COVER STORY: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Angry farmers burn draft Murray-Darling plan
, October 30, 2010
Angry farmers in Griffith, New South Wales, have burned copies of the Murray-Darling Basin draft water plan that would destroy their towns and to protest the Basin plan's consultation and planning process.
|Front-cover photo is courtesy of |
The Land, Fairfax Media, NSW.
It was just one of a series of angry confrontations between farmers and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), which claimed that its draft Basin plan would cost only 800 jobs and reduce agricultural production by only $800 million.
Farmers accused the MDBA of "fabricating" these figures. After all, the plan seeks to take a further 30 per cent of irrigation water out of production in the Basin, which produces 40 per cent of Australia's agriculture.
According to the Australian Farm Institute report, Australia's Farm-Dependent Economy
(March 2005), agriculture is worth 12 per cent of gross domestic product (about $140 billion today), when farm output and dependent input and downstream processing industries are included.
Taking 30 per cent of water out of an irrigation area will see farm values fall and so increase farmers' debt-to-capital ratios, thereby accelerating bank foreclosures. It will make many irrigation regions economically unfeasible and undermine even more farms, and seriously affect food manufacturers such as the Basin's big milk-processing plants.
Indeed, before the draft plan was released, the MDBA was presented with a report by an independent banking consultant, Adrian Rizza, saying that at least eight irrigation areas, with towns of up to 25,000 in population, would not survive the proposed big water cuts (Australian Financial Review
, October 14, 2010).
The protest by farmers over the draft plan has even raised the concern of people in major cities about the state of rural Australia.
This has led federal Water Minister, Tony Burke, to announce the launch of a parliamentary inquiry.
However, the inquiry will get nowhere if, as is currently anticipated, it examines only the social and economic consequences of the draft plan. This assumes that the draft plan is acceptable. Yet the all-important report on the science and other data underpinning the draft plan is yet to be released for scrutiny so as to evaluate the draft plan.
This is one of several major problems with the whole process.First
, for years political leaders have promised that any new Basin water allocation plan would give equal weighting to the social, economic and environmental issues of water use.
However, the former Howard Coalition Government's Water Act 2007
gave priority first and overwhelmingly to the environment, after which social and economic issues were to be considered.
Consequently, the MDBA repeatedly makes the point in the draft plan that it has been required to formulate the plan according to the Water Act,
by putting the environment first rather than giving equal weighting to social, economic and environmental issues.
Clearly, the Water Act
has to be amended.Second
, the MDBA and the whole Basin planning process have become politicised, angering regional communities.
The MDBA is supposed to be independent of government. Yet the controversial draft Basin plan, which was supposed to be released some months ago, was delayed until after the federal election.News Weekly
telephoned the MDBA to order a printed copy, and was told that orders would not be taken until after 4:00pm on the day of release, Friday, October 8.
Just four days later (Tuesday, Oct 12) consultations were to begin, by which time no irrigation group or local council would have had time to comprehensively evaluate the draft plan.
How can the draft plan be evaluated by regional communities when the key report on the science and other water data for the Basin is yet to be released?
Further, each so-called "consultation meeting" is conducted for only a few hours, even though thousands of farmers, and other dependent businesses, in an area are affected.
The consultation meetings are to be held in 23 centres, but exclude some key irrigation areas such as Robinvale and Swan Hill, Victoria, while others are to be held in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, which are outside the Murray-Darling Basin.
Then, the final plan will be released next year, with a mere 16 weeks set aside for consultations across the Basin.
To put this time-scale in perspective, it took less than a decade to write and approve Australia's constitution in the 1890s, but 12 years to negotiate the original 1914 interstate River Murray Waters Agreement, following a royal commission on the Murray River and its tributaries.
The current stage-managed "consultation" process is typical of how government and the MDBA and other arms of government have for years manipulated the system to achieve the results that governments have sought on water and other environmental issues in the Basin.
Broadly, the strategy goes like this:
• Minimal or fragmented information is provided to farmers, businesses and local councils, e.g., releasing the draft plan, then holding "consultations" before releasing the report on the science underpinning the draft plan.
• Then official bodies "consult" with only a limited few stakeholders, or else they consult with large groups of stakeholders for a very short time.
