Muddied waters, river of tears
‘Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin’
By Margaret Simons
Quarterly Essay 77
Black Inc, 250pp, $22.99
reviewed by ROSS FITZGERALD
The Murray-Darling Basin is often in the news and seldom for the right reasons. It is troubled by drought and climate change and the unquenchable thirst of agriculture. Yet belief in it is an article of faith for politicians, causing regular scraps over its management and its future.
In ‘Cry Me A River’, journalist and author Margaret Simons chronicles the results of her decision to take a close look at it herself. As she writes, except in times of drought, the Murray-Darling Basin “is a mighty thing”. It covers more than a million square kilometres and encompasses 77,000km of rivers, 2.6 million people, 40 Aboriginal nations and 120 species of waterbirds.
The basin and its water politics have been in the news, she notes, “because of dead fish and angry irrigators, and because a royal commission in South Australia has suggested the powerful Murray-Darling Basin Authority is dishonest, incompetent and acting outside the law”.
Having travelled from Queensland to South Australia, Simons confirms that what was once the food bowl of our nation is in deep trouble, economically, socially and environmentally.
As she explains, Canberra’s 12-year, $13bn, Murray-Darling Basin Plan was an important attempt to manage the basin as a whole, and to make its use sustainable. We are now at the plan’s halfway point and, in the author’s view, “things seem to be falling apart”.
This important essay attempts to understand why. Yet finding unambiguous answers is difficult. This is understandable given that critics of the plan describe Australian water politics as having entered a “post-truth world”.
At the very least, the plan is enmeshed in conflicts between the demands of governments and water bureaucrats and the needs of farmers, pastoralists and local communities, which are forced to bear the heaviest burden. As Simons writes: “Whether it is fish kills or state rivalries, drought or climate change, in the Basin our ability to plan for the future is being put to the test.”
The politics of water scarcity has been with us for ages. As Simons points out, the word ‘‘rival’’, now meaning adversary, was originally used in Roman law to mean those who shared the water of a rivus, or irrigation channel.
In late 19th-century Australia, our founding fathers argued bitterly about the waters of the Murray-Darling. The result was section 100 of the Constitution: “The commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade or commerce, abridge the right of a state or the residents therein to the reasonable use of the waters of rivers for conservation or irrigation.” This means that managing our overstretched water resources is primarily a matter for the states, with Canberra playing an overseeing role.
Penny Wong, former Labor minister for climate change and water (and subject of a biography by Simons), says people have no confidence in the water market. “And how could they when there is no transparency over who owns what? (We) have a right and a need to know who owns the water in the Basin.”
But while we know who owns shares or real estate in Australia, it’s not possible for citizens to determine who owns water in the system as a whole or in a particular catchment.
This needs to be fixed so we can ascertain, for example, how much water has been released, and to whom, especially in the time since the water-guzzling cotton industry began to expand exponentially in the mid-1980s.
Simons provides compelling evidence that the way water has been managed upstream pushed the Lower Darling into drought three years earlier than was expected. It is, she says, “a dirty, sad story”.
To keep more powerful irrigators happy, Simons argues, the NSW government and the commonwealth have, in effect, sacrificed the Lower Darling.
As one local tells her: “It’s like that line from ‘Apocalypse Now’. They are destroying the river in order to save it.” Since 2004, the Darling has ceased to flow four times, including one dry period that was “the longest since records began”.
The story of those most affected sometimes goes unreported, but ‘Cry Me A River’ goes a long way to remedying the lack of knowledge about the plight of the Murray-Darling Basin.
Simons explores the alliances being formed between Aboriginal clans and local irrigators, and points out that networks protesting the mismanagement of water resources have one factor in common: they are deeply disillusioned with the National Party, federal and state.
Simons explains that there is one area of agreement between the Canberra bureaucrats and local irrigators. “Everyone is worried about what the new almond plantations downstream mean for the future, when … the growers demand water every year.”
To put it mildly, it’s doubtful there’s enough water in the system for almond trees. Simons thinks it is simplistic, if not stupid, to let the free market sort this out. ‘Cry Me A River’ asks crucial questions. Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan an honest compact? Is it fair? Can it ever work? And are our politicians up to the task?
Considering what Simons has observed, the present answers are not positive.
Ross Fitzgerald’s most recent book is an updated edition of his memoir, ‘Fifty Years Sober’, published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
‘The Weekend Australian’, May 30-31, 2020, Review, Books, p 16.