Water and the Murray Darling Basin

Forty percent of all Australian water is used by agricultural irrigation in the Murray Darling Basin. At least that’s my estimate, based on some widely available and often quoted figures*. So 40% of all of our water is used in an industry that employs 3% of the workforce. This could almost be fair, I suppose, as all industries have specific needs, and all of them will necessarily need more of given resources than represents their workforce population. Except that water is unique; it’s not just an environmental resource, but a human right. Which means 3% of our population are using ten times their appropriate allocation.

Which still could almost be fair enough. I mean, everyone has to eat, right? The Basin does contain 75% of Australian irrigated agriculture, so they’ve certainly got a reason to use it. But that ignores the fact that while 75% of irrigated agriculture is in the Basin, only 40% of overall farming is. It also ignores that it produces only a quarter of the value of agricultural production in Australia, around $A9.6 billion a year, and a third of Australia’s food supply. Suddenly it sounds like irrigated agriculture might be a poor return for our water.

I could still live with all of this, but as I said above, water is a human right, something we rely upon to survive. It’s something we all have a share in and it’s also something everything else relies upon. It’s no secret that with the ongoing drought, environmental flows in the Murray Darling have decreased every year. Extensive drought conditions exist downstream and we are drying out wetlands. Approximately a quarter of the species of mammals that lived in the Basin are now extinct.

If that was what it took to feed our country and people, I could live with that. If we lived in an apocalyptic, walking the line, close to starvation country and population, I’d be all over that. But the fact is that we don’t. We have other sources of food, and we have other ways of growing food. See, for example, the 60% of agriculture taking place outside of the Murray Darling Basin (which one has to assume accounts for the remaining 75% environmentally debased and abused). That have some place of surviving into the future, which for the Murray Darling seems less likely every year.

It would be okay if that was what it took to feed Australia. I may be an environmental purist, but I’d never claim to protect the environment over saving lives. But it just doesn’t. A recent study showed the most common means of watering crops in the Basin – namely, cut earthen channels – wastes as much as 85% of water flowing through by evaporation. So from using 40% of Australian water, farmers in the Murray Darling Basin are wasting as much as 34% of all Australian water through simple evaporation. And they don’t have to. The same study demonstrated that using drip feeders – you know, those drip feeders every Sydney gardener is required to have installed in times of drought – limit evaporation to as little as 5%. But they don’t use them, and they won’t. Do you know Australia has the second highest per capita water usage in the world, second only to the US, despite our drought conditions? And the most wasteful of all possible methods of watering crops?

I have a couple of questions. The first is, where exactly do Australian farmers in the Murray Darling get off bitching about not getting government subsidies and being hard done by in years of drought? It’s pretty apparent to me, if not anyone else, that water shortages are manufactured and circumstantial, not complete. The second is, why exactly are we letting these farmers get away with this? Why should they get to use 40% of our most important resource to make a contribution to the economy that is, realistically, fairly minor? Why are we so desperately concerned about their ongoing survival and complaints about the economic system not being fair? It’s a pretty central claim of neoclassical economics that it minimises inefficiency and waste, and it’s pretty obvious to me that’s exactly what our farmers aren’t doing.

My final question is, when exactly is the Australian government, at all levels, going to get a clue and start resourcing the Basin appropriately? Not with sentiment or political arm-twisting, but a genuine view for the future?

Oh right, it’s the Australian government. Never mind.

*70% of all Australia water use (or slightly more) is attributed to agriculture. 70–75% of irrigated agriculture is present in the Murray Darling Basin. Assuming around 80% of water use by agriculture is by irrigated agriculture, which is beyond fair, this gives around 40% of the total.

Georgia Claire

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  1. The MDB issue is huge and complex. The story on the front page of the Sat Sydney Morning Herald (Sat 4 Sept 2010) is an excellent example. Water has now been turned into a commodity and the policies, as they stand, allow farmers to sell their irrigation rights to the highest bidder, leaving the rights to water in the hands of foreign investors who may exert their economic power over national agriculture, which in turn effects the local environment. I can’t help thinking scary thoughts about capitalism and bureaucracy taking an unhealthy hold in areas that the leaders have absolutely no connection with.

  2. “where exactly do Australian farmers in the Murray Darling get off bitching about not getting government subsidies and being hard done by in years of drought?” – wow, dont you just get the highest award for idiotic, narrow-minded insensitivity, madam high and mighty.

    im glad you are not in control of their access to better mental health services.

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