November 12th 2011

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: What really lies behind the Qantas dispute

EDITORIAL: The carbon tax: Gillard's last stand?

THE ECONOMY: Australia must change to maintain its prosperity

MURRAY-DARLING BASIN: Next Basin plan faces further community rebuff

COVER STORY: Why families struggle to afford a home

ABORTION: Global initiative to protect the unborn

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Russia enacts new law to restrict abortion

MIDDLE EAST: How the West misreads Middle East dictatorships

MEDICAL SCIENCE: Deaths from AIDS omitted from inquiry

OPINION: Housing regulations killing the Australian dream


BOOK REVIEW Visionary premier who transformed a state

BOOK REVIEW The history we neglect at our peril

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Next Basin plan faces further community rebuff

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, November 12, 2011

Failure by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) to consult local stakeholders on water-planning is likely to see the second Murray-Darling Basin draft plan rejected by Basin communities.

When the MDBA released its first draft Basin plan last year, angry communities across the Basin publicly burned it, as reported in News Weekly (October 30, 2010).

Front cover of News Weekly, October 30, 2010

Front cover of News Weekly, October 30, 2010. 

The plan recommended removing about one-third of the irrigation water currently used for food production — 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 megalitres — and re-allocating it for environmental flows.

A second draft Basin plan has been delayed for months.

Tentatively, the MDBA has stated on its web site that the new plan will probably recommend taking 2,800,000 megalitres for the environment. This is marginally below the original target. Nothing has changed.

A major part of the problem is political. The former Howard Coalition Government, in its bid to win critical federal seats was keen to be seen to be “doing something” for the Basin in a hurry. Its subsequent Water Act 2008, however, ignored world’s best practice in water-planning, and Labor backed this short-sighted legislation.

The world’s best practice in river and valley management has been developed in South Africa. The methodology was set down in a report published by the South African Water Research Commission (WRC) in 2008 and titled Environment Flow Assessments for Rivers: Manual for the Building Block Methodology, by J.M. King et al. (available at

Its “building-block methodology” excels because it not only brings together all the scientific aspects of river basin management; it also puts in place a vital long-term consultation and planning process that involves all the community stakeholders in order to complement the science and strike a judicious balance between the environmental, social and economic stakeholders.

The community consultation process starts by explaining why a plan is needed and how it is to be developed.

Second, the water authorities take their limited scientific data on each of the river valleys out to the respective local communities for extensive scrutiny and review.

It has been recognised that, at best, only about 70 per cent of the initial scientific data is available to the water authorities, such as Australia’s MDBA. The rest comes from the local stakeholders — local communities, towns, irrigators, water managers and local environmental groups that involve people who have lived and worked in a valley for generations.

Community input requires the scientists and planning authorities to expand and review their scientific data, from which a plan is to be derived.

Only when all stakeholders have signed off on the agreed scientific data does the process of drafting an environmental plan begin.

The third stage involves each river and region being rated on an environmental scale of one to five. Level one is a pristine water system, and five a severely degraded system.

Based on this assessment, a series of long-term — that is, 30-, 40- and 50-year — options are set down for all competing environmental, social and economic stakeholders. The options reflect a range of scenarios and compromises.

At one end of the spectrum, returning a major share of irrigation water to the environment may involve a lot of pain to farmers and communities, but a lot of gain to flora, fish and wildlife land species.

At the other end of the spectrum, environmental priorities may be discounted in favour of food production and industry for growing population needs. In between these extremes the pros and cons of a number of compromise options are considered.

The fourth stage takes this range of options back to the local communities for wide-ranging consultations and review.

Once reviewed, the community and the water authorities together may decide that the first objective is a series of measures to shift a degraded system — say, a worst-level 4 degraded river system — to a best-level 4 of river environmental health, over, say, three years.

But the process doesn’t stop there.

Stage five, at the end of the first three-year implementation phase, would involve the management authorities asking the community: Can we now plan to lift the river valley from a best-level 4 of environmental health to a best-level 3?

Contrast this painstaking world’s best practice water-planning and management system to how the MDBA has operated, constrained as it is by the sever time limitations stipulated in the federal Water Act 2008.

There was no wide community involvement in the first draft Murray-Darling Basin plan. Only selective briefings were allowed, and these were held behind closed doors.

When the draft plan was taken out to each community in the Basin, they were given a mere three hours each to review the entire plan. The response of the MDBA to any objections or suggestions was typically, “We’ll look into it.”

The full scientific papers underpinning the plan were not even released until months after the draft plan was revealed. An array of documents were put on the MDBA website, but these were not conducive to community understanding and input.

No environmental health ratings scale has been developed for the Basin’s river systems.

Later, in anticipation of the second draft Basin plan, more scientific data has been posted on the MDBA web site. However, comments are to be submitted only by email.

Special closed-door discussions have been held, but only with invited stakeholders.

Now the MDBA has informed Basin communities that it will hold public meetings after the second draft plan is released, but only if they are requested. This is the opposite of a public consultation: it is presenting the Basin communities with a fait accompli. Public consultations should be mandatory.

The haughty attitude of the federal government and MDBA can be summed up as follows: We believe that the Murray-Darling Basin is highly degraded and that the only option is to return all Basin rivers to a good health, as measured by our assessments, but without any serious community evaluations, without real regard to the social and economic costs to Australian food security — and we certainly don’t intend to hold more than cursory consultations with stakeholders in the Basin to make our assessments or plans.

Fifteen years ago, the then Murray-Darling Basin Commission was considered the world’s leading authority on river-basin planning and management. Now it exemplifies the worst of the top-down, time-driven, centralised command and control models of planning and management.

For the sake of not just the irrigation and regional communities, but for sensible and lasting environmental management, the federal Water Act needs to be rewritten to include world’s best practice water-planning and management, incorporating a mandatory long-term public consultation process.

Otherwise, the next Basin plan is likely to suffer the same hostile community rejection that the previous one received.

Patrick J. Byrne is vice-president of the National Civic Council.



J.M. King, R.E. Tharme and M.S. de Villiers, Environment Flow Assessments for Rivers: Manual for the Building Block Methodology (Pretoria, South Africa: Water Research Commission, 2008). WRC report no: TT 354/08.

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