Political unrest over man-made drought in Murray-Darling Basin

“Old farms, new farms, small and large are closing every week. Regional businesses and towns are in crisis,” a Victorian farmer told me.

Thousands have attended protest meetings in Albury, Deniliquin and Griffith and down the Murray River to South Australia, over farmers being starved of irrigation water after only a two-year dry. This is “a man-made drought” across the Murray-Darling Basin, the farmer said.

It has brought three decades of damaging rural policies to a head – infrastructure neglect, deregulation, bank finance, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, radical free trade, to name the main culprits.

At the recent NSW elections, regional voters ousted two MPs in traditionally National Party seats. Barwon and Murray went to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, and there was a huge swing in Dubbo.

Until recent times, a two to three-year drought would not have threatened farmers. The huge system of dams, locks and weirs built after World War II captured water in wet years to drought-proof this fertile but arid Basin. It created a massive inland food bowl with water that would otherwise flow out to sea in South Australia.

The size of the Basin storages is staggering. The biggest – Dartmouth, Hume and Eildon – hold 10,200 gigalitres, the equivalent of 20 Sydney Harbours. When full, all the Basin’s storages hold 22,746 gigalitres, more than 45 Sydney Harbours.

These massive storages used to supply farmers in a five to seven-year drought via thousands of kilometres of irrigation channels. They supplied permanent plantings – fruit, vines, dairy pastures – with high security water 97 years out of 100, while supplying annual crops – grains, rice, cotton, and so on – when additional water was available.

What happened?

Bureaucrats and politicians failed to understand that this arid Basin naturally goes through intense wet periods and extended droughts (see graph). Many of them became convinced that the Millennium Drought of 2001–09 was evidence of anthropogenic climate change, that it was “never going to rain again” in the Basin and that “the Murray was dying”. (In fact, it was the same length as the Federation Drought, 1895–1903.)

This graph indicates that rainfall in the Basin goes through wet and dry periods and that rainfall has gradually increased, not decreased, since 1900. Note: Anomalies denote the rainfall departure from its long-period average value. 

Source: kenskingdom.wordpress.com

In this mind frame, Federal Parliament adopted the Water Act 2007 to implement a new Murray-Darling Basin Plan, tearing up decades of complex water rules that had been tailored to each Basin catchment area based on the region’s water variability.

Well, the long drought did end in 2010, with record rains and a massive revival of flora and fauna, but not in time to reverse the impending damage from the Water Act.

The Act prioritised environmental flows over irrigation agriculture. To put complex rules in simplified terms, whereas dams previously held about 50 per cent of water for farmers and towns, and 50 per cent for the environment, dams would now hold over 70 per cent for the environment. Further, $13 billion was allocated to buy water from farmers for the environment and for water-saving infrastructure. This infrastructure never compensated farmers for the huge buyback of water.

Key arguments against increasing environmental flows and against open water trading were spelt out in my 2006 book, High and Dry: How Free Trade in Water Will Cripple Australian Agriculture.

Effectively, these billions of dollars have been used to shut down irrigation areas and many farms, to put regular floods down the Murray River when, in its natural state, there would be no river flow in drought times.

High and Dry: How Free Trade in
Water Will Cripple Australian Agriculture
Patrick J. Byrne et al. Paperback, $15,
available from Freedom Books Publishing
(0477 809 082) or from
News Weekly (9816 0800)

Under the new Basin Plan, storages no longer drought proof Basin irrigation regions for more than two to three years. This threatens the viability of permanent plantings – like fruit trees – that take six to seven years to grow and deliver a crop.

Further, once in a drought, temporary water (purchased for one irrigation season) in the past may have cost $50 to $100 a megalitre. Today, in Victoria, shortages have spiked water prices to a prohibitive $600. In southern NSW, water bought to use permanently costs over $6,000 a megalitre.

Short of suddenly changing the Water Act, which is unlikely, there are solutions.

An emergency should be declared. Water “losses” of at least 1,300 gigalitres in the system should be reclassified as environmental flows, making more stored water available for irrigation.

Then, costing far less than $13 billion, four infrastructure projects could satisfy both the environmental requirements of the Water Act and irrigation farming:

• Automate the barrier gates between the sea and Lake Alexandrina in South Australia to regulate water levels in this estuarine lake, instead of relying on huge freshwater flows down the Murray to maintain water quality.

• Build Lock Zero on the Murray at Wellington in SA to hold freshwater upstream of Lake Alexandrina for both local farmers and Adelaide.

• Restore some of the natural drainage from the Coorong’s wetlands catchment back into the Southern Lagoon of the Coorong, a narrow strip of water between Lake Alexandrina and the ocean that has become hyper saline since natural flows from local wetlands have been diverted to the sea.

• Build a new major dam on the Jingellic arm of the Murray (and possibly divert some of the Clarence River from northern NSW into the Darling River).

If urgent measures are not taken, the loss of food production will cost Australian households dearly and the political fallout, as seen at the NSW elections, is likely to continue.

Patrick J. Byrne is national president of the National Civic Council.

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