On Tuesday night I had dinner with two ex-Murray River vegetable farmers (conventional) and two owners of an organic grocery store here in Melbourne, but who grew up on the Murray.

We were debating the night’s SBS Insight program Organic or Not. It was a fascinating episode, involving lots of conventional and organic farmers and researchers, all of whom had vast knowledge on farming techniques and the trouble with farming in Australia’s harsh conditions. It also starred Andre Leu from the Organic Federation of Australia, who I’ve interviewed previously. But as often happens with conventional vs. organic farming, pretty quickly the conversation moved from pesticides to water management and sustainable farming practices, and the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan is a massive issue. As we all know, the Murray is the food basin of Australia and the management of the river is critical to farming — both what we eat and what we export — in Australia and this is the first time an official government document sets out that future. The guide to the draft plan was released last Friday and now the consultations have begun and will continue until mid-November.

Media commentator Margaret Simons wrote a fascinating article last week pleading with journalists and news organisations to treat the issue with the respect it deserves:

This story matters as much as the mining industry, and more than the mining super profits tax. It matters as much as any story about any business, industry or indeed environmental issue.

This is a story about how we exist in this nation. It is about history and the future. It is a landmark moment in our nation’s history.

…Am I wrong in thinking that it is being underplayed merely because the locus of distress is west of Glebe?

Yes, it’s not quite as thrilling as watching Chilean miners emerge after 68 days underground, but it is a big deal. Therefore, I wanted to put together a reading list, for those, like me, who are trying to come up to speed on the issue. If you have any reading recommendations — or can speak from experience — please leave a note in the comments. If you are knowledgeable on the subject and would like to write something for Rooted, please email me at ajamieson[at]crikey.com.au

First off, last week at Rooted we had a nice general overview of the major players and events involved in the Murray Darling Basin Plan. As Jane Vashti Ryan writes:

When the Water Act 2007 came along, so did the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), which plays a central role in this story. The MDBA was given:

“…the functions and powers, including enforcement powers, needed to ensure that Basin water resources are managed in an integrated and sustainable way. The MDBA will oversee water planning considering the Basin as a whole, rather than state by state, for the first time.”

The primary task given to the MDBA was to create a Murray Darling Basin Plan, a plan that would unite pragmatism, good sense, scientific nous and a listening ear, in order to work out a solution to the problems facing the Basin and the farmers living off it.

The guide to the draft Murray Darling Basin Plan (which can be viewed online here) recommends — amongst other things — cuts of between 27-37% for water entitlements.

Consultations are now underway, with one farmer declaring the talks at Deniliquin a “shemozzle” and protesters burning a copy of the guide. The National Farmers’ Federation is declaring “Proposed cuts to water for food production will slash deeper than the Authority is letting on.” Banks are apparently preparing for foreclosures on farms due to the water allocation changes. Emotions are running high.

You can read all the Crikey coverage on the Murray Darling Basin right here.

Bernard Keane in particular covered the Plan fairly extensively this week, with some of the stories only available to subscribers:

Water and the regions: infrastructure isn’t the (whole) answer

But in the absence of magic solutions to the essential problem of who pays for making the MDB sustainable, this is the issue that needs to be explored by policymakers: how best to support regional communities that face a substantial reduction in a key industry input over the long term. The costs can no longer be hidden: if we want to support these communities, what’s the most efficient and effective way of doing it? Infrastructure spending might be a part of the solution, but it’s nothing like the whole story. The water debate needs to be broadened into a debate about regional communities and agriculture — both irrigated and non-irrigated.

But no matter what the outcome, it is deeply unfair to ask regional communities to pay the full cost of fixing this by themselves.

Case study: the ripple effects of water on regional communities

While the problems of the Murray-Darling stretched from Queensland down through NSW, Victoria and into South Australia, the impact of achieving a sustainable river system will be felt most in one single electorate, that of Farrer, which in recent years has progressively been expanded from southern NSW to encompass a vast area stretching up westernmost parts of NSW to the Queensland border. It now includes much of the length of the Darling River, which flows into the electorate from the neighbouring seat of Parkes, and nearly all of the Murray.

I asked the Member for Farrer, Sussan Ley, if she could talk about how the impact of reduced water allocations would be felt in a community in her electorate, to show how interconnected and potentially fragile regional towns were. This is what she told me about the dairy industry, just one of a number of agricultural industries like cereals, citrus, rice and wine on which communities depend…

Some things to bear in mind on the Murray-Darling Basin…

If you hear the words “food security”, reach for your gun. Almost certainly, whoever is using it has an interest to protect or promote, along with the media outlets and journalists who unthinkingly repeat it. As the Productivity Commission has shown, the “food security” line in the water debate is a myth — irrigated agriculture only forms 12% of our agricultural produce, of which we export 60% anyway. Talk about food security is particularly rich coming from Barnaby Joyce, who is in effect the Senator for Cubbie Station. Cubbie sequesters nearly 470 GL of overland flows — much of which would otherwise enter the rivers of northern NSW and the MDB — to produce Australia’s largest crop — not of food of any kind, but of cotton.

