Looking into an abyss — with no water

December 5, 2019
Sydney climate strike, November 29. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

First Nations people's knowledge and rights have been overlooked as the largest privatisation of water on the planet has been underway. The privatisation of this most precious resource has enriched a few at the expense of many.

Australia now has one of the world’s largest water markets, worth $27 billion, 10.5% of which is foreign-owned. International agribusiness and speculators are cleaning up. They are also greatly increasing extractions under low-flow entitlements into private water storages.

Controversy has always surrounded allocations and control of this most precious resource on the driest inhabited continent.

A national market for water came into full effect when state governments separated water property rights from land title in the mid–1990s. But the drought of the early 2000s almost collapsed water supplies to towns along the Murray River. This led the Coalition government to draw up the National Water Initiative, ostensibly to raise efficiency, reform water markets and trading, and deal with over-allocation and stressed water systems.

Drawn out negotiations between six states led to the Murray–Darling Basin Plan (MDB Plan) to manage water across the nation’s food bowl. The plan was to restore the water use in the basin to a more sustainable level, while continuing to support farming and other industries.

But the plan overlooked scientific modelling that showed the critical impact climate change would have on inflows.  

Since the 1960s, climatologists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have forecast steady rainfall decline across the southern part of Australia.

However, the original MDB Plan was developed with inflow data collected over the preceding 60 years: average annual end of system flows were estimated at 12,233 gigalitres (GL).  The Wentworth Group of scientists found that even in 2008 water resource developments had already reduced this flow by 61% to 4733GL a year. Through the subsequent 10 years, averages were less than half that amount and are now below 2000GL a year.

The federal government funded water buybacks to redress over-allocations. But controversy surrounds the huge payments for water licences, which have failed to deliver water back to the rivers.

Lower inflows, higher demand and speculative water trading are driving up prices, with only the highest bidders — agribusiness and mining — able to afford water.

Water barons now own about 8% of the Murray-Darling Basin: individual investors have made fortunes.

Water for profit

State allocations and the licencing of huge volumes of water for irrigation, mining and industry are being negotiated far from river communities.

The New South Wales government controls most water-sharing plans in the MDBP, but many remain unaudited, so little is known about how much water is being taken.

NSW has also been criticised for poor monitoring of extraction and imposing only minor penalties for breaches. Allocations have been highly political. For instance, in 2012, the Minister for Primary Industries Katrina Hodgkinson removed limits on extractions during periods of medium to low flow, allowing huge over-extractions by high security licence holders.

The MDBP has led to disastrous social and environmental impacts. Agriculture, the largest water user, is now catering to Southeast Asia’s growing taste for avocados and almonds. Some farmers are switching to these high water-usage crops from relatively low water-use agriculture, such as wool and dairy, to make ends meet. Others are being priced out of the increasingly high-value resource. Forced to watch their mature trees and breeding stock die, they are walking off the land in despair and debt

Last year, while the township of Walgett suffered through a water crisis, the region continued to harvest a record-breaking cotton crop.

The federal government spent $4 billion on an efficiency program that is supposed to return water to the environment, but it has been exploited for large-scale irrigators' unmeasured and unregulated extractions.

According to The Australia Institute's (TAI) Mary Anne Slattery: “It has effectively funded hundreds of Cubby Dams with a huge increase in extraction ... The total amount of recovery in the whole of the basin was 390 gigalitres (GL) and yet private floodplain harvesting has captured a massive 3000 GL to the end of 2017.”

The beds of the Castlereagh, the Bogan, the Namoi and the Baaka (Barwon-Darling) rivers are now bone dry. 

Reforms ignored

There have been 39 reviews of the MDB Plan, including the South Australian royal commission, and another three are underway. Each has highlighted key failures of political, rather than science-based, decision making and called for reforms to transparency, monitoring and enforcement of the MDB Plan. These reforms have never been implemented.

With rising anger and desperation, community groups and advocates are calling for a royal commission into the MDB Plan. But will another inquiry address the water crisis in time to save the rivers?

The federal government has announced more drought relief for farmers and extended low-interest loans to businesses affected by the drought — spreading another $5 billion of largesse. The NSW government is planning new dams. But neither drought relief nor dams are solutions.

“Instead of admitting Australia faces a water emergency, political leaders prefer to use the word drought,” said Professor Quentin Grafton, an Australian laureate and water economist at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.

“Drought relief gives politicians the opportunity to pretend to fix the problem while showing compassion for those doing it tough.

"In this make-believe narrative, all blame accrues to the heavens.

“But it is not simply an act of God; it has arisen from a lack of planning and decision-making that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

“Instead, Australia needs its political leaders to lead, to put the national interest first, and to make decisions that place people before profit.”

Killing culture

First Nations people have lived alongside these rivers for tens of thousands of years and borne witness to the devastating impacts of over-extraction that has killed millions of fish. They say the environmental disaster is killing their culture.

Communities along the Baaka have been abandoned by local and state governments; towns have been left without drinkable water. Supply is propped up by groundwater, which contains excessive salts and minerals. Smacka Whyman, a Barkanji man from Wilcannia, said the water is not even useable to wash in. For more than a year, residents have been dependent on water trucked in by charities.

The water crisis is now creeping across the state.

According to regional town water supply coordinator James McTavish, no major inflows to the Murray-Darling Basin are forecast through the first half of this year. Within six months, the dams of 10 more towns will hit rock bottom — Day Zero. Without significant inflows to rivers,within 12 months, 85 towns will face critical water shortages, .

Water supplies to 140,000 people in Tamworth, Orange and Dubbo are among those identified as being at “high risk” of running out as early as February.

With the Macquarie River to stop flowing in November, the first towns to lose water supply will be Dubbo, Cobar, Nyngan and Narromine. The Lachlan River is set to run dry in March and the next expected to reach Day Zero will be Forbes, Cowra and Parkes.

Without readily accessible groundwater or alternatives, the once well-watered city of Armidale in the Northern Tablelands is facing its Day Zero within a year.

All major water storages in NSW were full in 2016.

“The reason they are now empty is not due to the drought, but because most of the water was allocated to the irrigation industry in 2017-18,” Beverly Smiles of the Inland Rivers Network said.

It is hard to imagine the water crisis that the communities along the Darling River are facing being extended to hundreds of thousands of people.

Plans for networks of pipelines were drawn up after the Millennial Drought, but the rain came for a couple of years and the water storages started to fill. They are all close to empty again now. There is nowhere left to draw from, except the aquifers. Two years into this drought, the NSW government announced plans for new water infrastructure — too late for towns already approaching their Day Zero. 

Australians are among the world’s largest consumers of water and councils have attempted to impose consumption limits. Orange residents have reduced their use to 140 litres a person a day. But some town dwellers across the state more commonly enjoy about 285 litres. Sydneysiders use an average of 210 litres.

The Inland Rivers Network has been fighting for more than 30 years to avert the tragedy destroying the nation’s rivers. It wants a royal commission and water planning and allocation to be based on the most recent inflow information. 

It also wants to ensure that, when it does rain again, some goes to replenish water holes, fish refuges and wetlands and is not all captured by storages. It strongly opposes the government’s plans to licence floodplain harvesting, which would set in place even more extractions without investigating downstream impacts.

The Water for Rivers campaign wants First Nations peoples to have rights to water. It says the communities of the Baaka need safe water to drink and wash in, water filtration systems and rainwater tanks. It is also calling for a royal commission to investigate and redress mismanagement, to punish water thieves and to return water to the rivers.

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