March 12th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Several items missing from list of the big spend

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens back Coalition in Senate voting reform

ENERGY Nuclear reprocessing feasible here: SA inquiry

HISTORY OF TAIWAN Fifty-year journey from poverty to prosperity

SPEECH IN PARLIAMENT Warning: wolves in anti-bullying clothing

EDITORIAL Turnbull ignores three elephants in the room

DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Family portrait or ideological caricature?

OPINION Goebbels revisited: the attack on Cardinal Pell

FAMILY AND SOCIETY SSCA apologists try to shrug off media furore

EUTHANASIA Legitimate denial of choice at end of life (Part II of two)

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Welcome backdown on vaccinations

ENVIRONMENT Food bowl emptied due to conservationist myopia

MUSIC Much-loved concertos clouded with melancholy

CINEMA Spotlight in the darkness: Spotlight

BOOK REVIEW Governing Middle-earth

BOOK REVIEW A land of contrasts


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Food bowl emptied due to conservationist myopia

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, March 12, 2016

Writing recently in Quadrant Online, Alan Moran from the Australian Environment Foundation (not to be confused with the Australian Conservation Foundation), pointed out that agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin, which not long ago accounted for some 40 per cent of total agricultural production in Australia, is now under threat. A steep decline in the availability of water for irrigation has led to a concomitant decline in agricultural output.

The decline in water availability has nothing to do with a real shortage of water, but is purely the result of deliberate changes in policy. When the environmentalist lobby first cam­paigned for higher environmental flows in the Murray system, the main reason given was increasing salinity, particularly in the lower Murray and in Lake Alexandrina.

Later, though, when climate change came to dominate environmentalist thinking, the salinity issue was largely forgotten and the call for reducing irrigation was now based solely on the premise that the climate in the catchment had changed irrevocably and that lower rainfall was to be the norm.

This belief was given a good deal of credence because of the so-called “Millennium Drought” (1997–2007). But, of course, the drought eventually broke, as all droughts do, and huge flows of water proceeded down the system.

Now, the uncertain nature of annual rainfall in Australia has been known for a very long time. The early European settlers were to learn of the vagaries of climate the hard way, and many walked off their farms. Indeed, whole settlements were abandoned. Likewise, the tendency to read long droughts as “the new normal” has a long history. Many readers of News Weekly will remember John O’Brien’s Said Hanrahan – a poem that marvellously captures the innate tendency in all of us to “think the worst”.

But it is not just the uncertain nature of rainfall that commands the attention of doomsayers. Over the recent holiday season, there were a number of media reports in which dire predictions were made concerning the future health of many other areas of the natural world. When news is short (as it is when Parliament is in recess), there are always “fall-back” stories – the crown-of-thorns starfish, coral bleaching, disease in wombats and koalas, and so on.

A few weeks ago, several media outlets ran a story on the “plight” of kangaroos in suburban fringe areas. The story was that, as the urban sprawl grew out at an ever-increasing rate, kangaroos were being driven from their old feeding areas and being forced into the suburbs in search of food.

In fact, quite the opposite has happened. As more and more farming land on the city outskirts is being taken over by developers, cultivation or sheep and cattle grazing on this land has ceased. The kangaroos (and rabbits too, in some areas) have moved in to take advantage of this situation. There are thousands of kangaroos today living in areas where they were completely absent 50 years ago.

The nub of the problem with popular environmentalism is its inability to differentiate between wildlife conservation and preservation. The former deals with populations; the latter with individuals. In proper wildlife management, the fate of individuals is not what matters; it is the fate of the species (or local race in some instances) as a whole. This usually requires a perspective over long time periods.

As a former biologist, I have seen huge long-term fluctuations in local populations of many different species in my own lifetime. These include brush-tailed possums, koalas, and many bird species. I am sure many older News Weekly readers from rural Australia could add to the list.

