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The Murray-Darling River: journeys in search of a compelling narrative

By Diane Bell - posted Monday, 9 January 2012

It's a particularly hot Christmas-New Year here in South Australia: time for swimming and summer reading. My daughter is reading aloud from her Kindle. Together we savour Sarah Murgatroyd's meticulously researched and marvelously evocative The Dig Tree: The Story of Burke and Wills (2002). I must have hard copy. I find it in a local Op Shop. I am given Chris Hammer's less entrancing and already out of date travelogue The River: A Journey through the Murray-Darling Basin (2011). I know most of the places and people he visits but am not held by the prose or narrative line. I dip back into Michael Cathcart's The Water Dreamers (2009). This man can tell a story. And, I have already made a start on the some thousand plus perplexing pages of legalese, scientific reviews, political pleadings, hydrological modeling, socio-economic analyses and ecological outcomes concerning the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's (MDBA) Draft Plan posted online at midnight for its 28 November 2011 release.

Eclectic readings? Turns out to be serendipitous. I am reading about journeys and they are crisscrossing each other like the enduring Indigenous narratives of pioneering heroes that reach back across the millennia, stretch across our dry continent, trace the contours of parched river beds, celebrate the coming of the rains, the snow melt and the rising of the oceans. Early explorers' journeys stoically ignored this wisdom and the new comers perished in land that had sustained those who could read the signs. Others appropriated the stories or invisibilised the experts as nameless trackers. Now comes a Draft Plan to manage a 'working river'. It opens with an acknowledgement of 'respect and support' for the philosophy of 'not taking more than one needs' of the Traditional Owners of the MDB, but this is prologue. The main text, the part that will become law, merely speaks of having 'regard' to Indigenous values (s. 7.25) and views (s. 9.58). Is this where we are going with our rivers?

Starting out


'The scientists tell me that I can start the journey,' declared MDBA Chair, Craig Knowles in his YouTube 'Call to Action': a'robust starting point' for an eight year journey to Destination 2019 when the reforms are set to 'clock in'. He invited stakeholders to inspect the 'mountain of science' on the MDB website and explained that half-way review in 2015 was 'hard wired' into the Plan.

One hundred and fifty years earlier, on 20 August 1861, expedition leader, Robert O'Hara Burke, on setting out to cross the continent from south to north declared, 'No expedition has ever started under such favourable circumstances as this' (SM 6). The assembled crowd of politicians, learned men of the Royal Society and Burke's well-connected sponsors, were buoyed by a range of expectations: glory for the newly independent and gold-enriched state of Victoria, the discovery of new species of flora and fauna, pastures and mineral resources, an overland route for the North-South telegraph line, the inland sea.

William John Wills, the all round scientist (astronomer, meteorologist, surveyor) of the expedition, would document their discoveries. Wills' father, a medical doctor, had significant reservations and would have preferred his son not join the expedition (SM 73). Those with local knowledge of Burke as the police superintendent at Castlemaine and Beechworth and of the terrain to be traversed, looked askance as the half a kilometre long procession comprising 19 men, 26 imported camels, 23 horses and 6 wagons with 8 tonnes of rations set forth into the great unknown. The kit was an eccentric and poorly thought out jumble of items reflecting in part the class-based assumptions of what a gentleman needed, an oak and cedar table, a Chinese gong, 12 dandruff brushes. Dehydration beckoned: 12 water bottles and 60 gallons of rum.

'He'll never make it. He's not a bushman,' my father's mother, recalling family folklore, would tell me as I poured over maps that documented a blank continent being transformed patch by patch from the solid black of terra incognita to an inviting bright yellow. Patch by patch, explorer after explorer, the interior was penetrated. Grandma knew the story of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition from members of her family who had been present at the departure from Melbourne's Royal Park in 1861 and her in-laws who had lived in rural Victoria since the late 1830s. They knew Burke as the man who could get got lost going home from the pub (SR).

Science in the balance

'Scientists and trailblazers tend not to mix', says Murgatroyd of the 'muddled objectives' of the Royal Society (88). Burke had little time for men of science and at one point required Wills to jettison much of his equipment to lighten the load. In an act of pseudo-egalitarianism, all members of the party were allocated 15 kilos (SM 110). Wills complied. The scientific credibility of the journey evaporated. Burke recorded a mere 850 words in his diary (SM 173).


In developing the Basin Plan, the Water Act 2007 requires that the Authority and the Minister must 'act on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge and socio-economic analysis'. But, in May 2011, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, whose expertise had been central to the process, walked away from the MDBA. They wanted an independent peer-review of the science. Knowles read their action more as petulance than principle, a power play in a tug of war.

Then, late November 2011, the long awaited MDBA-commissioned Science Review of the Estimation of an EnvironmentallySustainable Level of Take for the Murray-Darling Basin (2011) was released. The review team, with lead author Dr. Bill Young, CSIRO, noted important caveats on the comprehensiveness of their work: documentation was incomplete and specific modeling results were not available for consideration (1). Further limitations included consideration of the social and economic dimensions of ESLT [EnvironmentallySustainable Level of Take] being outside the terms of reference of the review (2) and;the method for determining KEF [Key eco-system functions] not being 'fully defensible because the KEF classification is scientifically weak, the links between KEF and hydrologic variability are poorly described and there is a lack of scientific evidence to justify the hydrologic targets adopted' (3). A robust starting point?

Critiques of the scientific basis of the Draft proliferate and calls for a further independent and comprehensive review constitute considerable roadblocks for the Draft Plan that purports to follow a track constructed by 'best available scientific knowledge'. My reading of and reflecting on this material will extend beyond summer but here we are in week 5 of the 20 week consultation period. A course correction is possible but I am left wondering: Is science possible in this highly politicised context? The Review Team is clear that many of their finding reflect policy decisions.

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This is a review of The Dig Tree: The Story of Burke and Wills (2002) and "The Proposed Plan" for the Murray Darling Basin.

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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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