The Guardian • Issue #2048


Anna Pha

The horrendous spectacle of a carpet of millions of dead fish floating on the Darling River at Menindee is yet another wake-up call that climate change is here. It is the second such mass fish kill and even worse than the one in 2018-2019. The fish died in both instances because of a lack of oxygen with the most recent kill being more serious than the previous, not just because of the number of dead fish, but because of the slowness of the former NSW Coalition government to remove the fish from the water. In 2018 the fish were left high and dry on a river that had almost dried up. In part this was the result of drought. In 2023, flooding resulted in a massive increase in microorganisms that sucked the oxygen out of the water.

But drought and flooding were not the only causes. The stench goes way beyond the fish to the abject failure of the Murray-Darling Basin Scheme, a disaster made by mismanagement, theft, deception, political interference, and corporate profiteering at the expense of regional communities, Indigenous people, and farmers. The Murray Darling Basin has been all-but destroyed by human vandalism. The rot set in with the Howard government’s Water Act of 2007 midst the Millennium Drought (2001-2010). According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the Murray River has experienced its ten driest years in the past century since 2000. As the drought took its toll economically, socially, and environmentally, urgent measures were required to address the crisis. The rate at which water was being pumped from the Basin was unsustainable. The growing of water-guzzling cotton, almond, and rice crops on an industrial scale, resulted in massive shortages of water downstream to the point where the mouth of the Murray River had to be dredged to avoid it drying up. Adelaide’s water supply was threatened, and some towns were left without drinking water.

The Water Act established the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) to develop an integrated plan for the sustainable use of the Basin’s water resources. Under the influence of irrigation lobbyists, the MDBA watered down its original plan for the return of water to the Northern Basin thus permitting over-extraction of water. It failed to act on illegal syphoning off of water. State governments (Qld, Vic, SA) issue water entitlements annually, but the actual allocation is a percentage of that entitlement, depending on the amount of water available. Allocations can be bought and sold, with the price depending on the scarcity. The commodification and trading of water has become big business driven by profit-making. The needs of rural and regional communities, Indigenous people, and farmers are overlooked.

The Murray Darling Basin on which so much life and so many livelihoods are dependent cannot be saved without cooperation between the states and planning in consultation with affected communities. This should include the conversion of almond, rice, and cotton to climate appropriate crops.

For a sanitised official explanation of how water is allocated see

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More