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We have a Murray-Darling basin plan but is it a plan for the future?

By Diane Bell - posted Thursday, 21 March 2013


The Australian Parliament is poised to commit the nation to a Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Most will sigh with relief: no more bickering or book burning. It has been an exhausting process. Others will sigh with disappointment: the process was flawed; we could have achieved so much more. Still others will dismiss the Basin Plan as a fool's errand, as locking in failure.

The Water Act passed with bi-partisan support in 2007, was heralded as a new beginning: we would return the river to sustainability. With collaborative co-operation of the states, best science, and knowledge of the disastrous outcomes of past practice, we could forge a new future, a new relationship with the Murray-Darling Basin system.

Some of this has come to fruition. In its final form the Basin Plan reflects the work of many diverse groups, and many a compromise. South Australians are to be congratulated for finding common ground and turning the national spotlight on the needs of those at the end of the system. The two million tonnes of salt generated by the Murray-Darling system each year must be flushed out to sea through the Murray Mouth. It needs to be open.

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The health of Lakes Alexandrina and Albert and the Coorong are our "canary down the mine". We have seen the disastrous consequences of low flows. Will the current plan deliver sufficient water? What happens if the Murray Mouth closes over again?

It's only one of many questions left unanswered by the final plan. Can we be confident that the current plan will deliver all that is promised, planned and asserted?

The plan does not click in until 2019. Between now and then we will have had further droughts, flooding rains, and who knows how many federal governments.

The plan fails to address in a scientifically rigorous manner the critical issues raised over and over again by scientists, Indigenous peoples, and community groups - climate change, over-allocation of ground water, real-time monitoring and capacity to respond.

The final plan is a compromise. It is a political solution, and it needs to be given that water is a state matter but what has been 'compromised'?

The discourse of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Minister for the Environment has consistently emphasised "balance". But in whose interests is this balance struck? At the table of competing interests who speaks for the environment?

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In the "balance" that has been brokered, some parties had a stronger voice than others. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists walked away from the Basin Plan because it is not supported by best science. The Environmental Defenders Office has critiqued the plan as inconsistent with the requirements of the Water Act.

But the Murray-Darling Basin Authority ploughed on. Those who would not "negotiate" were cast as unreasonable, ego-driven, naïve. Science was politicised.

Is this how we want to manage a system that crosses borders, that relies on connectivity? Have we allowed "might" to become "right"?

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About the Author

Diane Bell retired as Professor Emerita of Anthropology at George Washington University in 2005 and returned home to Australia to write but was soon swept up in the struggle to return the MDB to health. Diane has published ten books including Daughters of the Dreaming and Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin and numerous articles. Her current research is amongst the peoples she calls the 'Water Tribe'. Professor Bell is currently Writer and Editor in Residence at Flinders University and Visiting Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide.

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