The Darling's dead fish of late capitalism

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Humans of Late Capitalism (HOLC) is a social media account that plays on the massively popular Humans of New York (HONY) phenomenon to starkly highlight the reality of what it is like to live on our planet today. Its darkly humorous images serve as an ironic critique of our society and, particularly, our economic system.

Dead fish in the Darling RiverOver the last few weeks, Australia has produced two symbolic images that fit well into the HOLC narrative: a massive fish kill in Menindee lakes on the Darling River and Walgett, the town with two rivers and no water.

Water is critical to life on this planet. And yet clean water supplies are dwindling due to the impact of human activity, while demand continues to increase. The United Nations has estimated that 'by 2050, at least one-in-four people is likely to live in countries affected by chronic or recurring shortages of freshwater'.

It is certainly true that population growth and drought (partly caused by climate change) have contributed to this problem, but there is actually plenty of water to meet all of our needs. The main issues we have are systematic inequality of access and a (related) pattern of terrible regulation.

Poor regulation of water has long been an issue, but in the 1990s there was a strong global push for water governance reform through liberalisation. Australia introduced market-based water governance reforms in 1994, when the Council of Australian Governments agreed to unbundle water rights from land in order to enable them to be traded separately on the market. The stated theory behind this approach was that the market would enable water to be valued 'appropriately' and this would increase efficiency and reduce water waste.

A key benefit asserted to justify treating water as an economic good is that the market will encourage 'high-value' water use to be prioritised. But, as the fish of the Darling River and the people of Walgett are experiencing this summer, the problem with commodifying water is that its social and environment values are not naturally reflected in the market. While industry may place a high economic value on water and be willing (and able) to pay for it, the rest of us (including the fish and the river itself) cannot compete.

Chile was a pioneer in these water governance reforms and introduced water markets in the early 1980s. In a 2006 review of the effects, UNDP found these reforms 'predictably gave rise to speculation and water monopolies' and that as a result 'water rights have become more concentrated in the hands of large commercial farmers and urban water traders'.

 

"Water markets were never intended to ensure sustainability or equity. The commodification of water has always been designed to enable the 'deserving' to accumulate water rights at the expense of everyone else."

 

They found a similar problem with the environment, as 'water scarcity prices did not reflect the costs of environmental damage related to overuse for a familiar reason: environmental externalities are not adequately priced in free markets'.

Research has found a similar pattern in Australia, with water trading widening the gap between small- and large-scale farmers and resulting in less water being allocated to the environment.

The results experienced in Australia and Chile are often described as 'market distortions', but closer examination reveals that the market is largely operating as intended. David Harvey calls this process 'accumulation by dispossession' and that is an accurate description of what has happened to water in Australia.

When asked about the recent fish deaths in Menindee lakes, Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud blamed the drought. But the Darling River and Walgett's Barwon River have not run dry due to drought alone. Excessive upstream diversions have been a major factor. And where does this diverted water go? 'High value' uses such as massive corporate cotton farms.

When it was put to Minister Littleproud that these irrigators have been diverting too much water, he responded, 'No one is taking more than they deserve.'

And there you have it. Water markets were never intended to ensure sustainability or equity. The commodification of water has always been designed to enable the (economically) 'deserving' to accumulate water rights at the expense of everyone else — including the environment. And now we humans of late capitalism are reaping what our political masters have sown: a world without water.

I wonder what kind of ironic images we can post to Instagram about this?

 

 

Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, water, Murray-Darling Basin

 

 

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Existing comments

Commodification - the death of the Darling, cricket, tennis, most other sports, the universities, human decency, etc etc etc
john frawley | 17 January 2019


Yes, capitalism does not take into account the price of ‘externalities’ - for example environmental degredation - and thus does not price the true worth of anything. We know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
John Crowe | 18 January 2019


I just love the way (well no, actually, I really don't) our Liberal masters such as Sir David Littleproud speak of the "deserving" and the "undeserving". And of the remarkable coincidence that the "deserving" are always their corporate mates (and often donors), like, of course, the owners of the big cotton farms in Southern Queensland. And of course, who are the "undeserving"? It goes without saying that they are the migrants and refugees, the unemployed, the poor, the left-behind, Murray-Darling fish and wildlife, and (most of all) non-Climate Change Deniers. And increasingly, the average Australian citizen, who expects to be listened to by their politician, but is increasingly being treated as an annoying nuisance. Peasants! It is a bit of a surprise that the residents of communities along our two major rivers appear now also to be “undeservers”. They used to be stalwart supporters of the Government and of their Agriculture Minister of the time, Red Baron Barnaby Joyce, responsible for determining the use of the river water. But with what has been increasingly been shown to be the catastrophic management of his portfolio, support for his ilk is gradually evaporating in favour of independents. Ah well, it’s the drought.
PaulM | 18 January 2019


