NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Regional consultation needed on new Murray-Darling plan
, August 22, 2009
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is to produce a draft water reallocation plan for the basin, but on what science will it be based and how closely will communities be consulted?
The draft plan on water reallocation is to be ready next year. If it is to strike an acceptable balance between the environment and socio-economic issues, it will require close, detailed and extensive consultations with farmers and communities on the complex land-riverine health issues across this huge tract of Australia. The basin produces 40 per cent of the nation's food.
Such a process is needed to replace the "token" consultations that have characterised the National Water Initiative process since the 1990s.
The release of The Basin Plan: A Concept Statement
by the MDBA raises serious questions as to whether this will happen.The Basin Plan
says that the MDBA will produce "a range of informative materials to promote understanding of, and input to, the basin plan".
But how are communities to really understand this information and the background technical studies that underpin it, unless they are given the chance to hear detailed presentations and be able to form balanced opinions and positions?
The thrust of The Basin Plan
seems to be that formal consultation will begin only after the draft plan is released. This is much too late. Regional communities need robust face-to-face discussion on the wide range of studies that will underpin the plan.
Of further concern, it appears that consideration of the huge socio-economic impacts that water reallocation will have on communities will not be central, but be just an "add-on", to the main basin plan. It will involve "a report to the [Murray-Darling] Ministerial Council" along with the proposed basin plan.
This is hardly consistent with the oft-quoted "triple bottom-line" approach to integrated water resources management, nor with the National Water Initiative's stated concern for openness, transparency and "balanced" water management decisions.
The MDBA needs structured consultations with regional communities.
First, the CSIRO has modelled scenarios for the whole Murray-Darling Basin that consider a range of climate change options and subsequent impacts on water yields, with the aim of estimating what are called "sustainable yield" estimates for each valley in the basin.
Although CSIRO has conducted a number of briefings on its work, the studies should be subjected to both the usual internal peer-review process and a very "public" peer-review process, so that all concerned groups throughout the basin can be comfortable that all the variables in the process have been properly considered.
Farmers and communities in the basin need to be briefed on the conclusions of this process.
Indeed, communities should have the opportunity to ensure that some independent experts review the "sustainable yield" estimates. Such evaluation of the science is critical to getting the most balanced result. Just a 5 per cent error in this work could mean an extra 500,000 megalitres is taken out of productive use, over and above whatever is decided as the basic re-allocation amount.
Second, the MDBA plans to start basin-wide water-planning studies, and the new Basin Advisory Committee will be the main avenue for consultations.
Consultation on the planning project needs to occur from the early stages. As position papers are likely to be produced by the planners - say, on water assessments, identification and evaluation of key environmental assets and socio-economic issues - these should all follow a structured consultation process.
Unless farmers and communities can discuss and be assured that all the contributing parts to the basin plan are fair, just and technically robust, then how can they sensibly provide appropriate input to the final basin plan?
Communities will need to be able to thoroughly analyse and critique the plan in order to assess the socio-economic impacts of the loss or movement of water from their region.
They need to see how proposed environmental improvements are assessed and justified, and how such adverse impacts can be mitigated; how local communities can adjust their economies to whatever might be the best balanced result.Vulnerable
These regions are now vulnerable. Taking just 10 to 15 per cent of water from what is predominantly an irrigation region will cause severe economic and social disruption. Such regions cannot simply be left to re-adjust according to some mythical, market-driven economic rebalancing.
State governments will inherit very big structural adjustment problems and are unlikely to have any great willingness to solve them.
Broad consultation is needed from the start, not just when the draft plan is completed. Regional communities need to fully understand the issues so they can contribute to a plan that balances the environment with the socio-economic needs of their communities.Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council.