By Megan Williams ‒ River Country campaign coordinator
The Murray Darling Basin Plan costing $13 billion is the largest, most expensive environmental policy in Australia's history. The implementation of a nationwide plan recognised that the health of the Murray Darling Basin ‒ our largest river system, was in serious decline.
Too much river water was being consumed because the rivers had been over-allocated and it was having impacts. Indigenous culture, native animals, forests and wetlands were threatened and if nothing was done the livelihoods of the two million people that call the basin home were at risk. The nation accepted that drastic action was required, and in 2012 the basin plan became law.
The agreement was to return up to 3,200 billion litres of water to the river and natural environment, even though the best science of the day recommended a minimum of 4,000 billion litres. It was a compromise on behalf of the environment to protect the economic interests in the basin. To this day, the Murray Darling Basin Authority claims 2,106 billion litres has been returned to the environment each year, half of what is required to revive the river to what it once was.
Since then the plan has come under scrutiny from all sides. We've all heard about water theft and corruption in the north, and the true effect of water-saving projects on farms remain in question. What is clear is that rivers are still sick, algal blooms are increasing in frequency and severity, bird numbers at the Murray Mouth are dropping fast and the Darling has been reduced to an intermittent trickle.
Despite this, the federal government and basin states have been pushing through changes to the Murray Darling Basin Plan this year. Without scientific evidence they have approved new developments to be built in forests and wetlands, to provide less water to flood these areas and use more water for irrigation. Meanwhile investigations into corruption are still ongoing, the federal government has attempted to stop the South Australia Royal Commission from calling witnesses and the NSW government is watering down laws that were supposed to crack down on water thieves.
Somewhere along the way we've forgotten that the Basin Plan was created because fresh running water is vital for all life. Poor governance and human actions were threatening the long-term survival of communities on the river and we needed change our behaviours to return balance.
Communities are rightfully livid. Across the basin, action groups are fighting to save the Darling and Menindee lakes in NSW, and we are gearing up with communities in Victoria because it's clear that corruption is stifling progress, while the federal government protects its mates in big business.
Now, where have we heard that before?
FoE's River Country collective meets 6pm Wednesdays at Friends of the Earth, 312 Smith St Collingwood. Contact: [email protected]
Published in Chain Reaction #133, September 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/cr133