Tony Windsor's Murray-Darling prescience


Tony Windsor's comparison is apt: Australian city dwellers would certainly resent it if a Government-commissioned report was put out for public discussion, recommending that one third of their electricity supply, or one third of their suburban road network, should be closed down. 

Irrigated agriculture systems, like electric grids and city road transport networks, are human engineering constructs. They are not gifts of nature. And like electric and road grids, irrigation systems trigger by their existence a government's duty of care to the human communities that they sustain.

Particularly when those systems were built with the blood, sweat and tears that went into the building of our Murray Darling Basin (MDB) irrigation communities over the past 100 years.

We see now, in the latest MDB Report, the results of a perverse alliance of convenience between two extremist ideologies: the market rationalism which only values water as a tradeable good to be sold to the highest bidders, and the deep green environmentalism which opposes any interference to natural ecologies for purposes of building and sustaining human settlements.

To the latter ideology, any irrigation system (or any major water storage and diversion system like the Snowy Mountains Scheme) is actually an unacceptable interference with nature.

Here are some principles which I hope might better inform the current debate:

First, irrigation is intrinsically a good thing for human civilisations. It collects and stores rainwater falling in arid, mountainous, high rainfall areas, and then reticulates this water by controlled means to flat, easily-tilled fertile-soil plains where food can be grown more safely and efficiently.

Irrigation makes sense, as the best means of sustaining human food security under conditions of irregular rainfall in the wrong places. It is as old as Ancient Babylon or Egypt.

Second, if it is proposed to withdraw substantial quantities of water from the existing irrigation-based human settlements in the MDB, in order to restore (temporarily, until the next drought cycle hits) ecological health to the MDB river system, it must not be left to the chance vagaries of market forces to decide who stays and who goes.

It could be the big high-profit mechanised cotton and rice farms that stay, and the small mixed farmers, orchardists and horticulturalists that will go one by one. This is not a good social outcome. It will destroy human communities. We are part of the ecology too.

To claim that the Government will buy back water only from 'willing sellers' misses the key sociological point. Once an irrigation-based community, which is all about cooperation, starts to lose members, it starts to fall apart in an irreversible feedback process. The people (and local bankers) in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area understand this very well. Only economists in ivory towers do not want to see it.

Third, the Australian nation owes the people who live in our irrigation communities  a lot — we encouraged them to work hard to develop these areas for our national food security. They are us.

Fourth, it makes sense now, taking a longer view, to help these communities sustain themselves, because city-dwelling Australians will again need their food-growing potential in future, as climate change and peak oil hit our nation harder, inevitably reshaping our national food import and export patterns.

It would be reckless to rely on cheap food imports bought on the proceeds of our present massive coal and minerals sales abroad. This bonanza will not last in a world of accelerating climate change and peak oil.

The present temporarily benign weather patterns in the MDB are no guide to the future policy environment. The reality of severe coming climate change must be factored into policy. Against a background of the inevitable desertification through climate change of most of the unirrigated MDB region, especially in the south, our irrigation communities should correctly be cherished, as places that will become like oases in the Arabian or Sahara Deserts.

Arab desert people cherish their oases and look after them as precious sources of food — they do not walk away from them.

There is a huge social capital and farming expertise invested in our irrigation communities. We need to sustain this national asset, not wilfully disrupt it.

Windsor has urged a wider perspective on the problem: more efficiency in the way water is reticulated to the farm gate and used on the farm; and a preparedness, in a time of climate change, to look outside the MDB catchment for more water.

On the latter point, I salute his courage. We need to challenge the fundamentalist market economics and environmentalist doctrines that say it is wrong to pump water from one river catchment to another. 

In the final, future scenario-setting chapter of my climate change policy book Crunch Time, I envisaged the future need for a series of solar or wind-powered Snowy-type schemes along the east-flowing rivers of Eastern Australia, to pump increasingly over-abundant coastal rainfall due to climate change up to highland storages just across the Great Dividing Range.

The advantage of beginning such a public works program now is that it will provide enough water over the next few years to sustain both the natural river ecologies and the irrigation communities of the MDB.

Additionally, such highland water storage and diversion infrastructure will be an insurance-premium against the time — maybe only 20 years off — when all of southern Australia will face severe average temperature increases and coastal region sea-levels start to rise faster, disrupting international trade and coastal communities, and forcing migration inland to higher, cooler areas.

We should think about planning ahead for such climate change disruption now, while our nation can still afford it.

Meanwhile, extra water pumped over the Divide into the MDB could be used to sustain the national asset of our present MDB irrigation communities — as well as the natural river ecologies.

Tony Windsor's questions about going outside the MDB for more water are on the right track. I hope he won't let doctrinaire market rationalist economists and environment fundamentalists mock him into silence.


Tony KevinTony Kevin is the author of Crunch Time, a book exploring Australia's inadequate policy responses to the climate change crisis.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Tony Windsor, Murray Darling Basin, climate change, crunch time



submit a comment

Existing comments

As in so many matters of public concern, the aim in management of water should be to get the balance right. Easy to say: difficult to achieve. And, whatever the outcome, it is certain not to please everyone.

