Usually rivers provide relief from the searing summer heat, but this year water mismanagement and drought combined to create an outback disaster
— As all of Australia suffered through a brutal heatwave last week, locals in the outback New South Wales towns of Walgett and Lightning Ridge were better prepared than most. Almost every day in summer is 40°C or above here.
Usually, the rivers provide relief: swimming in cool water, fishing for golden perch or Murray cod or seeking the solace of a big sleepy red gum that lines the banks.
But this year there are no rivers. With the mercury in the mid-40s, the Narran, the Namoi and the Barwon – all tributaries of the vast Murray-Darling river system – are dry, or reduced to a series of green, stagnant weir pools. The mighty red gums, roots exposed, are hanging on for dear life. Heritage-protected lakes and wetlands are empty, and with them have gone the breeding grounds of native birds and fish.
Australia has endured a searing summer of drought and extreme heat. Hundreds of feral animals have died of thirst or faced culling as they encroached on properties in search of water. All-time temperature records have been broken in South Australia, with Adelaide reaching 46.°6C, while Melbourne had its hottest day since the catastrophic 2009 bushfires, and more fires swept through Tasmania.
The Murray-Darling basin, which stretches from Queensland, through New South Wales and Victoria before emptying into the Southern Ocean near Adelaide, should be the lifeblood of the continent in such times. But things have gone very wrong on the rivers.
At Menindee, near Broken Hill, thousands of fish were found dead on 6 January, including giant Murray cod up to 40 years old.
Government ministers blamed the drought that set in across eastern Australia from April 2017. The deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, said the environmental disaster was down to the fact it “just hasn’t rained”.
“We are experiencing a very, very dry period of unprecedented proportions,” he said. “And when it rains, it will come down in such torrents people will probably be saying ‘what are we going to do with all the water?’ That’s Australia.”
But the huge fish kill drew the nation’s attention to the wider crisis on the Murray-Darling, which has been the subject of political wrangling between farmers, environmentalists and Indigenous groups for decades.
While irrigation has expanded in some of Australia’s driest regions, the Darling and its tributaries have been reduced to a series of muddy pools. It’s not the first time the Darling has ceased to flow, but the unfolding severe ecological and social consequences have caused Australians to question whether its plan to save the Murray Darling basin from environmental disaster is working.
“We have witnessed a catastrophic failure of Australia’s supposedly world-leading water management system,” Rene Woods, from the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations says.
For decades the states along the river had been handing out water licences to farmers without any thought about what unbridled extraction for farming would mean for the river or downstream states.
By the 1990s, the mouth of Murray at the end of the river system silted up. Salt levels became dangerously high, jeopardising Adelaide’s water supply, as well as internationally recognised wetlands.
Governments were forced to act and in 2007, after years of difficult negotiations, the states and the commonwealth agreed to a plan that would licence water extraction and buy back a share of water for the environment.
This water is owned by the Commonwealth and is released periodically to mimic nature and, in theory, keep the rivers healthy.
But from the outset, the plan owed more to political compromise than science.
“The best available science assembled for the guide to the the Basin Plan said that we needed 3,200GL to 7,600GL for the environment,” said Jamie Pittock, a professor at the Australian National University and a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.
But ultimately only 2,750GL was allocated to the environment. Astoundingly, the plan also failed to take into account climate change, despite scientific reports showing that most of the basin will become hotter and drier.
The Aboriginal nations of the basin have been all but ignored, too.
“In the 1990s, when NSW water reform began, it was really difficult, because we had people say “what have Aboriginal people got to do with water?” They didn’t see that we had a valid place at the table,” Yuwalaraay man Ted Fields says.
Aboriginal people have some say over about a third of the country in the basin, but they hold less than 0.01% of Australia’s water diversions.
Native title rights do not include ownership of natural waters. They can include the use of water for personal, social, domestic and cultural purposes but an entitlement to extract water doesn’t mean there is any water to extract, or that the water is drinkable. Traditional owners are angry at being shut out of the water conversation.
The loss is not just about day-to-day shortages. Gamilaraay and Yuwalaraay elders who have lived on the rivers all their lives say they have never seen conditions as bad as now, and they doubt it can ever be recovered.
“This to me is the ultimate destruction of our culture,” Gamilaraay elder Virginia Robinson says in Walgett.
“All people think about now is there’s no water. Aboriginal people were very close to nature and that’s all unbalanced now. There’s no nature to go back to.”
Buying up water to return to the environment remains deeply unpopular in much of rural Australia because of its impact on farms, rural towns and jobs.
At the same time the creation of a water market, where allocations can be traded, has benefited big agribusinesses who moved into industrial scale production of cotton and other high value crops, as well as water trading.
The Greens and Indigenous groups have called for a royal commission amid allegations of corruption and poor governance. South Australia has already held its own royal commission into the plan, but was hampered by the federal government’s refusal to cooperate. It will report next week and is expected to warn that key aspects of the Murray-Darling plan are in breach of the Commonwealth Water Act.
In Walgett the dry river means the town must live on bore water indefinitely. Bore water is high in mineral content, especially sodium. It kills gardens and discolours basins and bathtubs. It comes out of the tap very warm – there’s no need to turn on the hot tap to have a shower, but there is also no chance for a cool drink.
Locals say bore water is not a long-term option as a drinking supply. Water restrictions mean no water can be used during daylight hours, and there are limits on washing, flushing of toilets and the use of evaporative air conditioners, even when with temperatures at extreme levels.
The fish kill and the heat have at least brought the problems of water management squarely into the consciousness of city dwellers.
The future of the Murray Darling basin is now a major issue in the upcoming federal and NSW elections.
Yuwalaraay cultural educator Daryl Ferguson has a message for politicians and voters alike.
“Everyone should take a leaf out of our culture – it is about looking after the land.
“Everyone says “this is mine, this is my part of the river, this is mine, mine, mine.”
“I’m not here to talk about ownership; that’s not our culture. You want to own it? That’s fine.
“Just look after it.”
by Anne Davis, Lorena Allam, Carly Earl, Mike Bowers | The Guardian