The Murray-Darling Basin is a mighty system of rivers, lakes and wetlands, covering a large part of south-eastern Australia. It’s home to globally important wetlands, majestic river red gum forests and nearly 100 different species of waterbirds.
People depend on the health of the river system too. More than two million people live in the Basin, including 40 different First Nations, and they rely on this river water for drinking, farming, fishing and swimming.
But after years of mismanagement, the Murray-Darling Basin is on the brink of ecological collapse. In the last decade we’ve seen dry riverbeds, toxic algae blooms and massive fish kills.
The river system is complex, but the core problem is simple – people have been taking too much water from the river, which doesn’t leave enough to sustain the wildlife and wetlands that also need a decent drink.
The Murray Darling Basin Plan was supposed to fix this. Back in 2007, Prime Minister John Howard’s vision was for “radical and permanent change” to the way our biggest river system was managed.
Howard said the Basin Plan would address over-allocation of water “once and for all”. It would reduce how much water could be taken from the river, leaving enough for the wetlands, forests, birds, fish and frogs to survive.
But having a plan is one thing, and following through on it is another. Right from the start, a handful of powerful corporate interests and their cashed-up lobbyists have lobbied governments to undermine the Plan and rig the rules in their favour.
With every political sell-out and backroom deal, the vision behind the Basin Plan has been bastardised:
The list goes on, each political deal undermining the whole point – to reduce how much water is taken from the river.
After years of this, we’re in a situation that benefits a chosen few. Water is going to the people with the most money or the best connections, leaving the community and environment to suffer.
While a lot of recent attention has focused on the northern Basin, the rivers of southern NSW and northern Victoria are suffering too. The historic overallocation of major rivers like the Murrumbidgee, Lachlan, Goulburn, Campaspe, Loddon and Murray has never been fully addressed – which means an unsustainable amount of water is still diverted to irrigation, leaving nowhere near enough for a healthy river ecosystem.
Plus when the Darling River doesn’t flow, that puts more pressure on the Murray River to meet downstream demands, supplying water to large irrigators around Mildura while making sure South Australia gets the water it needs.
As a result, some Victorian rivers that feed into the Murray have been treated like irrigation channels. Huge volumes of water have been pushed down the Goulburn River to the Murray, eroding riverbanks to the point of collapse, destroying critical fish habitat and damaging important Indigenous cultural sites. In recent years, we’ve been able to secure stronger limits on these destructive flows for the first time. But we will keep pushing for greater protection.
Australia has a highly variable climate, and wetter years can bring some welcome relief. River red gums drink deeply, wetlands are replenished and waterbirds raise clutches of chicks. But unless we fix the core problems with water management in the Murray-Darling Basin, these wetter years won’t be enough to keep the river system alive.
After all, nothing can survive on a decent drink once every twenty years.
On top of all this, there’s climate change. A hotter, drier climate means less water is flowing into the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin.
As a result, competition for water is only going to get worse. If a handful of rogue irrigators lobby to continue taking more than their fair share, but the overall amount of water in the river system decreases, that leaves even less for the environment.
If we do nothing, regional communities could face a frightening future. A few large players would own most of the water, leaving everyone else with sick rivers and too little water to go around.
But if we act now we can secure a better future for the Basin. A future with thriving regional communities that have diverse industries providing good jobs. A future where rivers and wetlands are brimming with life, and First Nations have the right to protect, manage and own water on their traditional Country.
We can revive our rivers and communities, and it starts with going back to first principles – reducing the unsustainable amount of water taken from our rivers.
A healthy river benefits everyone. If we take care of the river, the river takes care of us.
While the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been compromised from the beginning, it’s still the best framework we’ve got. That’s why it’s in everyone’s interests to see a much better version of the Basin Plan succeed.
The Basin Plan will be reviewed in 2024, and we’re calling on governments to listen to the science and deliver the Plan as it was intended. No more excuses. No more backroom deals or special treatment. And no more delay.
We can do that in four key ways:
River ecosystems cannot simply be re-engineered to survive on less water. It is critical that the Federal government shifts focus, pushing the states to remove the physical and regulatory constraints that prevent environmental flows from reaching key wetlands. This is essential for delivering ecological outcomes and nearly 10 times cheaper than scientifically dubious wetland engineering proposals.
Ensuring survival of the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin is the fundamental purpose of the Water Act. The Basin Plan needs to achieve this goal otherwise we are back to square one. But the Basin Plan was never going to be enough on its own. It needs to be paired with additional investment in regional communities through policies that are designed and led by locals. The government’s own socio-economic reporting indicates that river recovery and supporting jobs and incomes in the Basin are more efficiently and equitably addressed through separate, complementary policies.
The 2019 targets for water recovery have not yet been met, and the Basin Plan is not on track to recover the full 3200 gigalitres for the environment. There is no evidence that the Federal government’s current approach of using off-farm efficiency projects can deliver more than 15% of this already inadequate target. Buying water back from willing sellers is the most efficient and cost-effective option available.
The entire Murray-Darling is First Nations Country and First Nations people make up 5% of the Basin population. Yet they own just 0.2% of the water. The more than 40 First Nations of the basin demand the right to protect, manage and own water resources in order to heal Country and people. After decades of water reform the time for token gestures has long past. Governments must sit down and negotiate real water justice with each First Nation.