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The Basin and the Kill, by Stefano de Pieri

A devastating combination: agribusiness, political bastardry and complacency

Published: 1 Feb 2019

In my thirty years’ experience of country life and the hospitality business, I have met many National Party representatives. I remember receiving a visit by the Anthony clan soon after a very exciting review of my restaurant in The Age back in 1995. They were charming people, and happy that a country boy (at the time!) was successful in a semi-remote location. The member for Farrah, across the Murray on the NSW side, Tim Fischer, was a regular diner and an engaging fellow if ever there was one.

Taken as individuals, these MPs were and are all care and concern for the eternal plight of country people. But put them in a room together and a transformation takes place. They mutate into some other personae and generate policies that are, in the main, bad for the nation and demonstrably not in the interests of the majority of country people. Climate change comes to mind; love of coal—which has little to do with farming, except that it often stakes a claim to prime land—is another. A passion for cotton is yet another. Collectively, they have shown lack of judgment: even my town, in the heart of the Mallee, has abandoned them and turned independent again.

Imagine, then, what they became when Barnaby Joyce, their leader and hero, became minister for water and agriculture a while back. Truculent like no other politician, he could not stomach the Murray–Darling Basin Plan even with the pathetic amount of environmental water attached to it.

With the force of his standing in the party, the tacit support of Tony Abbott, a defeated Labor Party, and the ignorance of the vast majority of city people, for whom these matters appear remote (they are barely beginning to intuit the connections between food production, corporate power and the environment), Joyce began to undermine the (partly faulty) basin plan. And what a demolition job he did! With the complicity of New South Wales, and with the active support of sections of the National Farmers’ Federation, he acted on behalf of the big corporates and turned a blind eye to water theft in the northern basin, until the ABC exposé a while back focused public attention on the issue. With the aid of the most appalling water minister Victoria ever had, Police Minister Lisa Neville, he promoted the notion that environmental water was ‘decimating’ communities in the basin and he commissioned studies to support his fabrication.

It does not take much to promote an idea in country regions: by and large, the media employs baby reporters who just rehash government press releases without applying standard methods of journalism, let alone analytical rigour.

In the meantime, despite the protestations of South Australia, which instigated its own Royal Commission into the management of our river system, New South Wales—with the tacit agreement of Victoria and Queensland, both Labor states—began ‘decommissioning’ the entire Darling River, hundreds of miles, from Bourke to the Murray. This is not written in a policy, but it is de facto. Following the stupid decision to empty out the Menindee Lakes—whoever approved that should be jailed—New South Wales decided, with yet another report, that these lakes were evaporating too much anyway, so they should be abandoned. As a consequence, water is to be piped instead from the Murray at Wentworth to the city of Broken Hill—that is 330 kilometres of steel pipe, at the staggering cost of $500 million, without so much as a whimper from NSW Labor, NSW taxpayers or anyone else. The pipeline is nearing completion as I write.

For, in reality, who gives a shit about an ancient river system? That is a great pity, because it is not only of great value per se, but it can be seen as a cultural highway—a massive Appian Way for Aboriginal people. This river should be compulsorily studied in primary and secondary school, at least in Southern Australia. In a country so happy to raise the Aussie flag and to wave it at any opportunity, the ignorance about the importance of our rivers—and this one especially—is staggering.

It is only thanks to social media, when people finally see the confronting images of dead fish, that something awakens, tokenistic as it is, for I have not seen city folk demonstrating out here—too hot for the fragile greenies of Brunswick and Northcote? Too busy fighting each other?

To be sure, the Australian Conservation Foundation and many wonderful activists have been working like slaves over these issues for the past few years, but there has been nothing to match the Stop Adani effort or other causes. I think that these matters should be bundled together, but that is a discussion for another day.

Dying fish is a bad sign. It is the outcome of a deliberate policy to starve the river and our communities of water. Period. The ridiculous Canberra phone hook-up between water ministers, after the fish kill—when it was suggested that the fish…be moved?…that the river…be aerated with oxygen?…and other similar hare-brained suggestions—was concluded with Joyce coming out of the ‘cotton-work’ and suggesting that we should all go to church and pray for rain. This was reported by the ABC’s PM program without a giggle. This is pure madness, and maddening was the silence of two Labor premiers in Victoria and Queensland—silent as two marble statues—and the cop-out by Bill Shorten and his mob, stating that the matter should be referred to scientists! Yes, let’s have another committee meeting!

The scientists have been working on this for decades and what they know is that there is less water because of over-extraction everywhere. What they know, even more importantly, is real science: they know that the main breeding ground for ALL native Australian fish is the Barwon–Darling system. The fish reproduce in these rivers and patiently wait for water pulses the spread THROUGHOUT and into every basin’s rivers.

We do not need another study. We need more water for the environment.

We need more city people to understand that without healthy rivers and proper climate policies there will be no food and that food is more important than fibre and other commodities; that corporate, greedy operators should not be able to hog water; and that the environment is about the spiritual well-being of all people. Community well-being is a vital economic factor.

