Photo: Irrigated wheat in the Riverina 1976.
In Australia approximately 85% of the population live along the coast, so in a nation this large (7.7 million square kilometres), it’s not surprising that there exists a disconnect between people living in the cities and our cousins in the bush.
In the sparsely populated interior of Australia, it’s difficult for the concerns of minorities to be heard by those living in urban areas. It’s understandable that city people are mostly unaware of the crushing fight for survival going on in parts of the farming heartland of rural Australia. Of course city dwellers have an intensely keen interest in the probity and safety of their food supply, but beyond that, it seems most are more focused on the price of smashed avocado while pontificating about roasted coffee beans. That said urban dwellers perception of country people is probably just as ill-informed.
In the interior of south-eastern Australia, the fiasco and devastation threatening the livelihoods of farming communities relates to the Murray-Darling Basin. In the cities there is very little noise about this issue, with the general perception being that it’s about mismanagement of the environment, but few actually have an understanding of the real turmoil and complexities. I grew up in the Murray-Darling Basin in the 1950’s, 60’s & 70’s so I thought it timely to add a little clarity, based on the realities of my experience.
It is only 100 years since the first locks and weirs were built on the Murray River launching the Murray River Irrigation Plan, a scheme to have a dry river system deliver water to the arid inland that would ultimately create “one of the most productive food bowls and diverse agriculture regions in the country”. See (Dry Rivers, Wetlands, Environmental Water & Awesome Wells).
What subsequently followed in 1949 was an expansion plan to divert water from the Snowy River westward to provide additional irrigation water for both the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers, further supporting Australia’s irrigated agriculture industry. The Snowy River would be redirected beneath the Great Dividing Range with the plan to also include a Hydro-Electricity system to generate peak-load power for the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and Victoria.
The Snowy Mountain Scheme was born, with construction completed in 1974 consisting of sixteen major dams, seven power stations (that today provides approx. 7% of Net Energy Metering), transmission lines, a pumping station and 225 kilometres of tunnels, aqueducts and pipelines feeding a large network of irrigation canals and channels. The scheme incorporated the 2,880 kilometre Mulwala Canal, (longer than the Murray and Darling Rivers) the largest irrigation canal in the southern hemisphere which was completed in 1942 and supplies water to 700,000 hectares of agriculture land.
Also in 1949, construction commenced in far western New South Wales to dam the Menindee Lakes, a chain of shallow freshwater lakes on the Darling River. The irrigation storage scheme also supplied water to Broken Hill and was completed in 1968. Turning the arid inland plains into a productive, diversified food bowl by converting the dry river systems of the Lachlan, Murrumbidgee, Darling and Murray Rivers was an engineering feat, the benefits of which were self-evident; exports for a growing nation, while securing a stable domestic food supply in times of inevitable drought.
So what could go wrong with this sustainable irrigation system; sustainable because the ‘source and use’ of the resource was balanced and well managed, simply storing surplus water for use in the dry.
Well, incompetent bureaucrats and revenue starved state governments soon scuttled the sustainability of the system, when they over-reached and started issuing new and larger water rights to landowners located too far from the source, where 90% of the water was wasted in evaporation and seepage. The ‘use’ increased significantly while the ‘source’ stayed pretty much the same, and as a result the system became perpetually stressed, even during wet seasons.
The government continued to knowingly sell ‘water rights’ for water that did not exist. To further bolster revenue, the government concocted a deceptive racket, charging farmers based on their water entitlement, rather than what they actually used. The injustice is that farmers pay for water they never receive and in some years they pay full price for zero water. In any other industry this type of extortion would be the subject of a Royal Commission. I know I’m stating the obvious but an irrigation farming property cannot be commercially viable without irrigation water! It gets worse!
The system was established to provide sustainable water for primary production and the ecosystems and now the scheme was failing to deliver for the purposes for which it was established. In simple terms the governments increased the ‘use’ without increasing the ‘source’ which would require the building of additional water storage. But they failed to act. It has been approximately 45 years since a dam has been built, so the government’s short sighted delinquent mendacious behaviour is the reason the system has failed.
