jurisdiction.

I have attended three of the meetings — one in Adelaide and two in Renmark. I thought it poor practice to allow comments and questions to be posed and left open-ended when the MDBA has the science to respond and direct the questioner to materials that are grounded in scientific research and not mere opinion.

If the plan is based on sound science and that science says the range needed to be returned to the river in environmental flows is 3000-7600 GL, then we should be able to see the modelling for that range.

Instead the MDBA has chosen to model three scenarios in the 3000-4000 GL range.

The rationale is that at higher levels the socio-economic impact would be so dramatic that it would violate the objects of the Water Act 2007, which requires the MDBA to optimise environmental and socio-economic factors.

That proposition is weakened by the MDBA's own admission that it needs to do more research on the socio-economic factors and that this is the material of which it is least sure.

The critique and comments by Professor Quentin Grafton of the Australian National University indicate possible lines of inquiry about the socio-economic impacts. We need to see the outcomes of the Productivity Commission Report.

There is a strong focus on water trading in the plan. Do you think this is an effective mechanism for changing water use in the basin?

As a general principle, I am opposed to the privatisation of basic utilities such as roads and public transport, broadcasting and communication, education, power, postal services, law enforcement, health and so on. These services/resources should be managed for the benefits of all, not for the interests of share-holders.

The market does not and cannot deliver equity when it comes to basic utilities. Access to clean water should be a human right and water should not be owned, nor should it be unbundled from the land to which it is connected.

Australia has already embarked on the privatisation of water and the results have not delivered environmental flows to the river.

For the market to deliver for the environment, there would need to be a vigorous advocate and bidder for water in the market. The Commonwealth Environmental Holder has the task of purchasing water for the environment but is constrained by budgets and policy considerations.

Recent good rains and floods have seen significant inflows returning to the Coorong and Lakes, and media reports have declared the Coorong has turned a corner and is recovering. Is this the case or is there still a crisis in the Coorong?

There is a continuing crisis in Lake Albert and Lake Alexandrina and the Coorong. The recent rains have raised water levels and water is flowing out the Murray Mouth for the first time since 2002.

But the water quality is a problem: salinity levels in the Coorong and Lake Albert in particular are extremely high and the water bodies need flushing to remove the accumulated salts and nutrients.

The building of a bund between Lake Albert and Lake Alexandrina in 2008, as part of the “management strategies” of the lower water levels of the lakes, disconnected the lakes.

The bund has now been partially removed but the water in Lake Albert has been isolated, salinity levels have increased and the Narrows, the channel that connects the two lakes, needs dredging for the wind-driven mixing of waters to bring fresher water into Lake Albert.

This is a consequence of short-term measures to manage “drought” and a failure to heed the advice of locals with in-depth knowledge of the ecology of the Narrows.

Salinity levels in the Southern Coorong need to be reduced dramatically and that will require getting more fresh water through the barrages into the Coorong.

There is a plan to pump the hypersaline water of the Southern Coorong over the sand dunes and into the Southern Ocean. This project will take several years of pumping to bring the Coorong back to viable levels and some scientists believe there will be a detrimental impact on the ocean.

The debate around water reform in the Murray Darling Basin has often been presented as farming versus the environment. Do you believe a dramatic reassessment of Australian farming practices is needed to address the water crisis? What would this entail?

I think the oppositional approach — farmers versus environmentalists, state versus state, urban versus rural — masks the reality that we are all in this together and without a healthy river, we will not have healthy communities and economies.

We need to develop a dialogue around the relationship of the regions to the wider Australian society.

We need to decide for whom we are growing food and fibre, where we are growing it, and if we are making the best use of the land for future generations. This could require a “no-borders” approach to agriculture wherein we would make rational decisions based on the priorities of the nation, not the share-holders.

Much of Australian agricultural practice has been driven by government policies. It is now the task of government to develop a new blue-print for food and fibre production.

How can we support a just transition to sustainable agriculture that also builds rural communities?

We would need to have a clear plan regarding why reform is needed. We need a clear vision of the relationship of rural to urban communities for Australian society and the economy.

The details of the plan must be open to scrutiny as should the science on which it is based. We need to explore the benefits that flow to rural communities from a healthy river. There has to be a national commitment to the transition and it needs to be understood as an investment in all our futures.

What action and policy decisions need to occur in the short and long term to ensure the health and sustainability of the Murray-Darling system?

There are some hard decisions that need to be made. We are in this pickle because there has been mismanagement and that must be recognised.

I do not have any confidence that the decision-makers who created the problem of over-allocation are the best stewards of change.

In the short term, we need to ensure that the benefits of the last few months of rain and flood waters are not squandered. The river is on the brink of returning to health. We need to lock in the gains and plan for future flows that will maintain the health of the system.

In the long term, we need to ensure we budget according to the lean years and err on the side of prudence for the environment.

What do you see as the next steps for the campaign to save the Murray, and specifically, how does the River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group (RLCAG) plan to take this campaign forward?

I think we need to focus on the big picture. The MDBA plan is decoupled from broader social and economic concerns.

The RLCAG organised “The People's Forum on Water” as an exercise in deliberative democracy on October 18. The participants included a wide range of “stake-holders” in the MBDA Plan and their insights are currently being collated.

The deliberations will form the basis for a submission to the MDBA Plan and future political action. Stay tuned at .