September 18th 2010

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Gillard sweeps Greens into power

CANBERRA OBSERVED: One outside shock could topple Gillard Government

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The Green menace we must mobilise against

WATER: A solution to the Murray-Darling Basin crisis

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Why WA will acquire land for Browse Basin gas project

OPINION: Absentee voting an open door to fraud

CHINA: It's capitalism, but not as we know it

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: China's military build-up threatens Taiwan

OPINION: Australia: no place for sharia law

CULTURE: Pathology as entertainment

UNITED NATIONS I: UN conference downunder sidesteps controversy

UNITED NATIONS II: A farce: the UN's World Youth Conference

ENVIRONMENT: Radical environmentalists inspired US eco-terrorist

Army Reserve numbers (letter)

'Our' new government (letter)

Actors or actresses? (letter)

AS THE WORLD TURNS: US government funds mosques abroad / America's dying constitution / US consumers will drag us back into recession / Economic defeatism taking hold


BOOK REVIEW: THE KINDLY ONES: A Novel, by Jonathan Littell

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A solution to the Murray-Darling Basin crisis

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, September 18, 2010
The new draft plan for the Murray-Darling Basin is soon to be released. It threatens disaster for the Australia's food-bowl, which produces 40 per cent of the nation's food.

In 1994, the National Water Initiative instigated a review of water allocation and use in the Murray-Darling Basin. It was undertaken in the middle of a long dry period in Australia climate.

The figure below shows that the basin experiences relative wet (La Niña) and dry (El Niño) climate variation on a 12-30 year cycle. Australia's recent long dry period began in the late 1970s, and looks like ending now.
Climate variation: wet and dry periods in the Murray-Darling Basin since 1660.
Source: University of Newcastle, NSW (see Weekly Times, December 26, 2007).

The climate change modelling and hydrology modelling for estimating future water availability in the basin are highly controversial and appear to have ignored the fact that the basin experiences long wet and dry climate variations.

Further, both the National Water Initiative and the Howard Government promised equal weighting to social, economic and environmental objectives in any reallocation of water resources.

However, Section 3 (Objectives) of Howard's Water Act 2007 broke this promise by invoking Australia's international environmental agreements in order to give absolute priority to the environment, and only then allow a balance between social and economic needs.

As a result, the long promised socio-economic study of the effects of removing water from farms has been relegated to being a mere footnote to the Murray-Darling Basin plan.

The new basin plan aims to take a sizable amount of irrigation water out of production in Australia's major food-bowl.

This will send many farmers bankrupt and undermine many farming regions, where net farm incomes are heading towards zero within 10 years (see News Weekly, May 16, 2009).

This will lead to rising food prices, threatening the nation's food security and forcing us into greater reliance on imports from countries like China. Australia is already a net importer of fruit and vegetables, pork and fish.

The Federal Government has refused to consider building new reservoirs to increase the supply of water in the basin. Instead, it plans to spend $3.1 billion to buy water from irrigators and shut down rural industry in its wake.

Also, it will waste much of the $5.8 billion federal water infrastructure upgrade, which cannot produce any more significant water savings in the basin, according to the Australian Productivity Commission report, Market Mechanisms for Recovering Water in the Murray-Darling Basin (2010).

Unless reallocated, this $9 billion will be wasted on a scale comparable to the home-insulation scandal and will be used to close down a significant proportion of Australian agriculture.

A final plan for Murray-Darling Basin must be put on hold until five conditions are met:

First, a comprehensive socio-economic study of the basin must be completed and available for review by regional and community groups through an agreed participation and consultation process.

Second, the 2007 Water Act must be amended to give equal weighting to social, economic and environmental issues.

Third, there must be a reallocation of Commonwealth funding for the basin plan towards the building of new reservoirs, including environmental reservoirs, where these are sensible, realistic and have community support.

Fourth, there must be extensive, open consultations between the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), federal and state water ministers and their senior public servants, and all stakeholders in each catchment area of the basin on all aspects of the science and allocations in the plan.

Fifth, to avoid a purely top-down decision-making process by governments and the MDBA, equal weighting must be given to a bottom-up process involving all stakeholders - local irrigators, environmentalists, river-users, town-dwellers and other stakeholders. These community, stakeholder-based organisations must be given the opportunity to review the science concerning their iconic local environmental sites and ultimately be given equal responsible for implementing water and other environmental policies for key environmental sites. (See News Weekly, November 6, 2004).

Finally, this process cannot be constrained by the 16-week consultation process currently envisaged by the Murray-Darling Basin plan.

This deadline must be extended to allow for proper regional and community briefings, information-sharing, and input along the lines of the last two points highlighted above.

It should be remembered that it took less than a decade to draft and ratify Australia's federal constitution; but the original 1914 interstate River Murray Waters Agreement took 12 years to negotiate following the 1902 Royal Commission on the Murray River.

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

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