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Muddy Water: the lessons the world can learn from the Murray-Darling

Image credit: Bert Kaufmann (Creative Commons: Flickr)

The mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin combined with a rapidly shifting climate has created one of Australia’s most horrific environmental disasters. Drought combined with negligence has led to more than one million fish deaths in three mass-kill events in recent months. This is a catastrophe which highlights the urgency of impartial environmental oversight of water governance, both in Australia and around the world.

As a changing climate creates more extreme weather events globally, cross-border river governance will become crucial in developing areas including those in Asia, Africa and South America. While could be too late for the Murray-Darling, its story can serve as a dire warning and case study. This is a story that reads like the screenplay of Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ (1974): rife with mismanagement, bereft of water and smacking of corruption.

It has been known for many years that the Murray-Darling Basin will progressively receive decreasing rainfall as southern Australia’s climate becomes drier. In 2012, the Gillard government passed legislation implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which sought to return 2,750 Gigalitres of water to the river system over time from irrigators. Responsibility for implementing this plan was passed to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), an ‘independent, expertise-based statutory authority’.

With independent oversight and an environmental plan enacted, what went wrong? With the results of South Australia’s Royal Commission into the management of the basin now available, as well as the benefit of hindsight, the time is ripe to examine exactly what happened in the past six years to bring such devastation to Australia’s largest river system.

The wrong target

A key revelation of the Royal Commission has been the inappropriateness of the 2,750 Gigalitre target. Namely, that “politics, rather than science, ultimately drove the setting of … 2750 GL,” and that “this was not a scientific determination, but one made by senior management … it is an unlawful approach. It is maladministration”. The commissioner further found that the MDBA had improperly pressured the CSIRO to alter a key report in their favour to relieve external pressure on their environmental practice.

Another key finding of maladministration on the behalf of the MDBA was a willful ignorance of advice presented by the CSIRO. The 2008 report ‘Sustainable Yields’ documented tangible evidence of climate change making the basin drier. In 2009, the MDBA was advised by the CSIRO to account for this increasingly hot and dry climate in their modelling of the basin - before it was officially implementing the Basin Plan. The MDBA chose to ignore this recommendation, constructing politically palatable models instead. These statements amount to incredibly direct criticism of the MDBA, not often seen from an independent review into a government body.

Water trading and theft

The MDBA also oversees water trading in the basin. This trading is facilitated by private companies, notably including Brisbane’s ill-fated Blue Sky Alternative Investments (which has failed to clarify just how much of the water market it manages). Large irrigators in the basin have made a habit of purchasing entitlements on a single shared deed before on-trading their share. This on-trading has never been made public and thus, remarkably, the water entitlements of individual irrigators are not known in the public domain. This on-trading inflated the price of water and sparked concern that a Ponzi scheme was, in fact, taking place.

With no transparent reporting procedures and concerns about fictitious trades and artificial price-inflation from Blue Sky and fellow speculator Duxton Water, it’s easy to see how water theft could have occurred, or a simple misjudgement and overallocation. After a Four Corners exposé detailed the extent of the alleged theft by large-scale irrigators, the Australian Senate instructed the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee to investigate and produce their own report. Alarmingly, it came to the committee “as no surprise that such large-scale water theft is alleged to have occurred … the lack of proper metering and monitoring makes it difficult for authorities to determine if breaches of the water rules have occurred”.

What does it all mean?

Many of the world’s major rivers and their tributaries cross national borders. The Nile basin, for example, is spread across 11 countries with a dizzying combined population of over 300 million. As droughts become more prevalent through the 21st century, yet the global population continues to grow, governments will need to learn (quickly) how best to manage their water use. The Murray-Darling teaches us the importance of metering and monitoring, so technology to better achieve this end must be implemented on major rivers worldwide.

Additionally, governments should manage and actually police any trading of water rights, or better yet, not partake in a water trade. The very concept of water trading is an astounding one - trading a commodity whose value is set only by demand, as supply is only determined in the wet season when a river’s stocks are topped up.

Above all, the key lesson is to ensure that any governing body managing a river is held accountable for that river’s health. For complex and major river systems that span multiple countries, a proactive approach should be taken in constructing an impartial and apolitical body to oversee river health, where each country with access to that river is represented. Failure to do so could result in poverty and water-motivated wars in the near future.

Liam Rawson is the Climate and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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