There is the worrying possibility of difficult consequences for some country towns and communities. This indirectly points to a related matter of public importance - the lack of emphasis on decentralisation and excessive spread of cities.

The Melbourne metropolis is a glaring example with its streams of cars burning fuel, requiring roadways at great cost - and travel increasing the working day by three or four hours for many living in the outer suburbs. The paradox is that this waste shows up as progress in economic statistics.

Modest decentralisation of suitable industries would help country communities and save resources that are increasingly wasted on excessive travel to and from work. And families would benefit from more time together.

Bob Corcoran | 19 October 2010

Thanks, Tony, for pointing out that civilisations developed with irrigation.

A couple of points spring to mind.

1: Salinisation often follows irrigation; this has certainly been the Mesopotamian experience.

2: When the Persians established the irrigation scheme that enabled establishment of Persepolis, they did so by bringing melt water from the mountains to their east in underground channels.
It is sheer idiocy to not make distribution networks leakproof.

That said, I must take you to task on the notion of building more high-country dams, and of diverting water inland from coastal catchments.

1. Dams are a 19th century concept that was tested to destruction in the 20th century. Time after time after time, they have proven devastating to river basins, estuaries and inshore coastal waters; I encourage you to do some research into their ecological and social impacts. Jacques Leslie's "Deep Water" (2005) is not a bad start.

2. Diverting coastal streams inland is not a good idea, as the story of the Snowy River shows. By the same token, the Brumby Government's North-South Pipeline remains an appalling idea, until Melbourne starts recycling its waste water and sends some of that back inland.
David Arthur | 19 October 2010

The problem is not the lack of water, but the massive waste of water, which still occurs today. It does not make sense to have irrigated rice grown in Australia and to lose up to 3000mm to evaporation. Rice growing in Australia is very efficient and very economical because of cheap water and the use highly developed agricultural machinery.

Growing rice in Australia is one example where cheap water, excessive political power of farmers, massive tax concessions made it possible to undercut global rice prices. Growing cheap rice has also led many farmers in Asia to seek work in large cities. The taxpayer in Australia is helping a few farmers to get rich and millions of farmers in Asia to become poorer.

The same situation occurs with growing “bio-fuels” like ethanol from corn. Corn can either be fed to people or used as fuel for engines. It has been estimated that the food used to provide a single fill for an average family car could provide food for a child in a third world country.

In Australia we have fallen victim to brain washing by a media which depending on the mood of a few is either pushing the agenda of the “greens” of in some cases of farmers.

We cannot justify wasting water in rural areas by growing rice; irrigate pasture or in cities by using sprinklers. Water is a resource, which is being wasted by a few because it is too cheap and by others because they can afford to waste it.
Beat Odermatt | 19 October 2010

A very useful and sensible contribution to a difficult issue however, if we think about diverting water from other systems and catchments, we must think very carefully about the ecological cost of doing so as the oft designated "wasted" water services other ecosystems too and diversion may cause other unwelcome effects. We cannot engineer our way out of everything.
David Redfearn | 19 October 2010

The MDB Plan suggests a 30% reduction in irrigated cereal production. This translates to a loss of at least half a million tonnes of cereal grain.

In contrast, Tony Windsor ethanol demand of Labor means the taxpayer will pay an increased subsidy to ensure the continued conversion of at about a million tonnes of cereal grain to ethanol.

With concerns about food security and the variability of our own finite grain harvests, these combined impacts on our grain supply are too great.

To reduce this impact, which action you would favor, abandonment of the environmental flow or Tony Windsor’s ethanol demands?

Geoff Ward | 20 October 2010

As one who has witnessed since the late 1940s the slow death of Murray river red gums, thee loss of bird life, the decine of native fish, shrimps, tortoises and the deterioration in the quality of the river water, I wonder where Tony Kevin has been. Ecologically, the over-extraction of irrigation water has been a disaster.
As others have said, salinity has laid waste large areas here and destroyed the Aral Basin and Mesopotamia. The whole Murray Darling basin is on an accelerating downward spiral.

As for business as usual, why are Mallee farms now six times the size with consequent reduction in farm population?
For good or ill, textile, clothing and footwear producers had to change. In the MDB, the challenge is to find new ways of operating and for some, new livelihoods.
Certainly, our governments promoted over-extraction of water but no amount of emotionalism obscures the fact that the irrigation community, if not the ecological, recreational, aesthetic and cultural values of the basin depend on a heallthy river system.
Bill Hampel | 22 October 2010

Thank you for having ether courage to go where most of our politicians don't dare to go, eg inter basing water transfers, dams, etc. The environmentalists think and act as if there are ni people on this planet or the Murray darling basin. When will people realize that For as long as we keep increasing population in Australia and the world we will need to produce more food. Irrigation produces 40% of the food supply from only 15% of the agricultural land. How do they propose to replace this amount of food with no irrigation? It's about time we realize that there are 3 elements in the basin: environmental, economics and community and all three must be sustainable!
michaelM | 23 October 2010


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up