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Issue #1855      February 6, 2019


The real Murray-Darling culprit

The report of the South Australian Royal Commission Inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin has laid bare a river management system riddled with corruption and wide-open to abuse by rapacious irrigation corporations. The report’s release follows the recent horrific mass death of fish in the River Darling and Menindee Lakes in NSW.

In 1900 under the proposed new federal constitution, the federal government was responsible for the environment, and each state was responsible for the extraction of river water for the use of farmers and river communities, including Aboriginal communities, for whom the rivers are sacred. But river water is a priceless national asset, and under the Constitution upstream states can legally deprive their downstream neighbours of water to the point where communities are wiped out and native wildlife die en masse.

Fast forward to 2007, a long drought and the death of much of the river system’s wildlife prompted the then federal Howard government to introduce the Australian Water Act, which decreed that river water flows had to be adequate to support the natural environment, based on scientific advice.

In 2010, in order to implement the Act, the Rudd government introduced the science-based Murray-Darling Basin Plan, under which irrigation companies would have to return between 3,980 and 9,000 gigalitres of water to the environment through a series of government water licence “buy-backs”, in order to avoid environmental devastation.

Irrigation agribusinesses fear buy-backs because they could in theory be used to stifle their growth or even wipe them out. They therefore organised the burning of copies of the Plan outside the offices of the newly-created Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA). In 2012 the Gillard government finally buckled and the Authority arbitrarily reduced the amount of extra water for the environment to 2,750 gigalitres.

That decision has contributed to the mass death of fish, as well as other flora and fauna, and a drastic reduction in water available for communities.

Corrupt from the start

The Royal Commission inquiry concluded that the MDBA and the eastern state governments have been guilty of maladministration, gross negligence and breaches of the law, and have failed to take into account climate change impacts.

The Authority has been pressured by irrigators and their government backers to place limits on water extraction in the interests of the irrigators, not the environment. According to the report the Authority breached the Water Act by ignoring scientific warnings from CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation) against the reduction of environmental water flows, and in justifying its decisions it made “unattributable, blank assertions”, refused to reveal the scientific modelling underlying its decisions, acted with obsessive secrecy and failed to consult with Indigenous owners or local communities in determining water flows.

The report argues that the Authority and state and federal governments have acted illegally because they have not given priority to the environment and their recommendations and actions have not been based on the best scientific advice.

Successive federal governments have deliberately misinterpreted the word “compromise” in the Water Act, arguing that the Act requires water extraction judgements to be a compromise under which social and economic considerations are balanced against environment considerations, and that environmental water flows can be reduced if social and economic outcomes are improved as a result. In fact, the Act has the opposite intention.

It gives environmental considerations top priority, and says that the best available science must be used to set a limit on the amount of water extracted so the environment is not compromised!

The NSW government claims the solution to the lack of water for communities is to reduce environment water flows. For example, it wants to transfer extra water for community use from Menindee Lakes to Broken Hill; The Lakes have already been partially drained in an attempt to lower evaporation by reducing their surface area, and this undoubtedly contributed to the recent mass fish death. But the government still wants to proceed with the plan.

The irrigators are now bitterly attacking the Royal Commission’s findings. The conservative governments of the eastern states have refused to comment on them, but in some cases they have issued veiled threats that if more buy-backs are introduced they will quit the Plan and return to the pre-2012 arrangement, when up-stream state governments accepted no responsibility for allowing the flow of river water downstream to other states.

The MDBA director and representatives of state and federal governments deny they have acted corruptly or illegally. But the Royal Commission’s report demonstrates clearly they have violated the Water Act.

The disastrous results of policies formulated to serve the interests of the irrigation corporations, are visible to the naked eye. In Queensland near the NSW border there are massive reservoirs filled with water for cotton crops, while just over the border the river is reduced to a series of moribund ponds. And the entire nation has seen the horrific mass fish kills in the stagnant or barely-flowing stretches of the rivers.

The Inquiry’s report also notes that the policing of water extraction is in some areas non-existent, and that so-called water-saving measures are highly profitable for the irrigators, but no-one checks whether they actually work after they’re implemented.

The Commissioner has expressed doubt as to whether any government can gain rational control of the rivers in the nation’s interest. But the river system is dying because of insatiable, irrational corporate greed and the solution lies in changing Australia’s political economy.

A similar message leaps from the pages of another Royal Commission document, the report into the banks and financial institutions which was released this week. If we are to save the rivers we will have to get rid of not just the government but also capitalism, the political economic system that currently has the nation in its iron grip.

Next article – Perth rallies for Nicolas Maduro & the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela

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