• Often the government agency hires a consulting firm to do the consultation process or sends along only junior officials with a limited brief to speak to stakeholders and with no authority to make decisions or offer new solutions.
• Then the government agency and politicians claim they have included the concerns expressed by regional communities as they hand down a plan many believe was predetermined. This was because it bears little relationship to discussions held during consultations with people who have more local environmental knowledge and experience than the authority issuing the report.
The Murray-Darling Basin has diverse and complex local issues that demand considerable local knowledge and experience. Across the Basin, communities are complaining at the lack of real consultation and of the inability of a central authority using a top-down process to solve local environmental problems without an equal bottom-up process involving local communities.
The importance of local knowledge is demonstrated by two major fish-kills in the NSW Wakool River system in recent years, both resulting from the failure of central authorities to listen to the warnings of local farmers and communities.
|Wakool River locals display recent |
"black water" fish-kill.
According to John Lolicato, irrigator and chairman of the Wakool River Association, the first fish-kill was in early 2009 during the extreme heat leading up to Victoria's Black Saturday. The authorities put an environmental flow down Colligen Creek creating "black water" that killed all the fish in the system.
Black water is where water flows across a dry region, washing heavy loads of leaf litter into the creeks, resulting in decaying vegetation removing oxygen from the water and killing all the fish life.
The second happened following the recent heavy rains in southern NSW. Mr Lolicato warned authorities, days in advance, that another "black water" fish-kill event was imminent from anticipated flood-waters going though the Koondrook and Perricoota forests.
He asked for dilution flows from regional reservoirs to prevent the water being de-oxygenated and causing a major fish-kill, but the authorities couldn't decide fast enough. The result was a massive fish-kill along 150-200 km of river.
Mr Lolicato went down to the river to see the fish-kill "after I was notified that there were yabbies climbing trees to get out the toxic water", he told News Weekly
, although the all-important report on the science and other data on the Basin is yet to be released, some cautionary comments are still warranted.
Remember how, for many years, scientists claimed that the Basin was suffering from rising salinity levels?
Well, those claims went silent when a 2004 House of Representatives standing committee on agriculture, fisheries and forestry inquiry was given detailed figures on how salinity levels had been falling
for several decades, the result of salinity-containment programs implemented by farmers and communities and the Basin authorities.
Further, that same inquiry was the first and only parliamentary inquiry to examine the science of The Living Murray
program, which proposed taking only 500 gigalitres of water for the environment.
The inquiry was shocked at the lack of any comprehensive scientific evaluation of the Basin's environment. So its subsequent interim report's only recommendations were that the promised allocation of 500 gigalitres of River Murray water for environmental flows be postponed until the funding from $500 million The Living Murray
program was reallocated for a comprehensive scientific examination of all the Basin's environmental issues.
With the October 2004 federal election looming, that report was swept under the carpet.
Since then, the focus has been on increasing environmental flows to improve the health of the rivers. However, environmental flows are just one of at least 22 issues in river health, which include in-stream habitats such as logs and water quality, the health of the surrounding banks and flood plains, control of pest species, and the location of dams, locks and weirs.Fourth
, the amount of extra water for the environment, under the draft Basin plan, is the equivalent of annually taking all the water normally stored in the massive Hume and Dartmouth dams.
Currently, the government has $3 billion for buying irrigation water - and effectively shutting down rural industry!
It has another $5.8 billion for a federal water infrastructure upgrade, which the Australian Productivity Commission says cannot produce any more significant water savings in the Basin, because all the major savings have already been cherry-picked (See Market Mechanisms for Recovering Water in the Murray-Darling Basin
The Commonwealth and state governments would do far better allocating these funds to building new dams. These could include environmental dams from which water could be allocated to the environment.
The Griffith meeting of angry farmers also discussed a three-part resolution which said:
"We call on Minister Burke to restructure the MDBA to ensure its independence to be able to present objective and realistic future reports.
"We call on our community and industry leaders to have no more 'token involvement' in the process until Minister Burke reassures us that the major distortion of the Water Act 2007,
that gives overwhelming priority to the environment, is corrected by amending the Act to give equal and transparent weighting to social, economic and environmental interests.
"To stop the purely top-down decision-making process by governments and the MDBA, we call for equal weighting to be given to a bottom-up process involving all regional stakeholders."Patrick J. Byrne is vice-president of the National Civic Council.