Prior to assuming his current position as assistant minister for education, the then-assistant environment minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, was voluble in lauding the introduction of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDB), which he hailed as benefiting the nation and its main river system. Sadly, the truth is otherwise. In his determination to squander hard-won and invaluable water resources, Birmingham has the dubious distinction of sharing the responsibility for the first and most insidious man-made drought in Australia’s food bowl.
This is a drought that is costing billions in lost production and destroying aquatic habitat established for nearly a century. As a result, regional towns are dying, environmental gains are under assault and Australia will be unable to fully exploit the great opportunities afforded by the China Free Trade Deal. The tragedy is that this drought has been caused by the very policy that the Birmingham fostered and applauded, most notably with his private member bill, The Water Amendment (Saving the Goulburn and Murray Rivers) Bill 2008. Today, the destruction of of rural communities and abrogation of good sense goes by the name of the MDB Plan and associated state water-sharing agreements.
These plans have created a drought that is destroying all that my family and hundreds of other families have diligently achieved in developing the food bowl of Australia. It is also destroying pristine aquatic habitat.
The explorers Oxley and Sturt both dismissed what is today the most productive farmland in the country as a useless wasteland, the latter describing it as “dry treeless plains unsuitable for habitation.” Those who settled here proved them wrong, building productive farms, thriving towns and businesses. Our people established schools and hospitals, plus the sporting, social and cultural organisations that can grow only in the fertile soil of strong, adaptive and productive communities — communities that neither needed nor asked for assistance. We were and remain proud of what was achieved, not least that the entire nation has benefited from generations of toil and endeavour.
What the architects of the MDB plan don’t appreciate is that the biggest beneficiary of our actions was the environment itself.
We transformed those “dry treeless plains” into tree-lined paddocks meeting Australia’s needs for food and fibre. Others developed the processing, packing and transport operations that fill supermarket shelves. True, our first attempts were not always the best, but we learnt and adapted and in the last forty years our irrigated farming enterprises have operated as examples of world’s best practice.
The rice industry of the Riverina has for many years been the most productive and efficient in the world. More than that, it has created sanctuaries for aquatic flora and native fauna, plus a few species that fly here from thousands of miles away. Those rice paddies represent the biggest frog-breeding area in southern Australia, hence the abundance of wading birds that make these fields their homes.
We established on those dry treeless plains an environment that benefited both man and critter, each prospering as a result. Now the MDB Plan is driving us under. Man and bird will both leave as a result. Today, in those once vibrant communities there is despair as the very essence of their enterprise dries up. Proud people have been stripped of the hope in a bright future that sustained their forebears. Water, the life blood of our communities, is being flushed down the river in the mistaken belief, lauded by the likes of Birmingham, that this helps the environment. It does nothing of the kind. Rather, the community’s adaptive resilience has been jaundiced by a plan based on lies and false premises — a plan that is doing the opposite of what its advocates claim. Their vision is as narrow and inflexible as it is unworkable.
In justifying the MDB Plan it was claimed, falsely, that our rivers were dying. What we witnessed was a bad drought and, in stark contrast to the Federation Drought of a century earlier, our practical control of rivers kept them flowing right through the latest long dry. It was further said that our river water was over-allocated, that irrigators were “sucking the rivers dry”. They were not and never did, because we have always balanced irrigation extractions to suit availability. That flexibility is removed by the MDB Plan.
Hence the unnecessary man-made drought, caused by the political response to those false claims that have denied farmers the water we need — denied us even when there is abundance in the ever-changing system. It has been asserted, for example, that water conservation and irrigation decreased the number of floods in the rivers of the MDB, and this was the boldest lie of all. Flood records clearly show we have had more floods since we controlled our rivers with dams than in the recorded period prior.
These and other falsities were bundled into the oft-spouted cliché that “we must give water back to the environment.” Politicians from both sides, men and women with no practical experience and horizons limited to the next election, had little interest in learning from those who know. Their shared priority was simply to be seen as responding to hype disseminated by media outlets afflicted with an even greater ignorance than their own.
This political acquiescence seemed to assume that a fabled and near-mystical “environment” was some Garden of Eden that existed somewhere further down the Murray. It was lazy thinking and it completely missed the fact that farmers’ fields are a vital part of the real and thriving environment. Take rice paddies, for instance, which are ideal habitat for aquatic species. Prior to water conservation, all of the MDB wetlands, including the rivers, spent long periods bone dry. The view enshrined in the MDB Plan fails to recognise that our productive and permanent wetlands are the result of the very water-conservation structures we built to irrigate the same dry plains which so appalled the first explorers.
What we face is the rapid degradation of the habitat that has blessed both man and his companions in nature. Very soon, were Oxley and Sturt to return, they would find things not much different from the terrain they thought so bare and useless.
Ron Pike is a water consultant and third-generation irrigation farmer