Minister Littleproud is out of touch with reality. No one is taking more than they deserve? Unbelievable! In 2012 our Government, approved the sale of Cubbie, to Shandong RuYi Scientific & Technological Group, a clothing and textile company owned by Chinese and Japanese investors, and Lempriere Group, an Australian company involved in wool trading and agricultural property management. (Wikipedia) The station was created by amalgamating twelve floodplain properties to give Cubbie a total of fifty-one licences. The station's water storage dams stretch for more than 28 kilometres along the Culgoa River, within the Murray-Darling basin. In an average year the station uses 200,000 megalitres of water, in a good year as much as 500,000 megalitres. They could be viable with 150,000 megalitres. The water supplies 130 square kilometres of irrigated cotton and other crops including wheat, which generates a net profit in the range of A$50 million to A$80 million pa. Half the water they dam evaporates. Cubbie is licensed to take 460,000 megalitres the equivalent of all irrigation entitlements downstream in north-western NSW. They grow 200 square kilometres of cotton. Source Wikipedia. They pay $3700 a year for water. Cubbie should be nationalised as their water usage is unsustainable.
Francis Armstrong | 18 January 2019


I just love the way our Liberal masters such as Sir David Littleproud speak of the "deserving" and the "undeserving". (Well no, actually, I really don't.) And of the remarkable coincidence that the "deserving" are always their corporate mates (and often donors), like, of course, the owners of the big cotton farms in Southern Queensland. And of course, who are the "undeserving"? It goes without saying that they are the migrants and refugees, the unemployed, the poor, the left-behind, Murray-Darling fish and wildlife, and (most of all) non-Climate Change Deniers. And now, the average Australian citizen, who expects to be listened to by their politician, but is progressively being treated as an annoying nuisance. Peasants! It is a bit of a surprise that the residents of communities along our two major rivers appear now also to be “undeservers”. Once the stalwart supporters of the Government and of their Agriculture Minister of the time, Red Baron Barnaby Joyce, responsible for determining the use of the river water. But with what has piece by piece been shown to be the catastrophic management of his portfolio, support for his ilk is gradually evaporating in favour of independents. Ah well, it’s the drought.
PaulM | 18 January 2019


Cristy - you ask.."where does this diverted water go?"... and your answer..." 'High value' uses such as massive corporate cotton farms.". I'm interested to know if you have access to evidence of who/where the water goes?... Because these days we should be able to see who the water users/diverters are.... dairy, cotton, almonds, horticulture, etc.... so we have an informed debate, not an emotive one. I agree that markets sometimes do not price/value externalities well, if at all.
Ronald Storey | 18 January 2019


This all sounds awful, but detailed analysis shows that the causes here are much more complex, and that economic activity is not the current problem, but rather poor decision making about water in the (largely man-made) Menindi and SA system systems, and bad luck. For all its faults, there is a very good article on this in the Australian yesterday. Rather hysterical environmentalist and SA pressure on governments seems to have made things worse rather than better overall. Such is life.
Eugene | 18 January 2019


By analogy are we not experiencing the same in Western Australia with the commodification of Land Information, particularly Earth Observations from Satellite for environmental management, which would have picked up the M-D disaster unfolding? But of course such EOS information is suppressed. Commodification of EOS in WA followed the commodification of Land Title information for land transfers which has happened in NSW, VIC and SA and is in the process in WA.
Richard Smith | 18 January 2019


Dr Cristy Clark has given us a timely warning about the management of water in Australia which has always had limited amounts of this precious commodity. As she says, water is necessary for life. Therefore, access to clean and unpolluted water should be considered as a basic human right. The idea that we should let the market manage our water supplies demonstrates the shallow thinking of those who introduced this policy. The fact that Chile introduced such a scheme in the 1980s when the country was under the brutal Pinochet dictatorship (thanks to the Chilean military and the CIA) should have alerted planners to what a bad idea it was. Thanks to the dictatorship's adoption of Milton Friedman neo-liberal economics, inflation increased to over 500%, unemployment rose to over 30% and many enterprises were privatised. To demonstrate how bad the situation can get when water supplies are privatised, we should look at the example of Flint in Michigan - the home of the controversial documentary maker Michael Moore. To save money, Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan disconnected Flint from its usual water supply of Lake Huron and connected it with the Flint River - the water of which is contaminated with lead salts and other toxic compounds. While the locals were drinking the contaminated water, General Motors was connected with clean water because the water in the Flint River was corroding its vehicle engine components! In addition, the Snyder's wife who is the Michigan spokesperson for Nestle which is allowed to takes huge amounts of safe water for bottling. So that our human right to have access to potable water can be maintained, our water resources need to be managed by those most qualified to do the job and not be left to the whims of private companies.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 18 January 2019


