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Hydropolitics Down Under: The Failure of the Murray Darling Basin Plan

Water is gold to survival, the indispensable, the vast feeder for human civilization. Its absence entails certain death; its decline brings out the prospect that a civilisation might well collapse. When a water crisis is announced, panic sets in. Officials ready for war; armies ready for the march. “When water goes bad, so do political relations.”

Historically, poisoned or affected water supplies have caused the outbreak of disease and panic. In 1892, a year which saw the staging of the Chicago World Fair and the outbreak of typhoid, the threat of water scarcity to the 27 million guests attending the city’s events propelled the construction of plumbing stretching four miles into Lake Michigan. Additional supplies were also obtained from Waukesha and Wisconsin.

The same, it can be said, for water that flows off, water that is pinched, or water that is denied. The entire basis of Jean de Florette, Marcel Pagnol’s novel set in La Bastide in a provincial France teeming with avarice, is that of a water tragedy.

A hunchbacked tax collector goes to the country to make good his inheritance, but faces the cruelties of a drought. He needs water, and the only way to obtain it from a neighbouring well is with a mule owned by his rivals who entertain his demise.

A contemporary tale of water tragedy is that of the Murray-Darling Basin, which has suffered from illegal pumping in the Barwon and Darling Rivers that could, if proven, “represent,” according to Ross M. Thompson, “one of the largest thefts in Australian history.” Such instances of theft were uncovered by the Australian investigatory news program, Four Corners, in its Monday airing.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who also doubles up as the federal minister for water issues, pushed a different narrative to his pub audience in Shepparton, Victoria, suggesting that the Four Corners program had done the farmers wrong.

“A calamity for you which the solution is trying to take more water off you, shut more of your towns down.” Water was taken, he explained, and “put back into agriculture, so we can look after you and make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show.” Few voices were on hand to speak for the environment that day.

South Australia’s Water Minister, Ian Hunter, was that incensed to call for an independent review of the handling by the New South Wales government. As with so many matters of national significance, the solution will entail more squabbling skirmishes.

The NSW government was never too thrilled with the agreement. Known as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, it had begun as a Commonwealth and State arrangement to balance water consumption and the environmental health of a dying basin. A water market was also created under the plan to enable water to be purchased with an environmental perspective in mind, and allow irrigators to trade water permits focused on need. Rather optimistically, all of this was meant to take place transparently and with a degree of prudence.

But irrigators were bound to buck moves to control water usage, and colluders abounded within the emerging water bureaucracy. In 2016, discussions between a particular NSW water bureaucrat, a certain Gavin Hanlon, were held with irrigators on the possibility of abandoning the Basin Plan with minimal legal consequence.

When evidence came to light to the Deputy Director General of the NSW Department of Primary Industries on misuse by irrigators in the northern part of the state, heads turned the other way. The appetite for compliance, according to Jamie Morgan of the strategic investigations unit, had run its course.

Ambushed by the Four Corners expose, officials in the NSW Government have promised an investigation, with the state’s primary industries minister, Niall Blair, clear that some form of punishment will issue. “Referral of any potentially illegal or corrupt activities will be made to relevant authorities.”

South Australian premier, Jay Weatherill is not so sure, insisting that this is a matter concerning all states including the Commonwealth. “We’ve long held suspicions about the level of commitment by New South Wales to comply with the plan.” He is pitching for a judicial inquiry that is beyond the tampering of political interests.

The irrigation pinch has resulted in the appropriation of billions of litres. The Murray Darling Basin plan has been shown up, a costly sham further exacerbated by increasingly voracious irrigation capture by farmers spurred by government subsidies.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority board has also been compromised, a state of affairs that risks being hastened by the appointment of another irrigation lobbyist, Perin Davey. Much to the consternation of the Australian Conservation Foundation, the MDBA board is now packed with the Daveys and the Hanlons, Trojan horses tearing down the entity from within.

One Australian politician, South Australian senator Nick Xenophon, suggests splitting the environment portfolio from agriculture. Whatever cosmetic stitching takes place, going balmy over water and its use will persist, leaving the environment to wither before the needs of humankind.

