Rivers in crisis: Amid drought, corporations are buying up Australia’s water

Darling River, Wilcannia, New South Wales
Darling River, Wilcannia, New South Wales. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

“We have people out there who are trying to deal with the worst drought in living memory,” National Farmers Federation (NFF) president Fiona Simson said on October 2. “It is imperative that practical and immediate measures be taken to give them access to water.”

The NFF’s National Drought Policy, released in October, states: “Droughts are part of Australia’s landscape and managing drought is a feature of Australian agriculture.

“Drought is forecast to become more prevalent in the future with climate change likely to exacerbate drought conditions and contribute to increased climate volatility and variability that particularly impacts the farming community.

“Prolonged or severe drought can be beyond the ability of otherwise successful farming businesses to manage. In these instances, considered and well targeted government support is vital.”

However, the climate crisis, which governments are largely ignoring or, at best, pay lip service to, is not the only factor impacting on Australia’s traditional flood/drought cycle. The other is the serious problem of farmland and water being bought up by corporate mining and agriculture interests — with the active collusion of state and federal governments. 

Privatisation

Despite the increasing impacts of climate change, Australia’s farming sector has experienced sustained growth for many years. The gross value of crop production is $29.3 billion and the NFF plan projects agriculture to become a $100 billion industry by 2030. But succeeding in this potentially highly lucrative industry depends on access to reliable water sources.

Strict and inflexible water rules previously tied water use to land. Water licenses were immoveable. It did not matter how much money you had, as water was not a commodity and therefore had no price. You could only buy the land a water license applied to.

Today, corporations can buy water rights. Due to this, 70% of water allocations in the Murray-Darling Basin are owned by two corporations: Webster, and Ron and Peter Harris of Ravensworth Agriculture Company.

Both companies are donors to the National Party. Peter Harris is currently in court for water theft, while Webster continues to sell water rights to the highest bidders. Lately, mines have been winning the bidding war over water licences.

Temporary water prices skyrocketed to $1000/megalitre (ML) at the end of October, far out of the reach of food producers. Australia's largest olive grower Rob McGavin has called for a temporary ban on water trading by businesses that do not use water to produce, saying urgent government intervention was required.

"Dairy farmers can probably pay $200/ML before they're losing money and the best horticulture crops are around $650/ML … there's a huge amount of despair and anxiety," McGavin told the ABC.

"We can't make it rain. But what we can do is ensure that only people with a consumptive need or a use can buy water, because if we don't keep those people alive the communities will also slowly die.”

Currently, water rights can be bought at one end of the Darling River and extracted at the other. Governments promote this in the name of “reducing evaporation” and “encouraging efficiency”.

If licence holders cannot take all their water allocation one year, they can add it to their water allocations over the next three years. Government dams also release large water allocations to flow down to purchasers to be pumped out, eroding and flooding narrow river sections and washing out trees on banks in the process.

Under the existing arrangements, water can be extracted no matter how low the river flow gets. Meanwhile, during droughts, water never makes it to the bottom reaches of the Darling River and wetlands. As a result, river ecologies are poisoned by blue green algae, dry up and die.

As the rivers die, rural communities become dependent on artesian water, but that too is being bought up by corporations.

The Weekly Times reported that in the dairy district of Numurkah, near Shepparton, Victoria, “farmers are going broke and the town is dying because poor water management and government policy has allowed water to be sucked up by corporate nut farms and traded like stocks.”

Australian-owned agricultural investment corporation goFarm, with multi-million-dollar investments in highly-profitable but water-intensive almond plantations, irrigated crops and vineyards, is buying up properties across the district. Documents show goFarm wants to control at least half of the Katunga Deep Lead Aquifer, an important groundwater resource for farmers. As of February, it owned more than 17% of the aquifer.

Records indicate that the Katunga groundwater levels have been dropping since the 1990s and scientists are warning that existing regulations and management plans are insufficient to protect groundwater.

