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Truth drowned in river system's fight for life


Confrontation and misleading statements seem to be the weapons of choice for irrigators responding to the Murray-Darling Draft Plan.

The NSW Irrigators Council's October newsletter makes this clear. It says that last year they managed to raise the ire of the public against the guidelines that preceded the Plan, even leading to public burnings of the guide. It suggests that a similar negative strategy will be required this time.

On ABC radio, CEO of the National Irrigators Council Tom Chessan made spurious suggestions about building more dams and the like. On another program, Riverina farmer Michael Kettlewell claimed 'the environment will always survive. It has been doing so for millions of years. It dries up, dies and then gets reborn. Communities and towns do not ... once they die, they're gone.'

The truth is that without protecting the ecological health of rivers, communities will not survive. That is the proper order. Caring for communities means caring for the land and water on which they depend.

The tactics of irrigator councils play on people's fears. Members of these organisations need to select leaders who are more balanced in what they say and do. Distorting the truth to favour one's own group is to act with bias or even duplicity. This can pit irrigator farmers' rights against fellow farmers' rights, as happened with floodplain farmers and those in the Macquarie marshes.

Getting the facts right is a pathway to making good choices and acting with integrity. Getting ecological facts right is also fundamental to understanding the history of river systems and the varied forms of life they support. Ignorance is not bliss.

The 2004 statement 'The Gift of Water', by the Catholic Church's 11 bishops with dioceses in the river catchments, is instructive. Parish priests in the Basin might make copies so that their parishioners are not misled by the hype promoted by some irrigator lobbyists and financial manipulators. Schools can prepare their students to deal with the bias and misinformation they might hear.

On a recent trip to north western NSW I was impressed by the evolving way in which farmers are going about their business. Ecological awareness has led them to adopt low impact tilling and reduce fertiliser loads. They have decided to live as 'stewards', with respect and within creation's constraints, and not be uncaring 'masters'. They have spent money to make the necessary ecological changes.

Getting the finances right is essential to the sustainable farming that underpins sustainable communities. Bean counters who demand increased profits each year do not know farming. Weather can be a great teacher of humility for people who indulge in the pride of control. Over thousands of years many irrigation based cultures collapsed in such pride.

It is folly to presume that investments can be fine-tuned to the point of counting on average water availability every year. Wise planning considers that the amount of water available for farming will in all likelihood be well below any calculated average.

The bean counters also need to be watched when it comes to water trading and increased ground water allocations for mines as outlined in the Draft Plan. Many traders have made tidy sums already. One wonders if financiers lobbied for the increased allocations of ground water, which will be a windfall for mine expansion and coal seam gas explorers.

'No' can be a valid response to a planning application. Not every financial dream can be acted on if respect for other people and the environment is taken into account.

The city cousins of rural communities share the responsibility for growing a good outcome from the Draft Plan. Manipulative farming investments often originate in the cities. Past investment mistakes need to be acknowledged, and new ventures supported financially. Consumers, too, need to take responsibility for the food and fibre they consume.

When it comes to creating solutions to any problem, Catholic Social Teaching is strong on the need for dialogue and cooperation. These are necessary if the common good is to be achieved. Confrontation is the way of the bully. It is short-sighted and self-interested.

The Draft Plan wisely sets long term goals and allows time for them to be achieved: 2750 GL for the rivers over seven years. It may have been even wiser to set the long term goal at the near-4000 GL believed scientifically to be required to ensure a healthy Basin. But at least the Draft Plan has got the order right, in looking first to the rivers, which support the farms, which support the communities.

Trying to be the 'winner' in discussions and decisions about the Murray Darling Basin will do no one any good. Dialogue and cooperation will help us to discern a way forward. It will be a work in progress, evolving as we keep rivers-farms-communities together in our vision. It will lead to a good outcome for future generations, and a source of renewed life for us here and now. 

