There are Votes in the Murray

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					There are Votes in the Murray
                                               JENNIFER MAROHASY

            HAT exactly is the water    ted by the Prime Minister (500            the poem ‘My Country’, Dorothea
’W          problem in Australia?’
            asked the Prime Minister
                                            The Murray River has been a fo-
                                                                                  McKellar appropriately describes
                                                                                  Australia as a land ‘of drought and
            John Howard. ‘There is      cus of ACF campaigning for over           flooding rains’. Reflecting this vari-
simply not enough,’ replied Peter       10 years. Why does it remain such         ability, water allocation can be se-
Garrett, then President of the Aus-     a key national environmental issue?       verely restricted in drought years
tralian Conservation Foundation.        The belief that irrigation along the      like the present, even though wa-
After consulting water expert Pro-      Murray River is unsustainable and         ter storage capacity in the Murray
fessor Peter Cullen, Asa Wahlquist      has resulted in a degraded and de-        Darling Basin is approximately 25
reported the solution in The Aus-       grading river system is the most          per cent of annual average runoff.
tralian newspaper the very next day:    powerful force not only for taking        Paradoxically, rice growers easily
‘Grow more wine and eat less rice.’     water off Murray River irrigators,        cope with this by simply not plant-
    It is Cullen’s contention that we   but also for regulating farming           ing a crop. In contrast, South Aus-
can save water in the Murray–Dar-       across Australia.                         tralian wine grape growers bleat
ling Basin by growing higher value          For example, in the Northern          loudly because their perennial crop
crops, in particular wine grapes.       Territory, Chief Minister Claire          needs water every year.
And there are those who insist that     Martin recently reaffirmed that she           There are those who believe
rice growing should be banned al-       will stand by her decision to ban the     that, as inhabitants of the oldest,
together.                               growing of cotton. In November            driest and most fragile continent on
    While concerned greens may be       last year, her government placed a        Earth, we should ban European-
keen to sip champagne for break-        moratorium on irrigation develop-         style agriculture altogether and pre-
fast, rather than crunch rice           ments in the Daly River Catchment         sumably, along with much of the
bubbles—all in the name of doing        following intense lobbying from en-       rest of the world, import our food.
the right thing by the environ-         vironmentalists who claimed that              Australia contributed approxi-
ment—is this really a sustainable       watering thirsty crops had ‘devas-        mately 14 per cent of the wheat
approach?                               tated’ the Murray River in distant        traded globally last financial year—
    On 3 August, Greenpeace, the        South Eastern Australia. Another          and this during a drought year. And
Australian Conservation Founda-         example is a new $22 million              yes, we currently even export rice
tion (ACF) and the Wilderness So-       CSIRO research effort focused on          to Asia. Rice production in the
ciety launched their joint policy for   saving our water resources, in part,      Murray–Darling Basin over the last
the Federal election—describing it      by increasing agricultural water-use      10 years was enough to feed almost
as the environmental issue that will    efficiencies. Successful agriculture,     40 million people a meal each day,
drive voting at the election. They      however, is about much more than          every day of the year. It is predicted
are saving the Murray River, end-       how much water a crop uses.               that Asia’s demand for food—in-
ing logging of old-growth forests in        Centrally planned agriculture         cluding wheat, beef and milk—will
Tasmania and ‘tackling’ climate         failed in Eastern Europe, yet it is be-   grow by more than 20 per cent by
change.                                 ing tried on Australian farmers in        2010. These estimates are probably
    While there are substantial dif-    the name of ‘saving water’. Farm-         conservative.
ferences between political parties      ers, rather than the environmental-           So, just how can Australia, the
on the issues of climate change and     ists, might just be the best placed       driest inhabited continent on earth,
Tasmania’s forests, the Coalition,      to decide whether they grow rice or       feed so much of the world? Can
Labor Party and Greens are all com-     wine grapes given available mar-          there be any water left over for the
mitted to saving the Murray River.      kets, together with an individual         environment?
Remarkably, the only real policy dif-   farm enterprise’s land and financial          According to the World Re-
ference is the amount of water to       capability and water allocation.          source Institute, Australia has
be saved, with the Greens arguing           One of the most defining char-        51,000 litres of available water per
for six times the quantity of water     acteristics of water in the Austra-       capita per day. This is one of the
(3,000 gigalitres) already commit-      lian landscape is flow variability. In    highest levels in the world, after

