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We need a better water plan

By Julian Cribb - posted Monday, 8 October 2012

If Australia's security agencies got wind of a terrorist plot to destroy crucial national infrastructure, eliminate companies and thousands of jobs, cost the Australian public billions of dollars and undermine the health of the community, our governments would - presumably - mobilise our national resources and defence forces to prevent it.

The trouble is the perpetrators in this scenario are Australian governments themselves: federal and state, and of both political complexions. And the scenario is real. As the world grapples with its third food price crisis in four years, our governments and their bureaucracies are steadily dismantling one of Australia's most productive and important industries: the irrigation sector that supplies most of our daily needs for milk, fruit, vegetables, cotton, rice, meat and other foods essential to a healthy diet and living standard.

Irrigation channels that have fed Australians for a century are being bulldozed and farmers' water supplies turned off or sold off for non-food uses. Water prices are soaring. Food industries are contracting, local food companies being sold offshore or shut down, about 100 regional towns are dying and many farmers are quitting agriculture for good. A growing flood of overseas food - grown cheaply in Asia, often using water horribly polluted with industrial poisons, heavy metals and pesticides - now lines the shelves and freezers of our shops and supermarkets.


Not content with this, federal and state governments have also methodically demolished Australia's irrigation science efforts: the irrigation futures and e-water cooperative research centres, the national program for sustainable irrigation, the CSIRO irrigation division and Land & Water Australia have all been wound up, while state irrigation research and extension has been decimated. This will ensure that Australians lack the knowledge we need to grow more food with less water as the climate changes.


It may be that our governments and bureaucracies do not know it takes over 1000 tonnes of water a year to feed an Australian. Or maybe they simply do not care if Australian food prices go through the roof and scarcities erupt as we increase our dependence on imports while the world food supply becomes less secure. But it is hard to find any rational explanation for why this vital sector is being cut down.

In the Olympics of shortsighted decision-making, jeopardising the backbone of the nation's future food security has to be a gold-medal contender. We now rely on overseas suppliers for 30 per cent of our fruit, 20 per cent of our vegetables, three-quarters of our fish - and there is growing economic pressure to shift the dairy industry to China or New Zealand.

Irrigation is worth $9 billion to $11 billion a year at the farm gate and maybe five times that in the shops; along the food chain it helps keep half a million Australians in work. It manages two million hectares and about two-thirds of our available freshwater. It is highly efficient in what it does: turn water into good food and fibre; in the last drought it cut its water use by 43 per cent, while cities cut theirs by just 1 per cent. However, because it consists of a gaggle of regional industries and jurisdictions prone to argue among themselves, it lacks political influence, a national vision, and has no effective voice. This makes it easy meat for government razor gangs, populist politicians and self-seeking bureaucracies.

The northern Victorian federal member for Murray, Sharman Stone, is one who is deeply concerned as spur lines off the main irrigation channels are shut down and channels ploughed in, while local dairy and fruit manufacturers downsize. ''This so-called 'foodbowl modernisation project' was set up to justify piping farm water to Melbourne during the drought.'' Stone says. ''The project was so ill-conceived that a damning state ombudsman's report saw the agency dismantled and the chief executive resign. The project lives on however, now managed by the similarly inept state-owned Goulburn Murray Water Authority, which is on track to 'reduce the infrastructure footprint … by 50 per cent'. This will halve the local irrigation system by 2015.''


At federal level, Stone adds, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is also targeting food producer's water in the Murray Darling Basin, in what she describes as ''a non-scientific raid aimed at pleasing urban green voters''.

Similarly, in Queensland and NSW, farmers in key food-bowl regions like the Liverpool Plains and Darling Downs are up in arms over state governments apparently determined to hand their water resources to coal seam gas, coal and other resource companies in search of a quick profit - potentially trading off centuries of reliable food production for a few years of cheap energy.

Australians need to understand that the real victims of this process are not so much farmers, who can sell their water and land and walk away - though most do not want to. The real victims are the 22 million-plus Australian consumers who will face increasingly erratic and high food prices, sudden shortages and a growing assault on their health due to the offshoring of our food supply. And, of course, the taxpayers who will inevitably be asked to pay billions of dollars to rebuild and restore food production when the penny finally drops, the public gets angry and governments are forced to backtrack.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times on October 5, 2012.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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