Charles RueDr Charles Rue is a Sydney-based priest of the Columban Missionary Society, and coordinator of Columban JPIC (Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation).

Topic tags: Charles Rue, Murray-Darling, water, Riverina, irrigation, rivers, environment



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Existing comments

Thank you for this cogent and important article. I hope you will try to have it published (perhaps in modified form) in our national press- and especially rural and regional newspapers- and particularly our daily tabloids.

Kate Maclurcan | 30 November 2011  

Thanks so much Charles for an article that tells the truth. As economic historian Sir Keith Hancock pointed out more than half a century ago irrigation in Australia was always a completely foolhardy enterprise. The images of those people burning books (the first Murray-Darling Draft Plan) in whatever town it was sticks in my mind as a symbol of the kind of culpable ignorance that ignores the rhythms and constraints of the natural world. Thank you for bringing a reasoned and ethical approach to this issue. Paul Collins.

Paul Collins | 30 November 2011  

The fact is that successive governments have over-allocated water and 4000 GL is probebly an absolute minimum - given climate change - for the survival of both river and irrigation. Economic change must occur. Both government and private money is needed to develop alternative rural, service and manufacturing industries, and to provide retraining for some movement out of the regions. Precedents? Mallee farmers left their uneconomic government allocated blocks in droves. Thousands of Textile, clothing and footwear jobs and other manufactures including sadly, alternative technology have gone offshore. Banks and Telecom withdrew services and gutted towns.

The MDB process must be complex and gradual but without it, the war will continue.

Bill Hampel | 30 November 2011  

Thanks for the article, Ny daughter a farmer's wife has been on one of the river boards as an enviromental representative and has often been a lone voice and regarded as letting the side down, "Catholic Social Teaching is strong on the need for dialogue and cooperation." True, but I wish the powers-that-be would practise what they preach in every area of relationships in the church.

Patricia Ryan | 30 November 2011  

Good piece of work Charles. I like your suggestion re using the "Gift of Water" document.

Deirdre Gardiner | 30 November 2011  

This discussion ignores the key element that this is about food .the green,s are ok ,as middle class Australians they can afford to switch to imported food that will drive up global food prices and all the hardship this will cause in Asia but they don't care ,the river mouth is more important than people .

John crew | 30 November 2011  

Ignorance and fear are a terrible combination. The sight of irrigators shouting at the Minister yesterday, as if the whole situation cold be settled if only everyone who thought he should get more water was being denied natural justice was a frightening thing. Education is the key, but it's hard for education to make headway against irrational passion.

Joe Castley | 30 November 2011  

Charles - if getting the facts right is important, here are a couple missing from your opinion piece. The draft Basin Plan proposes returning 3,573 GL/y to the MDB environment (p80 plain english summary). They already had 823GL/y by 2009 so the 2750 GL figure is the "gap". 3573 GL/y is pretty close to "the long term goal at the near-4000 GL believed scientifically to be required to ensure a healthy Basin." Since "getting ecological facts right is also fundamental to understanding the history of river systems" you should have a good hard look at some of the "facts" being put forward by conservation groups. The river is NOT "dying" as a result of "overallocation" - the drought was the problem. River red gums are not endangered and bird breeding events have flourished since the floods. These are all "facts" that appear to be true from your office in Sydney - out here in the Basin, they simply don't hold water (pardon the pun!).

IddyB | 30 November 2011  

"Getting the facts right" is the best sentence in this article. In the remaining part many "ill conceived" or " "vaguely stated" ideas are driving the main opinion expressed in it. Yes indeed let us get our facts right before rushing in where angels fear to tread!