SEPTEMBER 2004                                                                                                       25
Russia and Iceland, and well ahead       as controlling salinity, should be      tal issue since February 2001, pre-
of countries such as Indonesia           more widely acknowledged and rec-       sumably on the basis that it has gen-
(33,540), the United States              ognized.’                               eral appeal to the readership.
(24,000), China (6,000) and the              Unable to successfully push the         All our political parties have
United Kingdom (only 3,000 litres        lie of declining water quality on all   agreed to save the Murray River,
per capita per day). Furthermore,        governments in the lead-up to the       with the amount of water to be
according to the Federal Govern-         last two Council of Australian Gov-     saved the only distinguishing issue.
ment’s Australian Water Resources        ernment (COAG) meetings, Pro-           Environmentalism is increasingly
Assessment 2000, we divert only          fessor Cullen and other members of      about the perception of what is
five per cent of the average annual      the Wentworth Group of Scientists       morally right and wrong—rather
national runoff—most of the rain         (funded by the World Wide Fund          than solving real environmental
falls across northern Australia. So,     for Nature), recently changed tack      problems. Hence the more righ-
effectively, 95 per cent of the rain     and are now telling us that climate     teous the political party, the larger
that falls is ‘for the environment’.     change means there will now be          the saving demanded. So we have
    Incredibly, nobody has an accu-      much less water. In direct contra-      3,000 gigalitres (six Sydney
rate fix on how much water is al-        diction of these predictions, the       Harbour equivalents) pledged by
ready allocated for environmental                                                the Greens, 1,500 from Labor, and
flows in the Murray–Darling Basin.                                               a puny one Sydney Harbour equiva-
Wetland working groups and forest         Environmentalism is                    lent (500 gigalitres) from the Coa-
management committees already                                                    lition.
control many hundreds of gigalitres        increasingly about                        Might the national dialogue on
of water, and this quantity will in-                                             important water issues improve af-
crease under the newly signed and           the perception of                    ter the election? Could we ever
much trumpeted National Water                                                    have informed discussion about the
Initiative. This environmental wa-        what is morally right                  global dilemma of how to best feed
ter, however, doesn’t appear on any                                              people while also protecting wild
general ledger. The focus is always       and wrong—rather                       rivers, including those in northern
on how much water irrigators ex-                                                 Australia?
tract. In wet years, there has been
                                             than solving real                       What if Labor wins the election?
enough water for rice, wine and red           environmental                      Prime Minister Mark Latham could
gums. In dry years, there has been                                               ask Environment Minister Peter
less water for red gums and none for            problems                         Garrett, ‘What exactly is the water
rice in New South Wales. South                                                   problem in Australia?’ He is likely
Australian farmers, however, are                                                 to again reply, ‘There is simply not
assured of almost 100 per cent of        June 2004 issue of Australasian Sci-    enough.’ After consulting water ex-
their allocation, even during the        ence reported that, ‘A meeting of       pert Professor Peter Cullen, Asa
recent very dry years. This is how       almost 100 Australian climatolo-        Wahlquist could report the solution
the water allocation system works.       gists has concluded that the world      in The Australian newspaper the
    The environmental lobby re-          is getting wetter as it gets warmer’.   very next day: ‘Let us start import-
cently suffered a setback when the       There is really no coherent picture     ing all our cheeses’.
Chair of the House of Representa-        of regional climate change. Even            The government may, or may
tives Standing Committee on Ag-          the Intergovernmental Panel on          not, change at the upcoming Fed-
riculture, Fisheries and Forestry        Climate Change (IPCC) concedes          eral election, but the media, the sci-
explained in the Foreword to Get-        this, and CSIRO Atmospheric Re-         entists and the politicians are likely
ting Water Right(s): The future of ru-   search acknowledges that this is par-   to remain largely compliant. They
ral Australia, ‘The Committee is not     ticularly the case for rainfall.        all now feed off environmentalism
swayed by the emotions of some               Putting the facts of the matter     at the expense of rational discus-
commentators who portray the             aside, the environmental lobby is       sion, humanity and the environ-
River Murray as dead or dying. In-       clearly intent on exploiting the        ment. The size of the feast, however,
deed, the steady flows in the River      concept of a dying Murray River—        is likely to be much greater under
Murray today are in stark contrast       now so firmly a part of the national    Labor.
to the trickle reported by Sturt in      psyche—as a campaign platform for
                                                                                   Dr Jennifer Marohasy is the Director of the IPA’s
his journals more than a century         the upcoming election. The Austra-                                   Environmental Unit.
and a half ago … significant             lian newspaper will run the stories.
progress which has been achieved         This newspaper has made ‘Saving
in other areas of river health, such     the Murray’ its official environmen-                                              I P A

                                                                                                          REV I EW
26                                                                                                            SEPTEMBER 2004

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