Blog | 19th Apr, 2011

FACT: For a healthy economy we need a healthy river.

It was the Danish Worker’s Union that first coined the term “No Jobs on a Dead Planet”. Now it is used by environmentalists, unionists, writers and businesses the world over.

Victorians will remember the Lonsdale Street tower that until 2007 stood sentinel towards the west end of town, emblazoned with the words “No Jobs On A Dead Planet.”

In the Murray-Darling debate, the jobs and economy dispute is in full swing in some quarters.

There’s the usual hyperbole and potential inflation of jobs losses.

There’s also the usual insufficient investment in viable economic alternatives. Not to mention a failure, to date, to properly quantify and value the bounteous benefits delivered to us by ecosystem services – those ecological processes that provide us with clean air and water, pest control, healthy soils, carbon storage and more.

Up In Arms

On the eve of the Guide’s release last October, irrigator lobby groups were already up in arms. The National Irrigators Council claimed that reducing irrigators’ water entitlements by a third or so would devastate rural communities – water cuts would be a “dagger to the heart”.

Nationals’ Leader in the Senate Barnaby Joyce added fuel to the fire by claiming that reductions in water allocations (of any shape or size it would seem) “would bring immense economic hardship and social dislocation to many towns”.

After the hoo-haa at Griffith and Deniliquin last year, economist Quentin Grafton said that in fact, the social and economic impacts of returning water to the environment will be modest and manageable.

Commenting in Crikey, ACF Healthy Rivers campaigner Arlene Harriss-Buchan hit the nail on the head: “[w]ild claims of 10,000 jobs being lost through even a modest increase in environmental flows are unrealistic and unsupported by recent history. We have not heard enough from dry-land farmers, tourist operators, graziers, fishers and others who need a healthy flow of water in the Murray-Darling to survive.”


Indeed it’s a diversity of economic opportunities that builds resilience in communities.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority acknowledged as much in the Guide to the Plan, pointing out that “[t]hose regions with a relatively high dependence on irrigated agriculture would be expected to experience a larger reduction in economic activity compared to regions with more diverse economic activities.”1

To grapple properly with the real costs of a dead river – and associated job implications – one needs also to recognise the benefits provided by a functioning riverine ecosystem, in a dollar value, if needs be.

The MDBA is yet to quantify and input the economic contribution of a healthy environment.

We’ve heard so much about the supposed costs (and job losses) of restoring the Basin to health, and precious little about the benefits to be had of a healthy Murray-Darling. Let alone the risks of not setting scientific limits on how much water can continually be taken from rivers, as opposed to continuing business-as-usual, no matter what the weather – or the environmental cost.

Figuring the jobs

The jury’s still out when it comes to estimating real numbers of jobs that will be ‘lost’ when water is returned to the environment through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The Guide stated that 800 jobs were likely to go. Irrigator lobby groups scoffed and presented a range of higher numbers.

Irrigators and environmentalists alike await the MDBA’s socio-economic study.

Meanwhile, the Australian Bureau of Resource Economics and Sciences estimated that 900 jobs could be lost as a result of the Plan, with 5,000 as a worst case scenario if there is no investment in water saving infrastructure, which is an unlikely outcome.

While commenting that gross income in the Basin fell only slightly during the drought, Professor Grafton also noted that impacts on jobs in the irrigation sector will be mitigated by government assistance.

While an accurate projection of job losses is important, what’s vital is how to plan for the inevitable change – inevitable no matter the final make-up of the Plan. The impacts of reduced inflows and water availability due to climate change will mean the jobs landscape in irrigation districts changes anyway. It’s already changing. And those who are planning for the change are a step ahead.

CSIRO suggests that proper planning for reduction of the irrigation area can actually increase the value of agricultural production as well as providing environmental benefits.

Restoring the environmental health of the Basin’s rivers is the first step to securing a sustainable future for irrigated agriculture in Australia.

Ecosystem Services – worth a lot

A healthy Basin will provide improved direct benefits (like nature based tourism) and indirect benefits – water filtration, water storage, habitat for species that provide valuable services such as pollination and pest predation.

Now I know this might sound like a nice set of latte-sipping words coming from a city-dweller (convenient way to dismiss another’s viewpoint, hey) but these things are really worth taking a look at. They’re worth a lot, and retaining and maintaining these ecosystem services will require folks to look after them. Last year we worked with Victorian irrigation communities to look at opportunities to diversify regional economies.

Research shows that the 16 Ramsar sites in the Murray-Darling Basin provide economic benefits to communities and industry in the Murray-Darling Basin worth around $2.1 billion a year. Wetlands filter and store water and provide habitat for species that in turn, provide free and valuable ecosystem services.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that the rivers, wetlands and floodplains of the Murray-Darling Basin provide $187 billion in ecosystem services annually.

As the international economics of ecosystems and biodiversity (TEEB) study notes, “the cost of sustaining biodiversity and ecosystem services is lower than the cost of allowing biodiversity and ecosystem services to dwindle.”

Through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, we are attempting to grapple with the costs of over one hundred years of dam building, water diversion and the running down of ecosystem services – at great cost to our natural capital.

The least we can do is to properly value ecosystem services. It will then become clear that although returning water to rivers might change which sectors jobs are available in, giving our rivers a fair share of water won’t destroy regional communities. And that in fact, we need these ecosystem services to function well, for there to be any jobs at all.

Returning up to 7,600 billion litres of water to rivers in the Basin is what’s required to avoid an ongoing trade-off of environmental assets and services.

Benefits of inevitable change

Adjustment and employment in other sectors is inevitable. Giving communities the opportunity to re-imagine and engineer their own socio-economic futures in a water- constrained environment is the best place to start.2 The benefits to be had and the jobs created by the restoration of the riverine environment will then become clearer to all stakeholders.

There’re no jobs on a dead planet, and not much chop for irrigation – or fishing, holidaying, bird-watching, grazing, boating or bee-keeping – on a dead river.


Check out our other Murray myth busting blog posts