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Water politics and faith « Previous | |Next »
August 13, 2003


Despite the recent rains the Murray's mouth remains closed. The river is not a river. It is a series of irrigator pools. And while the dredging of the mouth continues, little action is being take on keeping 20% of the flow in the Murray-Darling in the river. It's a tough one.

Let us pick up on a previous debate with John Quiggin. Water politics is not about whether pre-modern or modern societies are more sustainable. It is about the way we in modern Australia have given priority to wealth creation at the expense of protecting the environment.

The use of science and technology to reshape nature to make our deserts bloom has given rise to the current situation where there is not enough water to satisfy both the needs of farmers and to ensure the ecological health of the environment. It is not just a question of shortage of water--the starting point for neo-classical economics---as there has also been a huge mismanagment of our natural resources. So why the mismangement?

Some say it was due to ignorance and that we know better now. But that is contestable. The policy makers had enough knowledge about the environmental impacts of the Snowy Mountain Hydro-electric Scheme, but they thought that science could fix the problems. They had a big faith in science and the technical fix to solving problems. This faith in Enlightenment progress covered over a flawed Baconian Enlightenment. The old utilitarian conception of developmentalism had no understanding of the ecological limits of the Basin. Nor is nature akin to a piece of plastic that can be moulded by the human will in any way that is desired. Nature, or the ecology of the Basin, has its own dynamic and tendencies, as we are now discovering with dryland salinity.

Peter Cullen, the public face of the Wentworth Group, talks about getting the policy framework right. If we do---he means creating an open market where landownership and water allocation are separate issues---then agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin could double on half the water used now. It's an entoxicating vision. As a knowledge broker he has the ear of governments. They accept his way forward. He is very persuasive.

Those old agrarian socialists, The National Party of Australia, has embraced the free market. Buy water, sell it, do want you want with it. You can make money from it. The new message is: the days of command and control, of governments telling farmers what they can and cannot do, have are gone. That's history. Let the marketplace decide how our rivers run. When you hear them speak in Canberra you can be forgiven for thinking that they have got religion.

Farmers are worried. They hear this message about the free market sorting out what farmers can and cannot do through the price mechanism. The farmers think about it and ask: what if all the water from a particular region is traded away? Do the people in the region then pack up and go and live in Sydney? Aah, say the free marketeers. Our farmers are now more efficient in the use of water. That is good for the economy. And good for the environment. But how that will be so is rarely made clear. No worries. What you need is faith. Faith in market forces to sort things out for us.

There is so much faith amongst the economic enlighteners. But it is not a case of keeping the government out of the way to let the spontaneous market work its wonders. The old command and control bit refers to the government impeding the production of wealth and causign impoverishment. That overlooks the little problem of how the state intevenes to achieve environmental flows that is so crucial to the health of our rivers. The National Farmers Federation (NFF) and the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) have come up with some principles for a strategic policy framework. And the Wentworth Group has just released a Blueprint for Water Reform. The iron cage of liberty beckons.

If water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin continues in terms of ever more plans that may be implemented at a CoaG meeting, then the level of public debate is low. Two examples will suffice. There is an article in The Advertiser about water politics called Water Raids Across Border. Written by Catherine Hockley, it refers to the effect of water trading on South Australia. Hockley reports:

"Irrigator Tony Sawers, who also owns a Flinders Ranges station, has bought six farms near Jervois with water allocations totalling up to 3000 megalitres. He is already destocking the land of dairy cattle in the hope of temporarily transferring water this season to irrigate more high-value crops on hisproperties in the drought-stricken Goulburn system, in northern Victoria."

Fair enough. South Australian winemakers have been buying interstate water for their vineyards. This is a shift from low value users (dairy farmers) to high value ones. It is what the market does best. So why should the unmetered Lower Murray dairy farmers on the reclaimed swamps between Mannum and Wellington be exempt from this water trading?

Hockley takes a different stance. She says:

"It means that a vital water flow for the struggling upper South Australian reaches of the River Murray will not enter the state."

Now she cannot be referring to environmental flows as there are none. Nor can she mean that the irrigators in the Riverland will go without water as they have their own allocations, and the sale water had been already allocated. It is not free. This can only mean that Hockley thinks that allocated water flowing down the river to the Lower Murray Swamps is akin to an "environmental flow" until it reaches the lower Murray Swamps.

I presume what Hockley means is that it is better to have more, rather than less, water flowing down the river into South Australia. Yes, but that it is parochial whingeing. Why don't South Australian's start addressing ways to increase environmental flows for the River Murray through recoverying water from within their boundaries? Why don't they start getting serious.

The Lower Murray Dairy farmers are very vulnerable in the marketplace. They do need to clean up their act: they are very inefficient in their use of water; do not prevent pollution from the farms flowing back into the river; and their farms are need for rehabilitation. They are in the process of being rationalised as farmers sell off water allocations and properties. So they are vulnerable to being bought out by the more entrepreneurial interstate irrigators.

If South Australians do not like this, then an opportunity exists for the SA government to buy out the water allocations of Lower Murray dairy farmers for environmental flows. Then we can have water trading within environmental limits. But don't hold your breath for the Rann Government to intervene in such a way. They continually evade any action within their territory.

Going beyond media events and grandstanding means taking on SA Water to prevent them from buying up the farms in the lower Murray swamps and then onselling the water for profit. The Rann Government should direct SA Water to put that water in a water trust to help restore environmental flows for the Murray. They will avoid it making any moves under the cover of saying that environmental flows are a national problem in need of a national solution.

Another illustration of the low quality of public debate is the intervention by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) with the claim by Dr. Jennifer Marohasy of their Environmental Unit that the Murray River is doing just fine. Who are they trying to kid, when even the Howard Government understands that salinity is a bread and butter issue.

Marohasy's argument is that salinity levels at Morgan are decreasing. That's true---it is diue to the success of Salinity and Drainage Strategy. What Marohasy fails to address is the threat of dryland salinity that is rendering widening areas of land unusable, the lack of river flow, the near extinction of various aquatic species from pollution, erosion and reduced water flows. Nothing is said about our highly subsidised and unsustainable farming practices. These are subsidised by cash for droughts, floods and poor markets. Unsustainable because of the acceptance of high levels of degradation to our groundwater, rivers, wetlands, esturaries and coastal waters.

So on whose behalf is the IPA firing the salvoes in the water wars with the gloom and doom environmentalists? The think tank is getting money for the environmental project but they are turning out such poor work that their ideas won't spread much. The faith in think tanks by those funding this IPA project is misplaced. They may get the headlines but that old developmentalism is well and truely dead, even when it wears the new market clothes.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 5:25 PM | | Comments (4) | TrackBacks (1)

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Good blog Gary. I can't get out of my mind that there's a common thread in my wanderings around the blogosphere. Maybe that'Third Way' that's been talked about. For me it's a powerful notion that 'The Price is Wrong'.


I agree that price has a lot to do with it the mess. The cost of water delivery to irrigators has been subsidised for the sake of development. And the price of water does not include the environmental damage.

However, I do not see full cost pricing coming in, for all the tough market talk at CoAG. The state wil pick up the tag for the repair bill, and so it will continue to subsidize Australian agriculture.

i love watermelons buit they dont grow in yo mummas backyard. please do something about this i do love them \and i do weant to spend the rest of ma life with them. cya bitch weener

hey does ne 1 no a site that has everything bout the history of salinity in the murray river? plz email im in desperate help