WATER: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Water policy threatens Australia's food security
, September 19, 2009
The Goulburn Valley, Victoria's food-bowl, was one of Australia's premier, prosperous dairying regions. But over the last five years, it's estimated that half the dairy farms have gone.
Typically, the water has been sold off and the property converted to a hobby farm, or allowed to turn to weed-infested scrub.
This scene of rural desolation is now spreading across Australia's foodbowl, the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB). Whole irrigation regions are on the verge of collapse. This disaster is threatening the nation's food security.
Politicians blame the drought. But it's much more than that.
Mismanagement and gross policy neglect of irrigation have helped created the shortages.
Further, the federal and state governments, instead of investing in new water storages to increase the supply of water, and instead of turning over environmental flows to needy irrigation farms, are buying up irrigation water, not from willing sellers, but from desperate farmers trying to survive.
Consequently, investment in rural industries is being curtailed. Lenders are rightly judging that they cannot determine if any one irrigation farmer or his district will be viable in the future, because nobody can assess how much water will be sold out of that region.
Once a critical amount of water leaves a region, irrigation channels are no longer viable. That means others who still want to farm are also no longer viable. This sets up a domino effect - local farm-supply businesses, processors, shops, schools and hospitals are no longer sustainable. Suddenly, a whole regional economy collapses.
Currently, the NSW Government has put a ban on the Commonwealth Government buying irrigation water and Victoria has prohibited Commonwealth purchase from farmers on main backbone channels, as the disastrous effect of water purchases is starting to be realised.
Federal Water Minister, Penny Wong, has not revealed how much water the Commonwealth Government intends to buy back.
Canberra is spending about $3 billion buying back irrigation water for environmental flows. It has allocated billions more to water savings measures, with savings also going to the environment. But as the water savings are likely to fall short of promised estimates, it is possible the federal government could end up purchasing a lot more than the planned $3 billion.
In fact, as News Weekly's 2007 federal election water brochure (PDF 458 KB)
calculated, the total federal government take of water could be at minimum 14 per cent of the Basin's irrigation water, or as high as 29 per cent of farmers' water.
According to the Australian Farm Institute, Australian agriculture (inputs, farm-gate value and processing) is worth about 12.2 per cent of the nation's economy, or about $130 billion.
The MDB provides around 40 per cent of the nation's agriculture, the greater proportion coming from irrigation farming. Hence, taking 14-29 per cent of water out of production will reduce Australia's agriculture by $7-15 billion.
Australians don't realise that most of our agricultural product is sold into the domestic, not the export, market. Gross exports of food and beverages are worth only $14-16 billion annually (Australian Bureau of Statistics: 5368.0 International Trade in Goods and Services, Australia
, issued September 3, 2009: Table 31: Merchandise Exports, Broad Economic Category, FOB).
Hence, the Commonwealth Government's water buy-back scheme is set to push Australia to the brink of becoming a net importer of food.
This may happen sooner rather than later, first, because of the combination of bad water management, the failure to build new dams and the ongoing drought, all of which are wrecking irrigation regions now; and, second, because the average profit of Australian farmers is heading towards zero within a decade (see News Weekly's cover story, May 16, 2009
Emergency Commonwealth assistance is going to be needed to keep farmers on the land.
Then, just as the states are realising the disastrous effects of the loss of water from irrigation farming, a major revision of water policy is going to be needed.
A priority will have to be building new dams.Voters want new dams
Just before the last Victorian state election, the Herald Sun
(October 25, 2006) reported that a formal poll of 800 people it had commissioned found that of 75 per cent of Labor voters and 78 per cent of Liberal/National voters wanted a new dam built. The polling found that the water issue has overtaken health, education and law and order as the most important election issue for 87 per cent of the people interviewed.
Labor water ministers are "spinning" the story that you don't build new dams because there is no water to go into them in a drought.
Really? Government's up until 30 years ago built new dams because, when it did rain, they would fill and provide water for when there was a drought.
Australia is set to become a net importer of food, unless urgent new policy measures are taken.Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council.