Arguments over Murray-Darling Basin must hold water

Myths and self-interest have plagued Australia’s water policies for decades. It’s time for sensible debate about a long-term approach, argues Lin Crase.

It’s almost time for the arguments to start again about the future of the Murray-Darling Basin.

With state and federal elections scheduled for 2022 (or earlier) and the Basin Plan listed for renewal in 2024, the usual animosities around water sharing are sure to emerge.

These are guaranteed to take three forms: upstream-versus-downstream debates run along state lines; irrigation-versus-environment battles structured around water user ideals; and the bush-versus-city stand offs built on agrarian fundamentals. The only thing likely to ease the pain in the short term is the forecast for a wetter-than-usual summer – arguments about water are always shorter when it’s raining.

Sadly, much of this debate is not particularly well-informed, and as a result, policy makers in Australia have generally let us down. Their focus is only ever on the latest catastrophe – drought or flood – and their ideas are shaped by some common myths about water in Australia.

Myth One: We live in the driest state in the driest country

There is no denying that there are some very dry parts of Australia and some of those are located within South Australia. These are also amongst the driest and hottest parts of the planet, and they’re getting hotter. But few Australians probably realise that there is more renewable freshwater per head of population in Australia than in Switzerland or New Zealand.

The challenge for Australia is not that we live in a dry country, rather that our freshwater is highly episodic – it rains a lot and then not at all for an extended period, and it rains a lot in some places and not at all in others.

Goolwa during drought in 2008. Photo supplied.

Living in a dry environment only becomes a serious problem when people start to do things that require more water than can be sustainably provided; that was the point of drawing the Goyder line in this state in the 19th century. The Goyder line indicated where water scarcity was likely to limit cropping and was intended to discourage farming that was not sustainable.

So far, and maybe with the exception of parts of the Murray-Darling, we have broadly resisted the idea of trying to move large quantities of water to underpin industries in deserts. And as long as a level of common sense persists, we probably don’t need to get too concerned about parts of the state being dryer than others. Instead, we should focus on how we get water to where people live. Providing good quality drinking water to people in the really dry parts of the country is a challenge, but one that a rich country like Australia should be able to manage if we choose to.

Myth Two: Dams are the solution

When Europeans started to colonise this continent, they struggled with the irregularity of our weather and climate. Compared to their homelands, Australia was marked by extremes and their instinct was to ‘tame the environment’. In the case of water, one solution was to build dams so that water could be stored during wetter times for use during drier times.

This is complicated in Australia by the underlying variability in rainfall, because you need to build a dam about 8 to 10 times larger here to realise the same level of reliability as an equivalent dam in Europe. That adds significantly to the cost of achieving consistency of water supply.

Another complication is that Australia is one of the flattest continents, and dams work best where you have hills and mountains. Unsurprisingly, most of the good sites for building dams in Australia are already used for that purpose.

So when you hear politicians advocating for more dams to increase water security, you know they are talking about spending very large sums of public money in places where it won’t work very well. You also know that anything produced from that dam is unlikely to be competitive globally, because dams of equivalent reliability elsewhere in the world are smaller – and therefore cheaper. This is to say nothing of the environmental consequences of damming natural waterways.

Another related myth is the discussion about diverting water inland that resurfaces with almost every drought. This dates back to the Bradfield scheme proposed in the late 1930s, which argued that water could be dammed and then diverted from large rivers that run to the sea in northern Queensland to irrigate western Queensland and parts of northern SA.

It’s fortunate that we’ve managed to resist building it, because few advocates bother to read the detail. Consider that a cubic meter of water weighs a tonne, and if you have to move it uphill at any point it is going to use a lot of energy and that means cost. Moving water inland over hills is seldom going to pay.

Myth Three: Just add water

Historically, water has been used as a means of promoting rural and regional development. The economics of the way communities work now, however, is vastly different.

If an industry is using a lot of water and requires reliable supply, it is likely that it will also need many other inputs. This was pointed out by a renowned agricultural economist, Bruce Davidson, in the 1960s. He saw that Australia’s irrigated agriculture would not only need ample water to be competitive, but lots of cheap labour too. And Australia just doesn’t have a large cheap labour force, let alone one that will happily move to irrigated areas to harvest crops.

Another component of this is getting products to markets – ideally markets willing to pay a premium, since both dams and labour are expensive here. This doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for profit, but it does signal that a wholesale policy of ‘just add water’ is not going to stack up.

A corollary of this argument is that when water resources move between districts, there will be inevitable decline in the region that exports the water. This is simply not supported by the data. First, in many areas that have exported water there is thriving growth, sometimes underpinned by the investments from the proceeds of the water sold. Second, when regions or districts do decline there is no clear link to water – rather, the decline follows some other long-term trend.

The result of these myths is a lack of any plan or vision about regional and rural communities, including those in South Australia. There is also insufficient attention to their needs.

Until we are able to have a sensible long term policy conversation about what we want for and expect from our rural communities, we will always find ourselves sunk by myths about water.

Lin Crase is a Professor of Economics and water researcher at UniSA

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