How to kill a river: the Murray-Darling System

by Binoy Kampmark
Binoy Kampmark was Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Email:

It's looking more than just grim. A vast river system in Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin, seems terminally affected by drought and decades of environmental abuse. Cosmetic measures have been suggested by the Australian authorities dealing with water conservation and extraction. The Federal government has trumpeted the rescue of the system with the cooperation of state governments. But it may well be too late.

The politics of water has helped exacerbate an ecological disaster. State governments bicker about water allocations. Canberra has attempted a take-over of the entire basin, a measure that was vehemently opposed by Victoria in 2007. That opposition only ceased in March this year, when Victoria's Premier John Brumby was happy to accept a federal bribe of a billion dollars to upgrade irrigation facilities.

There is an inordinate amount of chatter as to what to do, but the only thing most of the officials can agree on is the fate of the river: it seems doomed. In 2007, water expert Peter Cullen issued an assessment. 'This crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin has been brought on by the climate change shift and the serious drought we are now seeing, but the fact that we allowed the system to run to empty is another symptom of our failure to manage the waters of the basin in a sustainable way'.

The Murray Darling Basin Commission reported in 2007 that inflows of water to date had been '68 percent of the pervious recorded minimum… observed in 1902'. The federal government, then under Prime Minister John Howard, offered a solution: prayer. In the face of lower water levels, an appeal to the Lord or an assortment of busy rain deities might help some, though it is unlikely to reverse the toxicity that results from the exposure of acid sulfate soils at low water levels.

Other governments have been less pious. Amidst the tangle of state and Federal governments, each is taking action on its own accord. The South Australian government has attempted to preserve river flows by closing off 33 wetlands. The environmental impact of this move has been minimized by winter rains, though relief to such areas as the renown Banrock Station wetlands will be in short supply. The time has come, argue some of the water mandarins, to abandon various 'icon' sites.

Such abandonment is probably inevitable, spurred on by government incompetence. The current Rudd government did not see fit to ask the main scientific agency in Australia, CSIRO, as how best to ease the crisis of South Australia's lower lakes. Water experts Bill Young and Tom Hatton, both well versed with the dynamics of the Basin, were not contacted. An Australian Senate inquiry instead heard that the water data used by Canberra's apparatchiks on the Basin was inaccurate, relying on long-term average conditions rather than current figures.

Solutions are gathering on the shelves in reports and committee minutes. Another water expert has suggested (earlier this month) shrinking the ailing river system, a sort of shock treatment that looks much like bleeding a patient. Mike Young of Adelaide University has suggested sealing off areas of pooled water to preserve main river channels. Evaporative losses, he cites, have become too great. 'We are running the Murray-Darling with half the amount of water we used to have.' But there is nothing in sight about an immediate rescue.

A sustainable Murray-Darling system would need, for instance, a moratorium on extractions of water to assess sustainability levels. The truth is that water, like any scarce yet vital resource, is political. And the politics of water has doomed a river system. Cullen calls this the work of 'interest groups'.

The Murray-Darling's demise will be that of rural Australia. That lifestyle's days are, like the National Party that represents it, already numbered. The failure of this system will put pay to upwards of 50,000 farmers who account for 41 percent of the country's agriculture. Drinking water supplies will be reduced. Electricity shortages are inevitable. The states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia all stand to be affected. In the meantime, Canberra will happily form another Senate commission to deliberate over the impending disaster.

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