It is interesting, too, that the media reports always focus on the negative side. When I was a boy, our farming district supported huge flocks of introduced nuisance birds, especially sparrows and starlings. Rabbits caused a huge amount of damage and even European hares were in high enough numbers to create problems. Today, while those species still exist in the district, their numbers are small and they cause little trouble. No one reports on this.

The problem with popular environ­mentalism is compounded by another factor, which I might dub “the fallacy of balance”. In the minds of many people, nature left to itself (that is, without the “destructive” human presence) will produce a beautifully balanced eco­system where every species flourishes, albeit in a competitive environment. This might also be called “the great wilderness myth” because it supposes that only “wilderness areas” can achieve the sort of balance that they have in mind. None of this is true. Ecosystems are dynamic entities and they change all the time. Some of these changes are almost certainly irreversible.

If we now return to the Murray-Darling Basin and the subject of water flows, the nub of the problem becomes clearer. Environmentalists look at the so-called “healthy” rivers (medium water flows, lots of wildlife, low salinity, etc.), which are very largely the result of human-regulated flows, and suppose this to be the “proper” state of the system. But there is no proper state. Cycles of droughts and floods have been in operation for tens of thousands of years.

In severe droughts, the Murray was historically reduced to a gutter and the very reason we have not seen such a dramatic spectacle in the last hundred years or so is entirely due to human modification of the system by way of dams and locks. A return to the “natural” and pre-European state of the Murray-Darling system would see so-called “environmental problems” on a much larger scale. We could, for instance, expect huge rises in salinity at Lake Alexandrina, since there would be no barrages to prevent influx of seawater. Further up the system we might see massive declines in aquatic life and of those species relying on it.

It has been the provision of water for agriculture that has moderated the effects of droughts and floods in the Murray-Darling Basin, but today that uncomfortable truth is nearly always overlooked.

The Basin is not only our major food bowl, but also a source of that income needed to maintain the water regulation system and thus to prevent extremes of environmental damage via floods and droughts. A healthy system of irrigated agriculture is not just economically and socially sound but environmentally sound as well.



Water woes along the Goulburn

Sharman Stone, the federal Member of Parliament for Murray, in the first week of February called in Parliament for a royal commission into the project to shut down half the Goulburn-Murray irrigation system.

Sharman Stone MP

She said that the Victorian government had already accepted $1 billion to take away the infrastructure of the biggest irrigation system in Australia.

Commenting later, Dr Stone said of the irrigation system affected: “The system that grows your food and your fibre, you dairy products, your fruit.”

She said that false savings were being reported and that a midterm review of the project had recommended it be reset.

“You have a project here with a secret business case: it is not available to the public.” Dr Stone said her requests for information via Freedom of Information had been rejected three times.

“$1 billion of taxpayers’ money to push in channels to take away half of a perfectly functioning good system,” she said.

“To take another 204 gigalitres out of those systems away from irrigators, to put down the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder system.

“We love the environment. Farmers love the environment. But this is nothing to do with environmental water.

“The first stage of this project was abolished by the Victorian Ombudsman because there was insider trading, no probity checking. The procurement protocols of the Victorian government were not being adhered to.”

Since 1995 to date, the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District has lost access to 640 gigalitres of water, down from 1600 gigalitres in 1995–96 to below 1000 gigalitres in the current financial year.

Dr Stone spoke of the disaster the project had provoked in the region. “The victims are the irrigators themselves who cannot get the water they need through the system anymore. Irrigators who without compensation are being shut down as large dairy farm outfits that can feed our nation and generate exports.

“The midterm review has said, stop it. Put into the outcomes that irrigators may remain viable, that the system remain viable. That this huge, publicly owned system, as big as Tasmania, remain viable into the future. At the moment, no one cares.

“This is happening all around this area, around Shepparton. Farmers are taking their lives, dairy herds are being pushed through the abattoirs.”

She insisted that not a cent more of commonwealth money be spent until irrigators, the system and the environment were put at the centre of the project.

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