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Water palaver Down Under— Sydney

Preface

The Murray-Darling Basin is a 1,162 sq km area that spans four states within the southeastern perimeter of Australia.

Agriculture

2 November 2010

The Murray-Darling Basin is a 1,162 sq km area that spans four states within the southeastern perimeter of Australia. It’s known as Australia’s food bowl, responsible for 93 per cent of domestic food production. Until recently, that bowl was pretty empty, with a nine-year drought that has devastated the region. Finally though, things are looking up.

New South Wales (NSW), one of the states containing the basin, is officially drought-free. Recently, the NSW government announced that the state is on the brink of a AU$2.85bn (€2bn) winter crop and other regions are also improving. But there’s still a way to go.

Last month, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), an independent body, released a major set of draft guidelines with the aims of replenishing the wetlands. It suggests that irrigation to the Murray-Darling Basin should be cut by 27-37 per cent in order to restore 3,000 to 7,600 gigalitres of water back to the wetlands. Max Finlayson, professor of ecology and biodiversity and director of the Institute for Land, Water and Society at the Charles Sturt University, has described these guidelines as absolutely essential. “For once there is enough water in the region, we just have to allocate it properly.”

Yet the agriculture community is horrified at the proposed scheme. “We have just recovered from a drought,” says Andrew Broad, the president of the Victorian Farmers Federation. “Now the government is imposing another one on us.” Broad’s comments were relatively mild, compared to others quoted in the Australian press. One farmer described the cuts as the government putting a hand grenade in the mouth and pulling the pin, another said it’s a “dagger through the heart.” The guidelines are now being burnt outside of community meetings.

This is the second time this year that the agricultural industry has protested when attempting to meet environmental demands. In February, 2,000 farmers stood outside parliament house in Canberra to protest land-clearing bans that were imposed in 1995 helping to preserve trees for the absorption of carbon dioxide.

During the nine-year drought, water prices soared to AUS$1,200 for a million litres (when once they cost $25), and suicide rates rose to 34 per 100,000. Yet given the opportunity to avoid a repetition of the crisis, and as the country spends another year as one of the world’s biggest polluters, Aussies are regularly contemptuous of going green. Although Australians are “concerned” about the environment, when push comes to shove, they are unlikely to sacrifice their economy for the cause.

Finlayson, who has long been campaigning to save the wetlands, is disappointed by the response. “Doesn’t anyone realise that the environment is in decline?” he asks. “It’s like we’re all suffering from not-in-my-backyard syndrome – this idea that ‘someone has to pay for it, just not me’.”

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