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Water in a Geo-political Context

Lindsay Fitzclarence on the need for alternative perspectives about water policies and the Murray-Darling Basin

In early 2008 the Australian federal government passed legislation, the Water Act 2007, concerning national water quality, distribution mechanisms and the coordination of inter-governmental management processes and the outcome of over a decade of effort to reform water policy. One part of the Act was a directive for a long-term reform strategy for the Murray–Darling Basin. In early October 2010 this statement was released to the public and therefore to the communities that had been waiting with trepidation and latent hostility.

A central feature of the Basin Plan is the introduction of a practice known as sustainable diversion limits (SDLs). This mechanism is designed to enforce limits on the amount of water that can be taken out of the Basin’s surface and groundwater supplies. Checks and balances designed to manage water quality and salinity levels also feature in the Basin master plan. In the longer-term the plan is designed to return between 27–37 per cent of surface water to the system. At the more specific level this will mean some regions face extensive reductions to current levels of water taken from the rivers.

Release of the long awaited Basin Plan has produced predictable responses generating strongly polarised reaction based on long standing social divisions. Wide-ranging tensions feed into, and are sustained by, an increasingly dysfunctional political framework that is conflictual, divided and parochial and perpetuated by a compromised, biased and corporatised mass media. This article acknowledges the coexistence of a number of narratives from different times, which have now become interwoven into the neo-liberal discourse about the rationalising powers of the marketplace. The analysis highlights the links between the colonial heritage of the production of export materials; the key role of irrigation schemes in the process of ‘nation building’; the nexus between water control and public policy; and, finally, global trade and water use.


The Murray–Darling Basin covers 1,061,469 square kilometres or approximately one-seventh (14 per cent) of the total area of Australia (7,692,024 square kilometres).

It contains over 40 per cent of all Australian farms, which produce wool, cotton, wheat, sheep, cattle, dairy produce, rice, oil-seed, wine, fruit and vegetables for both domestic and overseas markets. As Australia’s most important <> agricultural region, the Basin produces one third of Australia’s food supply and supports over a third of Australia’s total gross value of <> agricultural production.

Assumptions about land, agricultural production, economic development and security, and water are fused in this statement (sourced from the Murray River tourism website). It is an example of a sustained narrative about social economic and political priorities, a meta-discourse that frames thinking about water flow and use in this large area of the nation.

In only two hundred years the Murray–Darling Basin has become a centrepiece of integrated economic development and cross-sector management practices. Within the post-colonial history of this region there are many examples of trendsetting policy development and technically advanced and large-scale forms of development. A good deal of the political impetus and economic investments of these changes has been the drive towards ‘nation building’. Water management has been a central feature of these processes.

Viewed historically there are three major phases in this narrative of social change. Before sketching each in a little detail a caveat is required. Within the landmass and waterways associated with what is now codified as the Murray–Darling Basin the doctrine of terra nullius cannot apply. The Basin has a long history as a demographic centre of Indigenous life. Australia’s oldest known skeleton was found in this area, at Lake Mungo in southwest New South Wales, and anthropological records show that before colonisation the region contained the highest density of Indigenous groups anywhere on the continent. The rich bio-diversity of the area existing within the confluence of a large number of rivers and streams provided a wide range of food sources. These river systems also acted as meeting places of people from many different groups. Consequently a large number of important cultural sites are located throughout the region. Many Aboriginal people died as a result of diseases brought into the country by colonists; however, a significant number of Indigenous Australians representing many different groups continue to live in the region.

Developments through the 19th Century

Through the 19th century the Murray–Darling Basin was settled and maintained within a field of tension between two opposing forces. The region became a provider of wool for the burgeoning fabric industries of northern England; at the same time large areas of the region were taken up in pastoral leases by settlers intent on forging a new way of life away from direct British influence. This phase of social change was a time of regional settlement that involved establishing maps and territorial boundaries, naming areas and features, including the rivers, and thereby establishing legislative control over the land and an increasing number of socio-economic activities

By the end of the century the political leaders of the different colonies, or proto-states, were engaged in prolonged negotiations designed to establish a post-colonial federation. Inside these discussions and political work were also moves to create a modern economy. For this to take place there was an urgent need for stable and reliable water supplies. Such sources were understood to be a fundamental requirement of inland population growth and the development of strong and economically viable agricultural and pastoral industries.

Politicians in Sydney and Melbourne were the most powerful in shaping an early form of regional water policy. This fact is reflected in the development of a number of key government policies which marked the beginning of a post-colonial water reform that would bring major water flow and storage under statutory legislation. The first of these occurred in Victoria when the government introduced the Irrigation Act 1886. In New South Wales similar legislation was passed in the Water Rights Act of 1896.

