The demise of the vital river systems of the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB), upon which the viability of south-eastern Australia depends, is a part of the global climate crisis. The impacts of 1°C rise on the driest inhabited continent have exacerbated the fault lines of water management in the nation’s food bowl in New South Wales.
But beyond the impact of a warming climate, scientists have uncovered that 20% of water has gone missing, under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP). Recent developments suggest that the government is digging a bigger hole for itself by failing to address the systemic problems of the federal cap-and-trade water reforms and enabling water to be over-extracted from collapsing river systems.
A report on the social and economic impacts in the basin, released by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) on September 15, described the impact of water reforms as driving “significant transfers of wealth and opportunity across industries and regions”. It reported that “some communities have watched jobs dwindle away, communities decline, and in some cases nearly disappear”.
It also said that “water reform has largely failed to deliver meaningful outcomes for First Nations people”. People living in the Basin who have a deep distrust in governments — local, state and federal — feel abandoned.
“Many have not been on the upside of technology change, water markets and reforms, nor been the direct recipients of compensatory actions or support to date,” the report noted.
In what researchers from Griffith University describe as a “third wave of dispossession,” First Nations peoples hold just 0.1% of the value of the Murray-Darling Basin’s water market.
They discovered this after mapping First Nations’ water access and rights in NSW over more than 200 years, including current Aboriginal-held water entitlements. First Nations peoples make up 9.3% of the area’s population.
The researchers found that First Nations peoples collectively hold just 12.1 gigalitres of water across 10 catchments in the NSW portion of the MDB. From 2009 to 2018, their water rights in this portion shrunk by at least 17.2% (2 gigalitres of water per year).
When the Barkandji won their long-fought battle for Native Title over more than 400 kilometres of Baarka/Darling, including the Menindee Lakes, no water rights were included. In the recent drought, even river towns the size of Wilcannia had to rely on donated water that was trucked in. Belatedly, a First Nations’ representative has been added to the Basin consultative committee.
Australian governments’ historic over-extraction and partial privatisation of water has also meant that the rivers and ecology have suffered a steady decline.
To address the over-allocation of water, since 2012, under the MDBP the federal government has spent $6.7 billion on projects to recover 2100 gigalites. The volumes to be recovered were sourced as follows: 58% from water buy-backs from farmers; 33% from infrastructure projects; and 12% from on-farm upgrades.
At the same time, a cap-and-trade water management system has been adopted to direct water to the most profitable users. Water trading has turned big profits for industrial agriculture, mining and speculators: social and environmental considerations do not make it onto the balance sheets.
Water reforms and increasing scarcity have driven up water prices, sending many small farmers and small irrigators out of production. A September Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARES) study of water pricing confirms “more frequent dry years are the main cause of the trend towards higher water prices in recent years”. Recovering water through water buy-backs and on-farm irrigation efficiency projects also inflates water prices, according to the ABARES report.
The powerful water-for-profit lobby won again on September 4 when federal water minister, Keith Pitt announced a ban on water buy-backs for the environment.
The Water for the Environment Special Account Review also released an update that day warning that, despite spending $1.8 billion on water efficiency projects, it is unlikely to recover the outstanding 450 gigalitres of water for the environment by 2024, despite it being essential to the MDBP.
Rather than the faster, more cost-effective buy-backs of water licences, Pitt is backing expensive water efficiency projects which have led to greater diversions and decreased off-farm flows from returning water to rivers.
ABARES analysis has shown that “buybacks are the least expensive recovery mechanism” but that they “can have flow-on effects to regional economies as a result of reduced irrigated agricultural production” that “puts upward pressure on prices”.
Two trillion litres of water have now been identified as “missing”.
The Wentworth Group of Scientists released its audit of river flows in the MDB on September 3. It found that since 2012, 20% of flows expected under the MDBP failed to reach gauges along the system. It said that “while some sites received their expected flows, most sites including those upstream of Ramsar wetlands of international importance did not”.
Vice president of the Australian Floodplain Association and grazier Stuart Le Lievre, who lives on the Darling River in north-west NSW, agreed with the Wentworth report’s findings, telling the ABC that unsustainable extraction, floodplain harvesting and climate change are all to blame.
Emma Carmody, one of the Wentworth Group of Scientists who is a special counsel for the Environmental Defenders Office, said that if the upper catchments were governed by plans that did not adequately consider the downstream impact of extraction, there may be not be enough water in the system to supply the lower part of the river.
She criticised authorities’ failure to monitor and enforce compliance of water laws. This has had a devastating knock-on effect on the environment, Traditional Owners and downstream users.
“A significant percentage of extractions in the basin and indeed across Australia are not metered or otherwise properly measured,” Carmody said, adding that there is no excuse for not metering all surface and groundwater extractions.
The federal government is currently reviewing water policy and working on a draft national water reform package. But with large-scale irrigators and mining corporations mounting political pressure for more extractions, First Nations communities stand to lose out unless pressure is exerted to address colonial history.
The Griffith University researchers are arguing for the return of more than a third of the continent to a form of Indigenous control under a “land titling revolution” in which a new water titling arrangement reconnects water law and policy to land restitution. “Indigenous peoples must have the opportunity to care for their land and waters holistically, and share more equitably in the benefits of water use”, they argue.
[Tracey Carpenter is an activist with Water for Rivers.]