Judith Sloan had an interesting article in The Australian this week, discussing the weaknesses of the Commonwealth Water Act, particularly in response to how sustainable diversion limits (SDLs) are specified by the government:

These limits determine the water flows available for the environment, on the one hand, and for irrigation and town use on the other. The objects of the act talk about promoting “the use and management of the basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes”.

But when it comes to the principles guiding the determination of the SDLs, the environment has primacy, with residual flows available for other uses.

In other words, the trade-off framework envisaged in the objects of the act is lost when it comes to the vital task of the MDBA determining the split of water resources between the environment and consumptive uses. Calculated this way, the SDLs over-allocate water to the environment and under-allocate water to irrigators.

Mungo MacCullum offered up an interesting debate in Crikey this week about why the area should be preserved and maintained and sustained. And farming wasn’t the only reason…

Faced with a similar dilemma many years ago, France made what it usually seen as the irrational choice: it used high tariffs and subsidies to prop up the regional lifestyle of its small farmers. The free traders screamed with indignation, but the fact is that the French countryside remains one of the most desirable destinations in the world: the same well-paid economists who insist that they loathe the very basis of its existence, queue to sample the delights of its local cuisine and culture.

The Murray-Darling Basin is not just Australia’s major food bowl, and an important economic resource in its own right; it is also one of the most varied and interesting parts of the country. Restoring it to the environmental paradise of the years before white settlement might be the preferred solution of the extreme greens, but it would involve losses well beyond the immediate disruption of the present generation.

Paul Meyers, founding editor and publisher of OUTBACK magazine and also a former editor of The Land writes in the National Times about food security and protectionism measures:

Production is now the last bastion of predominantly local ownership in the food chain. But with increasing interest by foreign companies – and governments, including China’s – quality farmland is also a target. In short, Australians are in danger of becoming servants, not masters, of their own food resources.

Economist Ross Gittins offering an interesting anaylsis in The Sydney Morning Herald on sustainability:

Apparently, the bureaucrats at the authority have no idea of the devastation they’d cause, wiping out whole river towns and causing horrendous unemployment, while prompting a huge leap in the price of food, ending the nation’s food security and prompting a surge in food imports. Clearly, there is a requirement for commonsense to prevail and for the needs of people, their livelihoods and their communities to be put ahead of worries about the environment.

Just one problem: that dangerous notion, sustainability.

Bruce Haigh — who drip irrigates olives and grapes at Mudgee —writes on the importance of water at Online Opinion:

The management of water resources worldwide should become a priority of the United Nations. Just as we have a United Nations High Commission for Refugees, we should have a United Nations High Commission for Water, engaging in studies and dialogue on best practice and use of water and if necessary bringing pressure to bear on states who abuse the use of water and/or impinge on the rights of neighbouring states through misuse and greed.

The management of water should not be left to markets where the pursuit of profit has water abused, devalued and often powerless with respect to sustainability. Water needs a voice and a value beyond the market. At the moment it comes a very poor second in calculations relating its use – agriculture and industry have the upper hand and water is required to comply.

Brian Ramsey writes in the National Times:

The results of technical analysis may be difficult to grasp, but there needs to be a level of faith from the community in the scientific process. If these findings are as fatally flawed as some claim, it would indeed say something sad about the state of Australian science. It is really the only basis for making informed management decisions from an environmental perspective. However, the science cannot be exact and hence the authority’s proposal to balance environmental imperatives with community and economic needs.

Greg Kelton in the Adelaide Advertiser talks about SA Premier Mike Rann:

Now, the authority appears to have repaid his [Mike Rann’s] devotion to the future of the Murray by giving him the political equivalent of a swift kick in the groin.

Editor of the Weekly Times Ed Gannon writes on the likely job losses:

The Murray Darling Basin Authority has its head in a bucket. How else could it conclude cutting up to 45 per cent of the irrigation water to the basin’s 2.1 million people would lead to 800 job losses? More like 17,000 job losses, farm groups – and logic – say.

The Weekly Times’ editorial is just as cutting of the MDBA:

The Murray Darling Basin Authority’s opening gambit to gain 3000-4000 gigalitres of irrigators’ water for the environment is a joke. The ecological and economic analysis underpinning the guide has been widely described as laughable. Even the Authority admits there’s not much data to back its economic analysis.

As Graham Lloyd writes in The Australian:

The clash of interests between farmers, consumers and conservationists over water rights in the Murray-Darling basin is a microcosm of a much larger global debate now reaching a crescendo over how we should pay to preserve the planet.

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