RMIT hydrogeologist Matthew Currell told the ABC that the long-term impacts of rising water usage might not be known for decades and could take tens of thousands of years to replenish. “The rules haven't been created, they're not designed for situations where very, very large licence holders can use a dominant position essentially to squeeze other water users in the area,” Currell said

Government plan

The federal government’s Drought Response, Resilience and Preparedness Plan, released in November, acknowledges water is crucial to drought resilience and concedes that Australia’s finite water resources are under increasing pressure.

Its solution is to offer $50 million for an On-farm Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate Scheme to improve on-farm water management and $36.9 million over five years “to improve water security and drought resilience in the Great Artesian Basin through increasing artesian pressure and reducing wastage”.

It also proposes a national water infrastructure plan, connecting water sources through pipes, pumps and natural systems “to increase water supply and build resilience”. About $3.5 billion will be made available for infrastructure that will take still more water out of river systems.

But the plan places no limits on corporate accumulation of water supply and makes no attempt to halt the overallocation of river waters or buying up of artesian waters. The plan contains no funds for research into how artesian basins work and how much can be taken out of them before they depressurise and drop below sustainable levels.

Instead, the plan treats water as an infinite resource for corporate profiteering.

The same applies to soil and forests. The plan concedes that natural resources remain under pressure from climate change and considers the increased frequency and severity of drought in some regions as the most serious threat to land management.

It also admits that natural resources degrade during drought, when they are particularly vulnerable, and will likely have less time to recover before the next significant dry period, which will reduce future productivity.

But it persists in allowing the overallocation of limited river waters to produce irrigated crops and orchards, along with the industrial logging of rain-making forests in the Great Dividing Range and New England tablelands.

While it commits to implementing the federal, state and territory governments’ agreed national strategy and action plan for a stocktake of “land, soil, water, ecosystems and other natural resource assets that contribute to agricultural productivity and drought resilience”, there is no funding when it comes to any kind of coordinated national action.

There are no moves to restore funding to National Park rangers or the CSIRO. Similarly, there are no moves to reverse government cut-backs and privatisations in natural resources and primary industries departments, which used to provide free expert advice to farmers and land managers to help manage land sustainably and increase drought resilience through regenerative practices.

Helping farmers

What is needed now is an entirely different plan to deal with the drought.

Such a plan would ensure water speculation, particularly by companies that do not own land and have no connection to farming, is prohibited, as this practice is pricing food producers out of business.

Available water must be shared out to keep rivers, river communities and sustainable farmers alive, until the drought breaks. Farmers who cannot get their normal water allocations because there just is not enough water must be compensated.

Farmers need to be helped to ensure they can survive and operate sustainably.

Farmers are not eligible for the Newstart Allowance because the assets they use to grow food put them above the assets tests limits. The Farm Household Allowance, which is an equivalent amount to the dole, is available for eligible farmers and their partners experiencing financial hardship. But in practice few farmers can access it, and of those who do, payments are available only four years in every 10, despite the present drought having gone for 8 years and longer in some areas.

Throwing money at grant and charity schemes that time-poor rural people cannot access, one-off lump sum payments or loans for farmers already crippled by debt are all stop-gap fixes that do nothing to stop the corporate takeover of land and water.

Instead, farmers should be ensured a minimum fair price for their produce, and a state-owned Rural Bank should be set up to provide farmers with long-term, low-interest loans. Crucial government services for farmers that have been closed down or privatised must be restored.

Instead of investing $5 billion in taking still more water out of already overstretched river, floodplain and artesian water systems, this money should be invested in a universal wage payment to help land managers transition to regenerative methods and build drought resilience.

None of this is rocket science — it is simply recognising that farmers are land managers, just as National Parks rangers and traditional Indigenous communities are, and that they need support to protect water catchments, biodiversity and soils while producing food and fibre when climate conditions permit.

As climate disasters push us to the edge of environmental and social apocalypse, governments must be forced to switch their priorities from boosting corporate profits to protecting farmers, communities and natural resources.

[Elena Garcia is a regenerative marginal country grazier in the Condamine catchment, Queensland.]

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