As stated above, the Murray-Darling Basin scheme was designed to accommodate the needs of the irrigation agriculture industry as well as preserving the long-term sustainability of the rivers and lower lakes ecosystem. Successive governments have totally mismanaged the basin, to the point where there was insufficient water for neither the environment nor primary production. The stress was most obvious during the millennium drought.
With the advent of minority government in recent years, we witnessed the dysfunction of extreme politics, decimating rural community’s right across the basin. Instead of addressing years of mismanagement, governments simply stop supplying water to farmers and started flushing approximately 70% + of total water volumes through the system and out to sea; water in the name of the environment.
‘Environmental water’ has devastating consequences for the health of the waterways with prolonged ‘artificial flooding’ causing extreme environmental damage and stress to the ecosystem. The reckless mismanagement of the Murray Darling has accelerated river bank erosion and caused irreversible harm to the forests in the internationally significant Barmah National Park decimating native flora and fauna (see ‘The Choke‘)… not to mention the ecological disaster created when the Menindee Lakes were drained, contributing to the horrendous summer fish kills.
This extreme action has been devastating; transforming the once productive inland plains to what now resembles a desert, occupied by good people in a desperate situation courtesy of populist politicians who consider these communities disposable.
So now we have a situation where the water in the Murray Darling irrigation system is paid for by farmers facing bankruptcy, … so their water can be flushed out to sea … to preserve man-made freshwater wetlands … that were artificially created by damming a tidal salt water estuary … # . It sounds like madness but unfortunately it’s true!
If farmers are not receiving enough water to run a viable diversified farming operation, then they’ll surrender the interior to the desert and make the Murray-Darling Irrigation system redundant. That may be considered a good outcome for some, but what happens when food shortages are felt in the cities and suburban Australia? This is starting to happen now; Australia has been forced to import wheat from Canada because we cannot produce enough grain to meet domestic demand. The risks of food shortages are real!
# The waters of the Lachlan, Murrumbidgee and Darling rivers all flow into the Murray River which subsequently flows into the lower lakes in South Australia near the township of Tailem Bend. The lower lakes and wetlands were once a tidal saltwater estuary until about 80 years ago when they were dammed; creating a situation where the 500 square kilometres of the lower lakes were dependant on the declining and inconsistent freshwater flows from the Murray River.
Perhaps the lower lakes should be reopened to tidal flow rather than relying on freshwater to protect its ecosystem i.e. return the lower lakes back to their natural form the way it was prior to the 1940’s. That would negate the need to waste water in the name of the environment, our most precious resource and restore the Murray-Darling Basin back to a productive food bowl, as was always intended, provided water rights are issued on a sustainable basis and not controlled by a few big corporations.
Clearly it is not sustainable or equitable when a small number of large corporations, with deep pockets can control the bulk of the allocated water; a commodity that was once a shared resource for the benefit of all rural communities in the basin. Now the collective communities have been cut off and effectively starved of their livelihood, in order to protect the vested interests of a few, like the Sunraysia’s almond industry whose apparent immunity to water shortages is in part, the reason ‘the choke’ is drowning.
Ask how an Italian multinational; the world’s 4th largest confectionery conglomerate can acquire enough irrigation water from the Murrumbidgee River for a ‘demonstration farm‘ to cultivate 1 million hazelnut trees (in a climate unsuitable for hazelnuts), when for the second year in a row, most “irrigators will have little or no water to farm with this year”.
The governments reckless indifference has enabled its own agency to operate like pathological autocrats, as they administer the slow ‘economic eradication’ of vulnerable rural communities. These bureaucratic executives have commissioned ‘compromised academics’ to legitimise the policies of their political masters. They zealously enforce ‘morally corrupt’ rules based on dubious and conjectural (un)scientific research, while apathetically employing strong-arm, browbeating tactics, with a customary quantum of bureaucratic and political bastardry!
24 June 2019
“An incompetent person in a responsible position may cause huge damage. Such a person should act less and think more.” ― Eraldo Banovac