Theo Verbeek | 30 November 2011  

@IddyB the plan states quite clearly "Surface-water SDLs are measured as reductions from 2009 baseline diversion limits. This baseline already takes into account around 959 gigalitres per year (GL/y) on a long-term average basis that was recovered pre-2009 through various programs". The 4000+ GL reduction which the best available science tells us is what the river really needs is based on the 2009 baseline. The inclusion of pre-2009 acquisitions is a shifty attempt to make it seem like 2750 GL is enough when in reality it falls well short. I'd like to know what your qualifications are to be making the statements you do at the end of your comment. As it is, they just sound like the "she'll be right mate" approach that got us into this mess in the first place.

Chris Daley | 30 November 2011  

IDDYB has a point and he/she makes it politely. I have only the greatest admiration for Dr Rue's Philosopher King approach to so many social issues. But IDDYB's criticism shows how careful one has to be with verifiable data. There are so many vested interests examining progressive suggestions in the areas of Social Justice, International Relations and the Environment that the slightest error in a statistic or a date or whatever, will be seized upon and exaggerated to vitiate an otherwise sensible suggestion. Senator Barnaby Joyce is a master of the accusation "One flaw and the whole peach is rotten."

Uncle Pat | 30 November 2011  

Thanks Charles. John Crew argues that this is about food, thereby disregarding the fact that a substantial component of water taken from the environment is used to irrigate cotton. John actually sees it as a form of class warfare, since middle class greens can import their food and affect food prices elsewhere. This disregards the fact that food is already being imported as a weapon to drive down prices paid to Australian food growers (major Australian grocery chains are quite profitable; it is not readily evident that these cost savings are being passed on to consumers). IDDYB makes what seem to be fairly good points, about the Plan starting now after some buybacks have already occurred, and refers us to the Plain English section. Does the Plain English section mention the planned expansion in groundwater extractions? It is groundwater extractions, IDDYB, that is the truly scary part of the document; after all, where the Macquarie Marshes were once fed by artesian waters from the Great Artesian Basin, over a century of over-extraction of artesian water in Queensland means that flow down the Macquarie often disappears before entering the Darling. The same holds for other former artesian springs along the Darling upstream of Bourke.

David Arthur | 30 November 2011  

Yes Father Charles I agree with another contributer that such highly educated ,influential people such as yourself are morally responceable to strive for more balance in your writings .Not follow the radical Greens by attacking the forever soft target /farmers . I shall briefly relate my own families experience which leaves us totally devastated .In the 1990's Federal & State governments made a major issue of protecting the Great Artesian Basin from depletion & many graziers voluntarily spent hugh sums of money to complement the concept .Our family made the major contribution by renovating our 100+ year old bore to a depth of 780 metres ,installed 70 Km of polythene piping ,tanks,troughs etc to avoid evaporative losses in our existing & comprehensive 40 Km open bore drain system .All this on a modestly sized family living area station in N/West Qld .This during the years we had up to 5 children in boarding school & 4 on School of The Air ,so required some high level management skills .Concurrently I assisted Departmental scientists develop a satelite imagery monitoring system which in fact demonstrated we had the healthiest pastures in the region . How do you think we now feel since Bligh & Gillard have prostituted this fine State in their lust for royalty dollars by wrecklessly granting C S G permits willy nilly which are raping & plundering The Great Artesian Basin which we & many others seriously attempted to protect . So please aim your weapons at the two worst environmental vandals ever at large (both Govts) If you take the advice of reader who suggests you go National you are welcome to use my presented facts to put some balance in your story.

John Kersh | 30 November 2011  

As a casual visitor to an irrigation property in the recent past, it concerns me that there has been almost total absence of comment on all the irrigators who rip off the allocation system by rorting the water take from the river by the use of magnets on their meters. Where is the justice in this 'beggar my neighbour' attitude? My experience was not limited to one property but several. Further, what is the magnitude of this component of the problem?

