Monday, 21 October 2019
For over two decades, Murray-Darling Basin communities have struggled with uncertainty constantly hanging over them. A combination of prolonged droughts, restricted water supplies, volatile water prices, water theft, water diversions, fluctuating commodity prices and ongoing disagreement between regions and states over water plans have all contributed to their woes. Like a growing world population competing for diminishing resources, too many vested interests are competing for diminishing water in the Murray-Darling Basin. In parts of the basin, the uncertainty has never been greater. Water supplies are critically low and could run out before the year's end.
The unprecedented fish deaths in the Darling are a confronting reality of the crisis being faced. The report by the Academy of Science into the fish deaths did not attribute the deaths solely to drought or climate change. In particular, the report highlighted a reduction of around 50 per cent in annual flows in some places on the river because of on-farm harvesting of water. The report also noted that the Menindee Lakes were full in 2016. That raises questions about the management and, in particular, the draining of Menindee Lakes by New South Wales authorities.
There are also questions about the accuracy of water inflow and extraction data. Water volumes are assumed to be accurate when in reality they are best estimates based on one or more assumptions. While strong assumptions are not necessarily intentional, estimates can be and possibly have been exaggerated to justify water saving grants for various projects.
The basin has been and, in the view of many, continues to be poorly managed, with each of the states and water regions operating differently. Of greater concern, the 2012 Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been consistently undermined by competing vested interests. It has not been allowed to be rolled out as planned. Likewise, creating a water market has allowed speculators to manipulate the price of water and profiteer at the expense of desperate farmers who are forced to pay up to $800 per megalitre of water. Only water users should have right to buy water, and the market prices should be regulated. Recommendation 9 of the government's 2014 independent review of the Water Act makes reference to regulation of the water market. The recommendation was not followed through by the government, and I have little faith that the recently announced ACCC inquiry will restore stability into the price or supply of water. The decision by the government to abolish the National Water Commission in 2014, which Labor did not support, was short-sighted. Had the commission still existed, market manipulation may have been prevented and the water allocations would have been better managed.
Regardless of mistakes over the years, considerable investments have to date been made by food growers and farmers throughout the basin. People's life savings, their future and the future of whole communities are at stake. Their concerns are real. I note the growing calls for more inquiries and even a royal commission into the basin. My view is that there have been enough inquiries and that the underlying causes of the Basin Plan uncertainty are well known. The report of the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, which regrettably was not fully cooperated with by all parties and whose report has been completely ignored, nevertheless comprehensively outlines the problems with the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. What is required is an independent, non-political, non-partisan body to assist the implementation of the Basin Plan to date; to have authority to make any necessary changes to the plan; to factor in climate change; and to set out a long-term strategy that provides stability and fairness to all communities across the basin.
Ultimately the plan will only work if every community is committed to it, and that will only occur if every community has confidence in it. Over two million Australians live within the basin, and it produces more than 39 per cent of Australia's gross value in agricultural production. For some basin communities, the situation is dire. Farmers are already walking away from the land, their lives shattered. These are real people, with dependent family members. They deserve better. They don't need patronising words or more time-wasting inquiries. They need a government that stands with them, and a Basin Plan that they can have confidence in. For South Australians, being at the end of the system and dependent on upstream inflows, a sustainable plan is critical.