During this phase, bureaucratic and legislative infrastructure to govern water courses and adjacent public land was put in place. This necessitated breaking the nexus between private property and water ownership. In moving away from the legacy of European riparian thinking there was a shift towards an ethos of public ownership and control of water as a common property.

Despite such development, the cultural legacy of riverfront ownership lives on. Some properties in strategic locations with direct river access have been handed down through several generations. The history of riparian times remains within the restricted narratives of such groups.

Developments through the 20th Century

By the beginning of the 20th century this early form of water reform set the scene for the next major phase of change: large-scale water storage facilitating major irrigation developments. Three major developments stand out as key exemplars of this phase of change.

The Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme is located in the Griffith-Leeton region of south-central New South Wales. While the area was understood to contain fertile soil, the larger and longer-term problem was the marginal and erratic rainfall. Using a variety of advanced engineering techniques, water was channeled into the area via a number of storages, locks and diversion canals.

By the beginning of World War II, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) was an important source of agriculture for the nation. The MIA developed through the employment of technical expertise, large-scale funding and, eventually, the arrival of skilled farmers. As a result a diversified economy was developed in which new export crops, including rice, became key products of the region. All of this was made possible through the entrapment and diversion of water into an area that did not have a history of consistent water flow.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme is a process involving water storage, re-direction and power generation. Water from the Snowy and Eucumbene rivers is diverted to the west, or inland, across the mountains where it is released into the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers. This diversion and controlled release of water has provided a wide range of agricultural developments using irrigated water. In what could now be labeled as ‘value adding’ this process of entrapment and storage of water has provided the opportunity for the generation of electricity.

The Menindee Lakes Scheme is situated on the Darling River in the far south-west of NSW. The scheme is a third example of a major development designed to capture and store a significant volume of water. Under normal conditions the Darling River flows unevenly, often running at a very low level via a long chain of waterholes and natural depressions that form lake systems.

In 1949 work commenced on creating a storage system comprised of dams, weirs, canals and flow regulators designed to control the flow of water. In 1968 work was completed leaving an integrated system that allowed water to be captured and stored in four linked lakes. From here water is diverted west to the mining centre of Broken Hill and also released back into the lower Darling River.

Communities including Broken Hill and Griffith have developed and sustain rich narratives about the benefits of water supplies directed into their locations. Such accounts acknowledge that there are many local beneficiaries of the water systems that sustain their communities.

Water Reform through Policy and Market Forces

In the early 1980s, fuelled by monetarist ideology, a politics of increasing economic stringency occurred. However, reformed water policy required an added input. Dating back to the 1960s a global discourse of environmental alarm, or crisis, had developed. Because this trend emerged on many different social, cultural and political fronts it impacted in many forms and a large number of locations. During this time ‘sustainability’ emerged as meta-environmental theme and merged with economic rationalist thinking, appearing in a wide suite of ‘environmentally friendly’ policies. A key example occurred in 1980 with the announcement of the World Conservation Strategy-ICUN 1980 which, in turn, was followed by the UN Brundtland Report of 1987. This document was, in effect, an argument for the need for all nations to undertake ‘sustainable development’ programs. Viewed holistically, it is a classic example of the fusion of economic management/environmental concern emerging ‘naturally’ in a discourse of sustainability.

Policy makers and politicians in Australia responded actively to this call for change through policy development and closer government management. The first change occurred at the governmental level. In 1992 Australia’s political leaders, the prime minister, state premiers and chief ministers constituted the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). COAG’s purpose was to streamline cross institutional communication and produce relevant generic policy. COAG first met in December that year, when it produced a statement called the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development. This document detailed a number of guidelines that fused economic, environmental and equity issues against a backdrop of global awareness and sensitivities. Ecologically Sustainable Development became the banner for a new approach to water reform.

The most recent suite of policy reforms, as indicated in the following policy directive, includes a national water strategy, which involves the following foci:

The Murray Darling Basin: The Government is working to restore the Murray Darling Basin to a sustainable footing by modernising irrigation and addressing the over allocation of resources. This will put the Murray Darling Basin back on a sustainable track, significantly improve the health of rivers and wetlands and will bring substantial benefits to irrigators and the community; Purchasing water for the environment; Improving water use efficiency in rural Australia; and Urban water security projects <>.

What we find here is an amalgam of the key water policy initiatives of the previous one hundred years. The theme of ‘irrigation’ continues to be central, although it now involves new technologies and more stringent methods of management. In this latter sense this suggests more ‘rational’ measurement and monitoring of water allocation and the employment of more ‘effective’ water trading schemes.

