Jan 21, 2014

It’s the water market, Darling: what’s behind the MDB sell-off

The government wants to sell its environmental water in the Murray-Darling Basin to cotton farmers. Is this dodgy, or is it market economics to make Adam Smith proud?

Cathy Alexander — Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

The government is spending billions buying water from farmers to help the Murray-Darling Basin’s long-suffering environment. So when the government starts to sell water from the environment back to farmers (and cotton farmers, at that), alarm bells ring out.


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8 thoughts on “It’s the water market, Darling: what’s behind the MDB sell-off

  1. Venise Alstergren

    CATHY ALEXANDER: I am sorry to be negative, but years of watching the tortuous lies, half-truths and lining their own pockets prevent me from believing this MDB plan of the Coalition is devoid of trickery.

    (The above is not to suggest the Labor Party to be a bunch of roses.)

  2. AR

    Is “a trend to water down the Murray-Darling rescue plan. meant to be a pun? Or just the banality of modern writing which can’t distinguish a cliche from a metaphor from an absurdity?
    BTW, it is NOT “the government’s water
    As for cotton “ a notoriously thirsty crop, the idiocy of competing on the world market (it ain’t required domestically – too expensive…sic!)with the Mississippi & Nile irrigated mass growers is…errr …insane, it would as dumb as trying to grow rice and export it to Asia…oh, wait.
    Lake Alexandrina had been saline/brackish for millenia and Sturt et al reported that the Darling was often salty, for obvious reasons.

  3. Cathy Alexander

    AR, it was a cliche deliberately used to see if you were paying attention, which you were.

    Why Australia grows cotton at all would be a good story in itself – and how much we grow. But what’s the problem in growing it just in flood years? It’s an annual crop …

  4. AR

    Cathy – although cotton is an annual, unfortunately it is so hungry and sensitive a crop that the inputs of fertiliser, pesticide & herbicide pollute the soil thereafter, not to mention the nasty associated weeds & pest (don’t wanna break into a blues number ’bout ole boll weevil but ..).
    About the only other crop which leaves the soil in so wrecked a state is tobacco which we also grow, with subsidy. It is so crappy that the only consumers used to be prisons & the military rations.

  5. Venise Alstergren

    The ease with which our farmers plant eco unfriendly crops is breathtaking. Cotton being a prime example and rice in all but the most northern parts of Australia is willfully misusing
    our water.

    I have a horrible feeling we grow tobacco as well. Can anyone verify this?

  6. AR

    VA – see mine above, and
    Tobacco growing commenced during Australia’s early years of settlement. Governor Macquarie experimented with plantings at Emu Plains in New South Wales in 1818, and by the 1820s tobacco was cultivated by farmers in the Hunter Valley. During the 1850s growing extended to Victoria and Queensland. It is likely that some proportion of the early crop was intended to supply the colony with the makings of pesticide for use in ridding sheep of parasites.6 Growing reached its peak in the early 1970s, when nearly 16 000 tonnes of leaf were sold annually,7 but by 2006 the crop yielded under 4000 tonnes.8 Prior to deregulation of the market, most Australian leaf was purchased by local manufacturers.9
    Major influences contributing to the downturn in local tobacco growing include declining tobacco consumption in the Australian population, and successive reductions in the protective tariff on Australian leaf during the 1990s, which permitted manufacturers to purchase leaf more cheaply on the international market (see below).9 This lead to an increase in diversion of Australian leaf into the illegal tobacco trade9 (see also Chapter 10, Section 10.9).
    Commercial tobacco farming no longer occurs in Australia. The industry began to wind down during the mid-1990s, with successive announcements at state and federal level for government-financed restructuring grants (exit grants) to tobacco farmers to assist them in leaving the industry (see below).The Tobacco Research and Development Corporation was abolished in 2003.21
    The last sales contracts in Northern Queensland were filled in early 2004,22 and in Victoria and southern Queensland a majority of growers voted in support of a federal government and industry-funded buyout of the leaf growing industry announced in October 2006. All outstanding sales transactions were expected to be completed in 2009.23

  7. Venise Alstergren

    AR: Thank you for answering my question and I am sorry I failed to pick up the part where you mentioned tobacco.
    It’s hard to believe how our rural population happily ignore any long term potential for harm. FFS when planting a water hungry crop in land that is semi desert is outright lunacy.

    Thanks again for answering my question.

  8. Andrew MARTIN

    The link to the paper by Quentin Grafton doesn’t work – Any chance of getting the real link?
    By the way, though the media and public like to say that cotton is ‘notoriously’ water intensive it is in general, no more so than wheat, rice or other crops grown in the same soil and climate (that’s called the Penman Equation). What is different is that many cotton farmers use inappropriate irrigation techniques (probably suggested by the American companies when they introduced cotton in the 60s) and high rates of fertiliser and pesticide use and soil depletion are problems with cotton as they are/were with tobacco.

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