The Murray-Darling: realities and paths

The spectacle of the Australian federal and state governments scrambling to respond to the rapid decline of the Murray-Darling Basin marks a new low in national public discourse and policy development. The fact that any response at all is coming at the last ecological minute is consistent with the way governments in this country have always ignored the long-term integrity if our environmental systems. The willingness of the state premiers to use states’ rights for electoral advantage, at the expense of the river system as a whole, is beyond contempt. The grip on governments at all levels of commercial interests in the Basin, with the sole priority of returns to shareholders in the current financial year, is little different now from the first allocations more than a century ago. In the middle of all of this, the Basin dies a not-so-slow death.


The steps required are not difficult to identify. Any coherent way forward must be based on the recognition of a simple fact: that the record low inflows to the Basin of the past decade represent, in all probability, the new stable rainfall regime. This is not a drought, not even ‘the worst drought in history’. We want to call it a drought because droughts have an end: this doesn’t have an end. It is highly unlikely that there will be a return to the old rainfall regimes. The changes in flows are being driven by climate change. Almost all the models derived from the IPCC scenarios identify south-east Australia as one of the global regions most likely to experience a drying trend. The only deviation of actual from predicted trends so far is that the timeline is shortening. It is happening very quickly.


From this fact follows another: current allocations, based on past flow regimes, are not calibrated to current, let alone future, conditions. That’s not to say that allocations under the old flow regime were sustainable either: it’s been evident for decades that too much water was being abstracted from the Basin. Now, however, under climate change the misallocations have risen to levels that are causing the collapse of the entire Basin, environmentally, economically and socially. The implication for policy is straightforward: the whole system of allocations, and the values and valuations on which they are based, must be reconfigured.


The biophysical framework of that exercise must be the new and predicted flows under climate change. The environmental flows necessary to preserve healthy river basin ecosystems (in their permanently altered state) represent the limiting boundaries of the new allocations: it should now be entirely obvious that without a healthy river basin there are no values–environmental, economic, or social–to distribute. Once the required levels of environmental flows are secured, the residual flows must be allocated.


This is no small task. A number of conditions must be met for such a program to be carried through successfully:


(1) The Basin must in all aspects–environmental, economic, social and political–be placed under one federally-based authority. Under that governance structure the Basin must be managed as a whole, from tributaries to main rivers, upstream and downstream, headwaters to ocean. There must be no state rights of management or veto: the states must transfer all rights in the Basin to the federal government. The Basin is a national asset and must be handled nationally, without the inevitably parochial interference of the four states. One does not want to underestimate the political will needed to accomplish this coordinated legislative and regulatory task, or its present deficiency.


(2) The environmental flows required for a healthy Basin under climate regime must be agreed upon by the scientific community and regularly reviewed. Within these constraints, residual flows must be allocated to the economic and social uses and users. This must be achieved by local and regional cooperative deliberations among stakeholders. Considerations of equity must be integral to the process. As far as possible local communities must be given the freedom to generate potential solutions that carry real value to them, and to make choices among these solutions. Where local economic resources are not sufficient to achieve the necessary changes, they must be supplemented by central transition or restructuring funds made available with the support of the Australian community at large. Again one can’t reasonably be confident of the political will, and of the support of the broad Australian polity, needed to achieve these conditions. But that is what has to be done.


(3) Proposed solutions that don’t address the underlying central cause of the degradation of the Basin–over-allocation–should be resisted. Excepted are those actions which can buy time without being seen as a solution in themselves. Water buybacks and releases are an obvious example, because they are consonant with the integrated governance structure outlined above. But big engineering schemes proposed as solutions should be rejected. As a people we have looked favourably on such schemes, perhaps out of a deep-rooted, though irrational, belief in the ultimate ability of science and technology to solve any problem, or a misplaced sense of national belief, or both. The Snowy River Scheme stands as a discredited monument to such thinking–a scheme whose economic benefits were finely calculated but whose immense environmental impact and costs were hardly considered, and only recently recognised as having any limited legitimate claim on the Snowy’s flows.


Thus, despite my often-stated respect for Kenneth Davidson, I don’t support his proposal of a pipeline from Tasmania to the lower Lakes. It’s an idea driven by a sense of urgency that I share. But even if, as is highly doubtful, it could be built within a short (and therefore useful to the lower Lakes) period, it would only provide yet another excuse not to address the wholesale governance and management changed that are required. And the environmental impacts at the Tasmanian end are far from understood or costed. No, the time is past for imposing such grandiose engineering on natural systems: history in Australia has shown that our underlying ignorance of the environmental systems on which they are imposed is profound and that such schemes therefore inevitably create more environmental problems that they solve.


There is no alternative but to grasp the daunting challenge at its roots and work, as quickly as possible, towards a truly sustainable solution–one informed by the precautionary principle and strong risk assessment, and devised and implemented by the people most directly affected. It would be foolish to think that this is likely to be accomplished at all, in the current political realities, let alone in time to save many of the Basin’s ruined ecosystems; but something may be done. In any case we have no choice: this is the path we must take, if we, let alone our children and grandchildren, want to have any kind of river at all.