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  1. kristapet

    Highlighting entrenched water corruption and extreme disinterest, by current governments in the health and protection of the environment
    Question:Will justice really be done?
    It deserves to have the oversight and inquiry of an Independent Royal Commission, nothing less!
    Barnaby Joyce should be sacked, pronto!
    It is high time this too wealthy, LNP government was VOTED OUT!!!
    We have a Neo-Liberal Federal and NSW government, which, one, can not, have confidence in, regarding the safe health of the environment, water, and agricultural interests because of all the corrupt, corporate / mining interests, too, as well as those of invested self-interests of certain politicians
    There is no proper, rigorous, environmental body with sharp teeth, looking after our environmental well being
    We need an Independent Federal ICAC

  2. Kaye Lee

    I would like to point out that, despite our wailing about the MSN and the undeniable changes at the ABC, Four Corners upholds the principles and values of investigative journalism. They continue to make a difference.

  3. wam

    I have a daughter on lake mulwala and a sister on lake barmara the evaporation there must equal the rorting add the open drains and dams to make a pretty awful situation that needs addressing.
    Kaye, tell that to joe?

  4. Mark Needham

    As happens in all Royal Commissions, Investigations, Senate Enquiries, bugger all will happen. ( hate american spell check, telling me I am wrong. From a country, that has GOTTEN, to get OFF OF, a certain HEIGHTH, and a lot more.)

    The bastards, our leaders are immune:-
    1. To ridicule.
    2. To being exposed.
    3. Telling the Truth.
    4. Serving our Country, Australia.

    Bastards All,
    Mark Needham.

  5. Johno

    Kaye, I agree, ABC still has plenty of integrity.

    Sadly, not so the australian government.

  6. Jack Straw

    This is Australia’s version of Polanski’s Chinatown.

  7. Joseph Carli

    The effect of lowering the environmental flows for the lower Murray would be catastrophic if let go..Having been part of the mechanism of surveying up and down this local stretch of the Murray, I can see the depression and in some cases hopelessness in the eyes of many small farm holdings…those growing stone fruits are particularly affected because of that fruits aversion to salinity..and having been the person writing those salinity measurements down for the surveyor, I can tell you that right up and down the river..NOT in the river itself (as long as it keeps flowing) so much as in the ground-water no more than 2mtrs down on the river banks and billabong islands, the water is in many samples more saline than sea-water.

    If the flows were to drop too low, that heavy saline water will seep back into the river with disastrous consequences to tens of thousands of small farmers and people living in these districts.

    I will go further to state quite categorically that the salinity of MOST of the aquifers stretching from the Marne river to heavens knows how far north are now corrupted with salinity to the point of being nearly useless as sources of potable or even stock water…so that the entire North and the peninsula towns and most farms are wholly dependent on Murray River water for their survival.

  8. Joseph Carli

    So when that jerkoff Joyce becomes blaze about stealing Sth Aust’s water, we have every right to haul the flucker before a court to face charges of one kind or another…if there was a crime against stupidity…

  9. Joseph Carli

    I don’t try to be uncompromising…It’s just that sometimes the truth of an issue needs to be stated in an uncompromising manner!

    On the salinity post…; It came about from my research into the local history project I am doing….I have a map with all the allotments from late nineteenth century landholdings in this area…most were cut up into 200-400 ac. without consideration to the Goyder line and all those ramifications.

    Now, one would presume that if one was going to farm such a small holding, one would want a reliable supply of water…rain / underground. There was neither here….if one goes to a certain gov. site one can see where and how many bore-holes were sunk in this area….literally thousands!…I asked my erst-wiley (spelling intended!) cousin farmer, who has a windmill and bore near our house how the ppm. was reading in his well….he hummed and hawed for a bit and finally admitted it was above 6000ppm. that means it is in effect..useless…I asked him if it was the same for farmer xxxx over the hill…”yes” was his answer…most in the district..I then opined that at least xxxx over near the foothills would be ok as they get more rain….but no..their centuries old spring / well had dried up and they were now carting water.

    My coz’ only found out because he was noticing intestinal troubles with his stock (as are other local people with horses) and he noticed the sheep were staying at one trough and not going away to feed…..he tasted the water and didn’t think it worse (more saline) than usual….so he cleaned the trough out and filled it with mains water…the stock drank and then went to feed…” I decided then to become the owner of a water tester”….That’s right..he had up till then never tested the water…as a matter of fact, the water for that bore was last registered as tested in 1953 ! …and it is the same for as many as I am aware in this district.