One more thought: if you have not noticed, cotton is being grown just north of Bendigo. Soon it will be in your Melbourne backyard.

***

The northwest of Victoria, where I live, is connected further to the north to Broken Hill, sometimes a Labor town, at state political level. To the east, it is connected to Robinvale and Swan Hill, through which the Murray also flows. As the Murray continues west, it picks up the Darling River at Wentworth, an old river-port town, and meanders through a fabulous lot of bush and waterways before reaching Renmark, established by the Chaffey brothers before they moved to Mildura. It continues on to its final destination in South Australia, where it kind of dies before reaching the sea.

While each town keeps its distinctive features, the northwest is a convergence of all these places, a three-states state of mind. It is not moribund, as the bush is often described. Whenever you drink a pleasant and cheap bottle of wine, you can be sure you are drinking Murray water and Mildura sunshine. These areas, together with Griffith and the extended Riverland, produce two thirds of all Australian wine. Even the precious Barossa and Eden Valleys rely to some extent on Murray water.

Table grapes, olives, citrus and vegetables are strong sectors, and now almond plantations as well. It is easy to like almonds—so much gastronomy depends on almonds. For me, what a pleasure to cook a flourless orange-and-almond cake with fresh free-range eggs! But almonds are problematic: they guzzle water, they are NOT labour intensive and the profits flow out of the area. Of course, it would be utter nonsense to say that they do not contribute to the economy. The question is whether we can continue to plant them at the current rate. You have to ask where the water is coming from, as there is a finite amount; how much is the price of water going to go up, and how is this impacting on smaller farmers with shallow pockets? And this is before we turn to the impact on the environment—and climate change, which has steadily reduced the inflow by at least 1 per cent each year over the last thirty years.

Some people do not understand that water in the basin is tradeable. You can buy it as you can buy any stock on the stock exchange. You deal with water traders. This is one of the main keys to understanding the system.

The price changes with supply and demand. In a wet year, prices go down. In a time of drought, prices go up and up as water becomes less available and water rights are reduced in percentages. Water can be purchased and used on farms or purchased by investors and rented out to farmers who need extra water. As it becomes scarce, water—rented or traded—goes up dramatically in price. If you need extra water and your pockets are not so deep, you are cut off from the market and your crop suffers or dries up.

Corporations often do not own water at all; they purchase it (hire it, rent it—call it what you like) on a yearly basis according to need. They push up demand during a dry spell and the price increases, but they can tough it out by drawing money from investors anywhere in the world. That is the free market.

Rice farmers usually do not farm when there is no rain. Cotton farmers seem to have nearly continual access to water, though they deny it. There are huge dams in the north of New South Wales and southern Queensland. Of course, cotton farmers say that they rent out their water allocations when it is very dry, because they can make some money without having to crop, but no one seems to really understand what exactly is going on. For instance, in those areas corporates and others are allowed to harvest rainwater on flood plains—huge amounts. This should all be regulated by, wait, translucent and transparent flow rules (see the NSW government’s February 2018 scoping review Translucency Rules in NSW Inland Rivers). Whoever is working on this could be a character in Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial. Obviously, that water does not make it into the twenty or so tributaries to the Darling. When interrogated about it, the CEO of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority said that perhaps in the year to come (2019) it will be able to estimate what is being taken out—diverted is the lovely euphemism.

Dairy farmers on the Murray and other systems often rent their water out or have divested themselves of water altogether. This adds another layer of complexity, as does the sealing of channels to prevent seepage. We thought that sealing might have been a good idea until someone pointed out that that seepage was recharging the rivers—a good thing.

This is only a short, basic, simplistic description of what is going on. To ‘get it’ you have to study—and study pretty hard. This is a new language. Add the need to move water around to save delicate environmental assets (there is an office for this purpose, with money to buy water, but Joyce put a big spanner in its works); there are hundreds of valleys with specific needs and various regulatory and management structures; there is water for cities; there is the issue of acidification of the lower lakes near the Coorong in South Australia, and so on and on. And then there is misinformation, lunacy (a representative of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party was saying that the lakes in South Australia should dry up!), self-interest, ignorance, wilful theft and the rest.

The basin plan was supposed to methodically clean this up—with $13 billion. Joyce interfered, the Nationals interfered, and Turnbull (one of the plan’s architects) stood by helpless. New South Wales pardoned water theft and mismanagement, while Victoria stood by silent, as did Queensland. These two progressive premiers, Annastacia Palaszczuk and Daniel Andrews, do not seem to have a clue, and if they do they are complicit in the mismanagement. Everyone, almost in unison, hides behind the drought. You can just see the ministerial offices’ youngish upstarts, who have never set foot in the basin, feeding the same mantras to their superiors. And the public servants in the water business? Many good ones gone, the others impotent or possibly corrupt, as we saw on that ABC report.

Note:

If you are curious, for further reading—possibly the best available—contact the Australia Institute’s Maryanne Slattery.

 

 

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