WATER: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Time to protest over second Basin plan
, December 10, 2011
It’s time farmers protested strongly over the second draft Murray-Darling Basin plan before it destroys their communities and jeopardises the nation’s food security.
It’s time they demanded a world’s best practice for water planning that cooperatively brings all stakeholders into an extended consultation process in each catchment in order to design a new catchment-by-catchment watering plan.
Newspapers like The Age and The Australian announced the second Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) draft Basin plan as aiming to take “only” 2,750 gigaliters of water out of irrigation production for environmental river flows, well below the 3,000-4,000 gigalitres suggested in the first Basin plan.
In fact, the 2,750 gigalitre figure is a con job. When the buyback of water prescribed by other environmental schemes such as the Living Murray are included, the total planned take of water for the environment comes to 3,650 gigalitres. That is about one-third of all irrigation water and close to the highest figure proposed in the first MDBA plan.
Last year, farmers organised public protests at which they burned copies of the first Basin plan outside so-called “consultation” meetings with the MDBA.
This latest plan has likewise attracted universal hostility.
The main state governments in the Basin have each opposed planned cuts to their respective state water allocations. South Australia has threatened to take the matter to the High Court.
Environmental groups, however, are protesting that the proposed cuts are too small. Greens spokeswoman on the Murray-Darling Basin, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, has pledged that the Greens would move a disallowance motion when the final Basin plan is tabled in federal parliament in next year.
Farmers are angry at the plan, which claims that only 700 to 1,600 jobs would be lost across the Basin. Farmer organisations claim it will cost 29,000 jobs. For every dollar a farmer receives at the farm gate, $4 is generated in downstream processing, packaging, transport and other services.
There are three fundamental flaws in the planning process.
First, in November 2006, John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull threw $10 billion at what they perceived was a degraded Basin, which in reality was at the end of one of Australia’s periodic, long droughts.
This created a honey pot for successive Coalition and Labor governments to buy huge amounts of water from farmers, irrespective of Basin plan.
Second, the Howard-Turnbull Water Act 2007, the international environmental treaties it invokes, many politicians, the Greens and environmental groups — all are effectively treating the Basin’s rivers as a permanent river systems, like European and American rivers that flow continuously all year.
In reality, the Basin is an arid river system. As researchers Anthony Kiem, Stewart Franks and George Kuczera have shown, these rivers experienced long wet periods and long dry periods that that can stretch for decades at a time (see “Multi-decadal variability of flood risk”, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2003).
Consequently, the environment of these rivers degrades in long dry periods, but restores almost overnight with the onset of the long wet periods.
Third, the process for developing a Basin plan has been driven from the top down, attempting to force a plan on regional communities, who have now lost faith in the process. So called “consultations” have been nothing more that spin-doctored attempts to sell a plan imposed by the MDBA and federal government.
Both federal Labor and Coalition government approaches to the Basin planning process have antagonised all stakeholders — farmers, environmentalists, and local and state governments.
It has also left the process open to political manipulation.
Virtually all federal seats in the Basin are safe Coalition seats. They don’t swing, except for two in South Australia’s Riverland. Both sides of federal politics have to appease voters in these seats, or risk losing two seats, hence the extraordinary emphasis in the current plan for vast supplies of water to be allocated to SA’s lower lakes, Alexandrina and Albert, and for keeping open the mouth of the River Murray.
If the farmers are smart, they will first protest strongly against the new Basin plan, just as they did last year.
Then, if the Basin plan stalls, smart politicians and rural leaders should argue strongly for using world’s best practice to start a new cooperative, consultative planning process, involving all stakeholders in each Basin catchment area — farmers, environmental groups, water authorities, local government, the MDBA and state water authorities.
Meetings should be held in each catchment area to facilitate agreement on the science to be used, then to outline a range of possible plans for each catchment, and finally to come to an agreement.
This type of consultation is world’s best practice, as established in South Africa’s water catchments (see News Weekly, November 12, 2011).
Why does this process work? Because in such a process, everyone has a say. No stakeholder can exaggerate his claims on water or manipulate the process. Agreement on a plan is by consensus.
The cooperative process satisfies all stakeholders. The current top down process satisfies no one.
Patrick J. Byrne is vice-president of the National Civic Council.
Anthony Kiem, Stewart Franks and George Kuczera, “Multi-decadal variability of flood risk”, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2003.
J.M. King, R.E. Tharme and M.S. de Villiers, Environment Flow Assessments for Rivers: Manual for the Building Block Methodology (Pretoria, South Africa: Water Research Commission, 2008). WRC report no: TT 354/08.