Throughout January, many thousands of bodies rose to the surface of the Menindee Lakes. Bony Herring, Golden and Silver Perch, Murray Cod. All suffocated as a rapid die off of blue green algae, itself a symptom of nutrient overload, stripped the water of oxygen. Locals had been watching the disaster unfold for some time. Barkindji elder Badger Bates wrote in 2017 that ‘Barka (the river) is buka (dead). It stinks of dead fish. It is rotten.’
At the same time, Australia’s culture wars were flaring ahead of the January 26 public holiday. Like the disaster in the Murray-Darling basin, these conflicts have been approaching a flash point in recent years. It was in this context that Murray-Darling Special Commissioner Bret Walker wrote that there are parallels between the damage done to the natural eco-systems of the basin and trauma inflicted on Indigenous Nations since invasion. They are part of the same story. The crisis of the Murray-Darling is a failure of management, but it is also a failure of national identity. Australia is a country that has not yet come to terms with its First People, or its environment.
Behind the headline grabbing accusations of gross maladministration and unlawful behaviour, the Murray-Darling Royal Commission report expresses a sentiment that the Australian nation has not yet come to understand the reality of the land on which it has constructed itself. The Murray Darling Basin, Walker writes, is what was found after the ‘vain searches for the putative great inland sea petered out in the spectacle of boats dragged into dry sandhills.’ As such, the Murray Darling Basin currently stands as a stark symbol of Australian colonialism, of how we forged a nation through our attempted control of the landscape. Local histories and public interpretation country wide tell the story of the heroic pastoralist who does battle with environment to feed the nation. The myth of the lone man struggling against the environment persists, but of course the reality is more complex
Agriculture, like all industries, spans both small businesses and large corporate entities. Economics and policy drive high-yield, low-margin systems that reward economies of scale. The basin is home to 40% of Australian farms, and 75% of its irrigated crops which consume the bulk of the system’s water. Agriculture from the basin has an annual worth of $24 billion and supports 2.6 million people. Predominantly flat and low-lying, it covers 14% of the Australian landmass, yet captures only 6% of its rainfall, the bulk of this falling in the southern reaches of the system. Total water flow is the lowest of any major river system in the world.
Prior to colonisation, what we now call the Murray Darling Basin was stewarded by more than 40 Indigenous Nations who operated a series of fish traps along the rivers and tributaries, the most well-known of which is found at Brewarrina. Indigenous aquaculture systems fell into disuse as violence and dispossession drove Traditional Owners off Country and profoundly disrupted traditional ecological knowledge acquired over millennia. Non-Indigenous commercial fishing commenced in the basin in 1859. It was just 4 years before concerns were expressed about sustainability and by the end of the nineteenth century, a New South Wales Royal Commission into the management of fisheries was called.
The removal of Traditional Owners from both physical and conceptual space is a defining feature of Australian colonialism. In 1998 the Murray River’s Yorta Yorta Nation were ruled unsuccessful in their native title claim, told by the judge that the ‘tide of history’ (read: colonial violence and dispossession) had washed away their native title rights. The Murray Lower Darling Indigenous Nations formed in the immediate aftermath of this decision in an attempt to find another way to protect the land and water. North of the Murray, the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council continue to advocate for real involvement in management in a context in which native title rights over waterways are not recognised and allocations for cultural flows remain pitifully small. In the words of Barkindji man Eddy Harriss: ‘the system they already got never worked for 100 years. Give us a chance to work with Government properly, a fair go.’
As Harriss observes, it was just over one hundred years ago, in 1902, that the Federation Drought prompted an inter-state Royal Commission which started a century-long dialogue around conservation and regulation of the waters of the Murray Darling. ‘Conservation’ in this context refers to conserving sufficient water to meet required use. In support of this objective, a massive program of engineering commenced, and irrigation – initially confined to the wetter, southern parts of the system – gradually extended into more arid areas. The States argued about takes and impacts but by the mid-twentieth century, concerns about the ecological health of the system were widespread. When the Millennial Drought hit a century later, the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) was formed in response. Under the Water Act 2007, the MDBA is tasked with prioritising environmental concerns in its management approach. A key finding of Special Commissioner Walker was that it had failed to do so, focusing instead on a triple-bottom-line decision-making process.
It has taken less than two centuries for the project of Australian colonialism to drive the massive but fragile Murray-Darling Basin to its knees. The current state of the system and its administration needs to be understood as a failure. After a century of Royal Commissions and interstate agreements we are arguably closer than ever before to destroying our largest river system, but State and Federal Governments are disinclined to act, waiting instead for the rain to come. Traditional Owners are demanding a seat at the table but Indigenous rights, interests and knowledge remain marginalised and a flashpoint of public conflict over Australian history and identity. If the river dies, it will be too late. The voice of the rivers, and the people who care for them, need to be heard.