17 May 2003

Murray-Darling thoughts
Last December my friend David and I were at Kinchega national park in the Western division of NSW. Driving in from Broken Hill, you pass the Menindee sailing club. The Menindee lakes, part natural and part constructed, are big enough for sailing but the drought has left the club house about a kilometre from the water. David and I stopped beside the Darling river to look at a wrecked boiler tank.

In 1872 the paddle steamer SS Providence tied up at the town of Menindee. The river failed during the night and they were forced to stay in Menindee until the river rose enough to float them. They waited a year. When the Darling flowed again they had a drink or two at the Menindee pub and set off. Sadly (it may have been the drink) they fired up their furnace but forgot to refill their boiler. When their boiler exploded it obliterated both the boat and its crew, except for the cook who was thrown clear but died within hours of appalling injuries. All that's left is a rusting boiler which lies where it fell, about 40 metres from the river.

David (an admirably unreconstructed hippie) clapped three times to recognise the dead. It would be a good thing for a few members of parliament to go and look at that chunk of rusted iron because its story tells us a great deal about living in Australia. Our inland rivers are all deeply unstable and they were deeply unstable long before European settlement. Managing them by benign neglect, or worse, by rhetoric without action, does not work. The Murray-Darling basin is dying and, until yesterday, no-one much in parliament seemed worried by that.

Opposition Leader Simon Crean made his speech replying to the budget last night. There was nothing in the budget providing any vision or any resources to keep the Murray and Darling rivers flowing. Crean said:

The Murray River is dying. If we don't restore the health of the Murray, there will not be a river system capable of supporting farmers into the future. It's time for action - not passing the buck.

A Crean Labor Government will:

* Deliver 450 gigalitres of environmental flows within the first term of a Crean Labor Government - enough to keep the mouth of the Murray open;

* Deliver 1500 gigalitres in environmental flows within 10 years - the minimum required to restore the health of the river;

* Create Riverbank to fund the river's restoration and make an initial capital injection of $150 million; and

* Establish the Environmental Flow Trust to manage environmental flows.

Australia is by far the driest continent on the planet. The average annual rainfall is 472 millimetres (18.5 inches). Falls concentrate on the coast leaving the arid interior with even less rain than the average expresses.

Rainfall effects politics. There's no need to start hunting through sources on hydraulic despotism. Robert Kaplan argued in 1995 that any region with an annual average rainfall of less than 20 inches (500 millimetres) 'will sustain a human population only with difficulty.' That's the whole of this nation.

Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic Monthly that:

Indeed, had the United States been settled from west to east rather than the other way around, the big government agencies necessitated by scarce water would have preceded the freeman tradition that took root on the well-watered eastern slopes of the Appalachians in the eighteenth century, and a mild form of hydraulic civilization -- highly centralized and authoritarian regimes, like those that built the great water and earth works in India, China, and Mexico -- might have arisen here.

Treating water as a free resource has been a disaster for inland Australia. The basin is governed by the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement which sets up a joint authority comprising the Commonwealth, NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT. Federalism may be a good thing but dividing the basin between 6 different governments is not. The upstream states want the water for irrigation. South Australia draws 52% of all its water from the Murray. According to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission: 'irrigation in the Basin accounts for 52.4 per cent of all water used in Australia, and 75.0 per cent of all irrigation water is used in the MDB'. So there are many competing interests all dipping into the same finite supply.

The basin does need investment and Riverbank (if it's ever enacted) could be a good start. The basin also needs serious thinking about water rights. We need to throw money at the problem. We also need to make sure that the mix between public authority and private property is right. Ideally, the basin states should refer their powers to the Commonwealth so that a single agency can fix policy for the whole catchment. We cannot let these rivers die.

When David and I left the rusty boiler with its sad interpretation plaque we moved onto the river itself. Thousands of kilometres from the ocean, a flock of pelicans flying overhead surprised us. There was no river. The Darling was a string of standing pools gone gangrenous with agricultural runoff. On the other side a dying sheep staggered down the steep bank to try and reach the water.

We must learn to understand that this river dries up and ceases to flow as part of its natural cycle. 'Dry' politics - the market is the only way to allocate resources - will not work in this environment. We must stop drawing water from the Darling and its daughter the Murray as if there was no end to the supply. The river is not infinite.

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