    This whole district runs on “rumour, envy and schadenfreude”….each farmer watching the other in case one is getting away with something they haven’t got!…it is cruel, it is ignorant…and it is we now see in the drying and salinity of the aquifers.

    There is apparently NO authority checking on these bores and recording the march of destruction in this district..each farmer keeping his own council…The ignorance of how aquifers function is endemic…one such farmer on the Marne River, upon hearing that a moratorium was to be put on future bores, sunk nine unregistered bores on his property, all in near vicinity of which he uses two or three..the rest, he is “keeping in reserve”…another is of the opinion that the “underground streams” are as those one saw in the movies, like “journey to the centre of the earth”…or “King Solomon’s Mines” when one was younger, rivers that flow freely in huge caverns underground!…the ignorance is endemic!…..I have little hope!

    So when or if I say..”heed-my-words” is not as pretence of wisdom, but rather as foretold warning!….alas..I am seeing myself as another Cassandra!

  10. John L

    Excellent posts, Joseph. Full of facts and observations – much needed.

  11. jim

    Whoever stole the water should at least have their farm shut down.

  12. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Corrigan stole the water. He should be first to lose.

  13. Joseph Carli

    John L..the public doesn’t know or suspect the half of it!..In ALL farming communities around the WHOLE of Australia, there is a “Cabal of Conspiracy” between the established (as against hobby or latter buy-in farmers) old family farmers , the local conservative councils, the various State Govt’ inspection dept’s and the decline in natural resources of water and soil/ natural vegetation.
    The; YOU and I don’t know the half of it..and I KNOW a small portion and can suspect the rest!

  14. Joseph Carli

    Take away the various overt and covert Local, State and Federal Govt’ grants, allowances, subsidies and “blind-eye” cribbing and environmental illegalities and it would not be far fetched to say that around 90% of the farming community would collapse…Gauran – f*ckin’ – teed!

  15. Harquebus

    I recall hearing how the lack of flooding is denying Murray cod their breeding grounds. If allowed to breed, the carp problem would be greatly reduced. A European carp is no match for a Murray cod.

  16. Joseph Carli

    The greatest threat to irrigation farming and those who farm along the Murray pipeline pumping systems, is for the Murray Darling Plan to be securely implemented and policed…THAT would mean transparency and oversighting we saw in the 4 corners report..of the criminal activities of “The Chosen” we saw with Barnaby’s favour to “The boys”…That is why so many rural communities NEED to have a National Party; Local / State / Federal govt’ representative in situ…so the ball keeps on rolling in their’s most probably why Tony Windsor didn’t get up last election…and in some cases you can’t just blame them..they now rely on a capitalist system in place that can and will make or break them collectively as in market supply / deny or individually as in local govt’ come-down-heavy on any recalcitrant protesting farmers…keeping in mind they have mortgage, schooling and lifestyle commitments to pay…locked into the cabal.

  17. diannaart

    @ Jack Straw

    China Town?

    You miss the Jpeg in my post at the beginning of this thread?

    Am I too cryptic for some?

  18. Michael Taylor

    I’d missed that Jpeg, Dianna. Awesome. ?

  19. diannaart

    Thank you, Michael

    I thought the picture-still captured almost everything you need to know about Polanski’s great film,

  20. Jack Straw

    Yes diannart my child; be bold . Sorry I received the kudos for this.Lets share the accalades.

  21. Glenn Barry

    I love corruption – Lying Nefarious Parasitic COALition Style <3

  22. LOVO

    I am somewhat North of aghast….. I am, oh I don’t know. umm…screaming, ..punching air,.. oh did I mention, SCREAMING….
    The Darling is dead…the Murray is next.
    Just so youse know. .I am crying whilst writing this…no really.. 😥
    The fish kills……………………..are a sight to see…. Wot the FCK, mate (google it)
    Extinction is happening right NOW along the Darling, the breeding grounds for 80% of the fish stocks of the Murray Darling basin are gone..devastated….near DONE like a Norwegian Blue …and you can bless your COTTON socks about that.
    The Darling is as DEAD as a Parrot pushing up Daisy’s .. thanks Barnaby, thanks Nialls, thanks Hollywood Humphries and thanks Gladys.
    Poor fella my country

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