Current Water Use Trends in the Murray–Darling Basin

While agriculture is no longer the major source of national wealth, this sector still accounts for use of approximately 65 per cent of stored water and over 50 per cent of the national land area. Embedded within these figures is the fact that just over 90 per cent of water in agricultural practice is used for irrigation, which includes ‘surface’ irrigation as the main method. Production of cotton, rice and grapevines mainly involves water through irrigation. Moreover, these crops are high water uses, with cotton farming using 16 per cent and rice 11 per cent of total agricultural water. The following information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reinforces understanding of the tight nexus between overall water use, irrigation practices and the production of rice and cotton:

Approximately 89 per cent of Australia’s cotton growers were located in the Murray–Darling Basin in 2008–09, irrigating 75 thousand hectares more land than in 2007–08 (up 141 per cent). The large increase in volume of irrigation water used was due to improved water allocations in the region. Similarly, Australia’s rice producers, all located in the Basin, used an increased volume of irrigation water in 2008–09.

In 2008–09, cotton accounted for the highest proportion of irrigation water used in the Murray–Darling Basin (23 per cent), followed by cereal crops for grain or seed (20 per cent) and pasture for grazing (15 per cent).

In this latter phase of change of water politics in the Murray–Darling Basin, cotton has emerged as the cash crop for current times. While other parts of the agriculture sector have been struggling, cotton farming has continued to develop for a number of reasons. Within a global context, cotton is grown within a latitude range of 45 degrees north through to 35 degrees south. The Murray–Darling Basin is thus securely located within this growth zone. Cotton is a crop that is planted and grown in an annual cycle. In the Australian growing season the growth cycle begins in September–November (planting) and ends in March–May (harvesting). As a broad-acre crop it is conducive to the use of large-scale/mechanised equipment in the planting, growth management (especially pest control) and harvesting stages. While the average sized farm in Australia is just over 300 hectares, cotton farming is an industry that lends itself to larger scale industrial development, including larger sized properties.

A key element in the production cycle is the availability of water. In this case the water trading policy and long-term irrigation infrastructure in the Murray–Darling Basin have helped encourage cotton production as an annual and broad-acre crop.

Cotton produced in Australia, and therefore in the Murray–Darling Basin, is an export crop. It is produced for the global market where the demand for cotton products is very high and thus the price or return on the commodity remains stable. According to cotton industry sources, 98 per cent of Australia’s cotton is exported. While overall production is low by world standards (only 3 per cent of world production) Australia contributes between 5–10 per cent of the world’s cotton exports. As an export industry this level of production generates a return of around $1.5 billion per annum.

Cotton is a quintessential global product. It has a very long history of use and has evolved to provide a wide range of commodities including clothing, multi-use commercial fibre, and as a food product for humans and animals. Moreover, cotton markets exist all over the globe. The increasing production of cotton in Australia, implying the growing use of water reserves, increasingly ties Australian production resources into the competitive global market. The export of cotton amounts to the export of large quantities of water.

Longer-term and Larger-scale Considerations

Modernist nation-building strategies have put in place large-scale water schemes designed to provide water for wide-ranging industrial and domestic purposes. While promoting demographic and economic growth, these practices have also resulted in over-production issues and helped create serious environmental problems. Current political strategies have been designed to address these concerns and have turned towards the logics of the marketplace. This is an approach designed to rationalise excessive demands for scarce water resources through the forces of competition.

In his essay ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Garrett Hardin made a number of observations that remain useful on population growth, resource management and political action. Hardin’s concern was about the tendency for leaders and strategists to turn to technical solutions to the problem of population growth in a finite environment:

An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semi-popular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.

It is now over forty years since Hardin’s essay was published; however, the themes he explored remain topical. Inevitably faith in a technical fix has turned general public attention to processes such as desalinisation as a method for tapping into the vast stores of sea water. No doubt as desalinisation plants come on-line they will reinforce the existing belief in technical and instrumental reasoning. In order for such issues to be debated more widely, there will need to be a different discourse about these connections. In particular, there will need to be a changed discourse about water as a vital feature of everyday life. In relatively recent times water has become defined, understood and experienced as commercial commodity; the strong sense in which it is a common cultural good is increasingly lost from view. On this score there is an opening to a very different form of cultural politics, including new forms of public education. Water is a common life element. For this reason it is a material property that exists at the very core of sustaining life. On this basis water as a generic topic has the potential for discussions, debates and dialogues across the ever-increasing range of interdependent sub-populations. In short, a new form of ‘water politics’ is needed as a corrective, or alternative, to the ever increasing forces of cultural commodification that act to separate, create difference and stimulate competition and conflict.

Lindsay Fitzclarence

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