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The Coalition is sinking in the uncharted waters of the Murray Darling

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons

Deals between the Liberal and National parties could further imperil water policy and spell a dark future for the climate and sustainability efforts, writes Dr David Shearman.

Around one million animal and plant species are facing extinction. Freshwater species have suffered the greatest decline, falling by 84 per cent since 1970. Humans are also affected: around four billion people currently experience severe physical water scarcity for at least one month per year, a situation that has been exacerbated by the climate crisis.

THESE ARE THE words of the UN World Water Development Report 2020 on the need to improve water management. 

One should not need to offer a reminder to governments that water is crucial to life in the rapidly drying climate of Australia.

Yet, the recent shenanigans in the National Party has exposed the inability of the Coalition to understand that water is a national security, human health and sustainability issue. It may bring a possible breakdown of existing water governance, which however inadequate, does offer a modicum of protection against plunder by individual states and vested interests.

After the re-appointment of Barnaby Joyce as the Leader of the National Party, and Deputy Prime Minister, a message sent to Party members included the following statements:

  • The science no longer supports SA needing fresh water;
  • Rising sea levels will mean the SA Lower Lakes system will not need environmental water; and
  • Upstream environments, such as the Goulburn River in Victoria, are being seriously damaged trying to deliver large volumes of water to SA.

This thinking poses a great danger to the Murray Darling River for it denies the first principle of river health that water must flow at the mouth of the river for it to remain alive.

The memo immediately led to the SA Water Minister criticising the 'unbelievable' comments, saying that anyone who believes that should not have the water portfolio.

The National Party in the Senate sought changes to the Murray Darling Plan by proposing that 450 gigalitres of water should not be required by legislation to be returned to the environment and they opposed the bill to establish an independent inspector-general of water compliance to monitor the basin plan.

The demands to reduce environmental water are in the face of there being a reduction of 22 per cent in water flow at the SA border for the period 2012-2019, greater than was intended under the plan.

Minister Keith Pitt has the water portfolio. Apart from promoting coal, his recent mission has been to advocate for the construction of dams, opposed by water science experts as irrelevant to the sustainability of the river. The Minister’s demotion to the outer Cabinet may be a mixed blessing, for his role in Cabinet may now be taken by Mr Joyce.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan has been increasingly threatened by interventions and deals by states and vested interests.

Now, its greatest threat may be from deals to ensure Coalition unity in an election year.

To seek further guidance on our current ability to understand and act on the water crisis, it is relevant to seek evidence from recent reports on water and economics which consider the issue.

The 198-page Intergenerational Report:

'... examines the long-term sustainability of current policies and how demographic, technological and other structural trends may affect the economy and the budget over the next 40 years.'

Economist Ross Gittins notes that the report doesn't consider what a sustainable population level is, which is of course dependent on the resources of water and ecological services. On the accelerating impacts of climate change, it occupies just nine pages of the huge report.

It gives reassurance that reports are commissioned but provides no evidence that climate impacts have taken into consideration.

Even worse, the report devotes only 155 words to 'Water Management and Security' which will likely become the epitaph to the Murray Darling and much of Australian civilisation.

The other life support system, biodiversity, which is in rapid decline and without which there is no economy, merits only 189 words.

This section moves momentarily into the 21 Century by acknowledging that:

'Biodiversity plays a critical role in increasing the resilience of natural capital.' 

However, we are reassured that:

'The Government’s 2021-2031 Threatened Species Strategy is a 10-year blueprint for protecting Australia’s biodiversity.'

Does one laugh or cry?

During the initial darkest days of the COVID pandemic, hopes were expressed for a post-COVID world, a new normal, a rethink of economic growth which was consuming our finite world. Alas, the Intergenerational Report indicates that not one neurone in the economic brain has changed.

Deeply held beliefs still override reality.

The Productivity Commission's Draft Report on National Water Reform accepts the need to:

'... establish the environmental water provisions necessary to meet agreed environmental outcomes against anticipated regional scale climate changes.' 

Yet, a detailed analysis indicates a failure to understand the fundamentals of sustainability, the need for prioritisation of water resources to human and environmental needs, water quality and the potential for contamination of crucial water resources.

There were great expectations that the recently released SA Government report 'Water Security Statement 2021: Water for Sustainable Growth' would offer guidance to the nation, for SA shares the resources of the Murray Darling and the Great Artesian Basin with other states.

However the intent is rather: 

'Building on past success in water management, there is the opportunity for South Australia to further establish itself as a world leader in new water innovation.' 

Indeed, the report dwells significantly and diligently on improving water management which is clearly vital but dependent upon availability.

The report is deficient in failing to recognise that greater independence from the political chicanery of Murray Darling management is essential for SA to retain water and the vital resource of the Great Artesian Basin remains unprotected from plunder by mining interests.

What conclusions can we draw from these recent policy reports on water? Like policy on the other life support systems, stable climate and biodiversity, they fail to understand that the issue is one of sustainability of life on this continent.

On the Murray Darling Basin, the Wentworth Group of Water Scientists rejects a conclusion of the Productivity Commission report that 'benefits of these provisions for the environment are starting to be seen'.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan is currently inadequate, as indicated by water scientists. Climate and environmental water modelling have been inadequate but the existing plan, however inadequate, is also in immediate danger from government deals.

A single model for climate and water is required which is consistent across jurisdictional borders. Reform of water accounting is needed and all data must be publically available. The Productivity Commission report accepts that widespread changes to the plan are required but fails to canvass inevitable major reform if the river is to survive.

Currently, the Murray­ Darling Basin Authority is an independent statutory agency. It is not functioning as such and requires much more separation from government.

The plight of the Great Artesian Basin is even greater, for it is managed by four separate state jurisdictions, each with an inadequate plan. Plunder of water resources is frequent and an independent statutory authority is needed urgently.

We have written before in IA that: 

'The vital Murray Darling basin system is dying and it's up to a combined effort between politicians and scientists to save it.'

The task is even more urgent today. 

Dr David Shearman AM is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University, a patron of Economic Reform Australia and the co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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