Brian Larsson | 30 November 2011  

Thank you for the courage to say publicly what needs to be said without fear or favour. Communities have not heard the voice of justice from their priests for too long. It is time to speak up or become irrelevant.

graham patison | 01 December 2011  

The Murray Darling Basin Plan won’t only rob us of our livelihoods, but also of our culture and heritage. I'm a third generation irrigation farmer and this plan is frightening the sox of me. Your article shows the short sightedness of the urban hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Before reporting in newsletters you should get firsthand information and a better handle on the ramification for our region. I was particularly amused by you reporting “When it comes to creating solutions to any problem, Catholic Social ... bullying … etc It is short-sighted and self-interested”. My husband attended a catholic college – he was caned for every weekend football match he missed – he didn’t want to play football on weekends, but was a good runner, so put in the team – League Saturday, Aussie Rules Sunday – 12 of the best on Mondays. Instruments for instilling discipline were canes, fanbelts or strips of lino. The college was new so students would dig the trenches for sporting oval's irrigation systems before catching their bus home – if they didn’t get enough dug they would miss their bus home. The Catholic system delivered little dialogue, cooperation AND they bullied students. Well, we don’t want the Murray Darling Basin Plan, but we are being bullied and whipped into it. You sit in a city office,write articles without knowing the consequences and pain they bring more importantly serves to widen the gap between the country and city. Visit us to get facts that can support a win win, don't condemn us from afar.

Elizabeth Bailey | 02 December 2011  

Dr Charles Rue I am embarrassed to be associated with you through our beliefs.

Please walk a mile in someones shoes and pray for guidance before you make such statements.
Please put these statements in public papers and not label all catholics with these ridiculous assumptions.
We the farmers and communities in the basin are here because of irrigation and the farmers.
There has been dialogue cooperation and facts from our side the farmers. Every drop of water that passes onto a farm can be accounted for by the farmer. IN fact farmers from the MIA have already given part of their allocations to the environment in the 80's and with unwilling bybacks for the government. The government cannot tell us where this water is allocated or for what part of the environment. When there is a drought the environment and society all suffer.

As I tell my children do not lose your faith because of so called human representatives in this world. Believe because you have faith in the Lord.
I am praying that you indeed do research and at least show some decency in this mess.
We are seeing people lose their livelihoods and lives through suicide because of the drought and now the plan.

As you say we the farmers are stewards of the land this area would not survive without the farmer. That is not ego or arrogance talking it is fact.

I will pray for you as it is people like yourself who in the end will cause a disaster in the future for the environment and communities. People who live in polluted cities should look closely at their own backyard
God Bless for a very Holy christmas

Christine | 02 December 2011  

Please allow me , a catholic educated by Jesuits and supported the church all my life .Your article is untrue .I invite you to visit Deniliquin and get the facts of people that had no water for years due to drought and are suffering near poverty as the consequences . Your blatant abuse of irrigators is a disgrace. Think at your next meal that the ones you condemn have probably contributed to supply that food at a financial loss to themselves.

You are so out of touch with community welfare and yet claim to be so knowledgable on whether irrigators have a right to earn a living for their family . I need a response as I will be showing your statement to our local priests and considering recommending to fellow parishioners to withdraw support for all catholic fund raising.

You are doing a dis service to yourself and the church with your propaganda.

I will be awaiting your response and visit where we will be courteous for you to get all the facts.


W .Hetheringtion | 02 December 2011  

I am a Catholic! And I am ashamed that you have brought our Church into this debacle!
I do not see what religion or religious organizations has to do with MDB!
If you wish to add your comment to the discussion, do it on your own, do not include the Church!

You accuse Tom Cheeson of making “spurious” comments!
Would he not be in a better position with actual hands-on knowledge of the MDB to make INFORMED comments about the MDB?

Rather than relying (as most other Australians do) on comments and lies made by people educated beyond their level of intelligence (i.e The Wentworth Group) and media hype, come down here and see for yourself and more importantly do your own research

If you did research beyond the current popular myth that the Murray is dying, you would find it in better health that when European settlement started., and with some fine tuning like removing the barrages in SA it would even be better>

Roy Currie | 03 December 2011