The ‘Independent Assessment of Social and Economic Conditions in the Basin’ panel has provided the Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia Hon. Keith Pitt with their final socio-economic report on April 30 – we expect the report will be made public shortly. This backgrounder is a summary of Environment Victoria’s response to the current draft version of the report.
Last June, an Independent Panel was established to assess the social and economic conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin. They were tasked with understanding drivers of change and pathways for communities to move forward.
With fast-paced restructuring of regional economies, we are now in a critical moment when we should be identifying priorities for the future. How do we build resilient communities in the Basin? What jobs need to be in place? How do we ensure that our unique freshwater ecosystems have the best chance of surviving and adapting to climate change?
Unfortunately, the panel makes water recovery through the Basin Plan a scapegoat for recent socio-economic challenges. They should be putting politicians up to the task of re-thinking how to support regional towns in a drier future.
The Basin Plan is still the best vehicle to improve the condition of rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin – the plan itself is not the cause of rural decline.
The Socio-Economic Panel commissioned to put together this report needs to go back to the drawing board and address the real causes of rural decline, rather than scaling back water recovery.
The Panel brings into question the value of water recovery through the Basin Plan because of the marginal benefits to recreation and tourism seen to date. However, the value of water recovery takes time to mature and this was not adequately accounted for in the Panel’s findings.
The Panel also failed to see ecological benefits flowing from the water recovery, recommending the collection of additional evidence. However, these benefits are well documented — the MDBA has produced report cards showing the gradual improvements of sites receiving environmental water.
Properly accounting for the benefits of water recovery calls for either long-term modelling of benefits or a comparison to what would have happened under conditions of no-intervention. The health of the river system still faces a future of decline, but without intervention it faced a death spiral.
The economic value of recreation and tourism are not reasonable measures for the value of a working river.
The panel considers business potential most-directly linked to river restoration against revenue generated from squeezing the last drops of economic production out of the river. Unhealthy rivers cannot sustain and support agricultural production. Healthy rivers provide broader economic benefits.
The Panel was tasked with teasing out the impacts of water reforms – including the Basin Plan and structural economic changes. In our view it struggled to do so and therefore misses the big picture.
The ongoing failure to tease apart the driving causes of rural decline, including the worsening impacts of drought and climate change, continues to obstruct any possibility of progress in the Basin. The Garnaut Review predicted that irrigated agricultural output is expected to decrease by half by 2050 and 92 percent by 2100 as a result of climate change. Some irrigators will be forced to adapt or leave the industry.
There should be government support through that transition and there should be other industries ready to support impacted workers. Programs should be designed to bolster diverse new industries with significantly lower water demands. We must build economies that can better withstand a drier future.
The Panel recommends slowing the pace of water recovery. This is unacceptable. We need more water flowing down our rivers, over our floodplains and into our wetlands.
If we slow the pace of water recovery, we’re left without options. Inflows will continue to decline due to climate change. Farmers exposed to international competition will continue to hurt. We are stepping toward a future where water and land are leveraged for cheaper food and market demand, completely disregarding the interests of local river communities in the process.
The longer drought goes on, the harder it gets to recover this water from irrigators. If we start now, the money can help farmers pay off debt. It can act as a stimulus, bringing money and a thriving river to struggling communities.
The Panel recommends relaxing constraints on the flow of water. This is good, but they are only focused on irrigation water delivery. Including environmental water delivery is a critical part of the Basin Plan. The Panel also uses the states’ failure to get the job done to support a natural flow as an argument for perpetually prolonging deadlines — recommending timing “further water recovery to match the capacity to deliver water to where needed.”
States are already several years behind schedule addressing capacity for water delivery and nearly one year behind baseline water recovery requirements. At best, the Panel is ignoring these timelines — at worst, it is stalling a vital part of the river’s recovery.
The Murray-Darling Basin is suffering from fatigue and misdirection. This Panel was tasked with critical work to help, disentangling the different drivers of change in Basin communities — separating the effects of drought, water reform and the Basin Plan.
There is another story. Basin communities are experiencing severe drought in a drying climate. The river needs to keep more of its water to survive. We need a strategy to help rural communities that are already hurting, carrying the weight of this change.