The Climate Council website states: "A NEW REPORT by the Climate Council has found the severe drought gripping much of Australia has been exacerbated by climate change. “Climate change is shifting our rainfall patterns and increasing the severity of droughts and floods. We’ve always been a sunburnt country, but things are getting worse,” said Climate Councillor, Professor Will Steffen. “We’ve seen temperatures rising in Australia over the long term. This has been driven primarily by the burning of coal, oil and gas,” he said. “Climate change means severe droughts are expected to become more frequent, increasing the risk of water shortages for agriculture and urban water supplies,” said Professor Steffen. The Climate Council’s report “Deluge and Drought: Australia’s Water Security in a Changing Climate” has been co-authored by seven climate change experts, including former head of the Bureau of Meteorology, Professor Rob Vertessy. “Australia will have to face up to some significant water security challenges as a result of climate change,” said Professor Vertessy. The report found that the Murray-Darling Basin, which produces more than a third of our food, has experienced a 41% decline in streamflow over the past 20 years. “We’re very concerned that streamflow in the Basin will reduce even further, affecting everybody who depends on the river as well as fish and bird life,” said Professor Steffen." Our federal and state governments need to act accordingly!
Grant Allen | 18 January 2019


I realise it’s flavour of the month to blame cotton, but this drought is incredibly serious. There has been only 30 gigalitres of water flow into the northern NSW river systems this year. Average inflow is 4000GL. Only 572GL of inflow last year, so there’s a huge deficit that can’t simply be overlooked. There’s no water growing cotton at Cubbie, none at Bourke, zero allocation in the other rivers. There is no question the Darling would have been dry under any scenario this year. This drought is not pleasant for anyone??
Jonathan Mulligan | 19 January 2019


What could bring the rain back? Trees. Plant millions of trees. In India year 2016, Indian officials have reported that volunteers planted a whopping 49.3 million tree saplings on July 11, blowing past the previous record for most trees planted in a single day. That record, a mere 847,275 trees, was set by Pakistan in 2013. A reported 800,000 volunteers from Uttar Pradesh worked for 24 hours planting 80 different species of trees along roads, railways, and on public land. The saplings were raised on local nurseries. Source National Geographic Magazine August 2016. Just imagine if we planted 10 million new trees along the Culgoa, Darling and Murray rivers all the way to the sea. Rain follows the trees. It could bring the rain back. And if India can do it in a day, why couldnt we do 10 million trees in a year. Get all the folk on the dole to do that. Certainly better than spending hundreds of millions on drought Relief.
Francis Armstrong | 23 January 2019


What has the shortage of water in the Darling got to do with “late capitalism?”. The Murray Darling Basin “Plan” is a STATE-crafted plan, not a child of the free market. Rivers are one area of the physical world that governments refuse to turn over to complete private ownership (others include the oceans and the air). Whether one objects to or supports this policy, one cannot deny its existence. Neither can one deny that government has been bungling water issues the world over since time immemorial. And doctrinaire anti-capitalist regimes such as the Soviet Union and its puppet states were and are black belt masters of the craft. Google pictures of Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea, and learn of the poisoning of Siberia’s Lake Baikal etc, … utter devastation caused by socialism. (“Early” or “Late” or “Just in time” socialism? Who cares?) Based on the comparative histories of capitalist and anti-capitalist regimes over the past century or so, a safe rule of thumb is: the more anti-capitalist the regime, the more appalling the pollution and exploitation of resources. The explanation is obvious. Government officials have no intrinsic economic incentive to address water issues: they get paid anyway. In a genuine free market, a resource is priced according to supply and demand. So: as the water in the Darling goes down, the price for the marginal unit would go up. Those who purchase its water adjust their behaviour accordingly. Farmers switch to less water dependent crops, or find new ways to make the resource go further (drip irritation, etc). If it goes up enough, some resourceful entrepreneur will build pipelines from the Pacific Ocean to tributaries of the Darling (less than 150 ks for some of them), and a desalination plant – nuclear powered, God forbid! – ensuring flows to the Darling forever. A problem solved snap by capitalism, “Late” or whatever, but which in the hands of the state will be an enduring part of our national heritage for centuries to come.
HH | 24 January 2019


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