Water water everywhere, not a crop to grow

Paul-McCormackBy denying irrigators their right to use water we are foregoing an opportunity to grow and prosper, writes Paul McCormack.

On Friday 15th October, there was widespread flooding across the Riverina region that caused many road closures including the Hume Highway at Holbrook. Streets and homes were inundated with water. Shortly afterwards, New South Wales was officially declared to be no longer in drought. In the midst of all these rivers and creeks breaking their banks, the draft plan for the Murray Darling Basin Authority was released. It recommended a reduction of up to 37% in the water used for irrigation in the basin. It has become clear that we have moved from a situation of being in a natural drought to being in a “legislated drought.”[1] A natural drought is caused by a severe shortage of water. A legislated drought is cause by a severe shortage of intelligence.

The water issue should always be at the forefront of public policy debate in Australia. Regardless of whether we support or oppose proposals such as desalination plants, recycled water or new dams, the use and management of water should always be discussed and debated. John Howard understood the importance of an integrated response to the issues affecting the Murray Darling Basin. The decision by the Commonwealth Government to take responsibility for the basin was a worthy initiative that was typical of the former Prime Minister’s practical approach to policy. The Water Act explicitly states that economic concerns should be central to the planned management of river systems. However, as Professor Judith Sloan points out, part of the problem is that the Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDL) referred to in the Act give precedence to environmental concerns.

“The objects of the act talk about promoting "the use and management of the basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes". But when it comes to the principles guiding the determination of the SDLs, the environment has primacy, with residual flows available for other uses.”

Irrigation has been central to the development of many communities that now flourish in regional Australia. A central figure in this historical development was a politician named Alfred Deakin. Deakin was a visionary. He saw the potential for irrigation in the 19th century and travelled far and wide to study the possibilities for Australia to utilise our inland river systems. He invited two brothers from North America to this country and the result was a thriving region now known as Sunraysia. The main thoroughfare in Mildura is named in Deakin’s honour. Interestingly enough, the environment and the economy were able to sustain and prosper in that era and politicians had a deep appreciation for the value of irrigation.

Therefore, it is unfortunate and curious that we should reach a point in our political debate about water whereby there is a division between irrigators and the environment. It is a false dichotomy. It ignores the fact that irrigators are environmentalists. Irrigators have a vested interest in ensuring the environment is well preserved and protected. Furthermore, irrigators in Australia have not been guilty of neglect when it comes to efficient water usage; to use water inefficiently would be poor business practice on their part.

The question that underpins this whole debate should not focus on the environmental concerns of the far left Greens who can preach about water usage from their comfortable vantage points in metropolitan areas. They are the consumers in our society. The question, rather, should focus on whether Australia actually wants to be a nation that produces its own food and a sufficient quantity for export for a growing world population and one that is increasingly urbanised. Moreover, the question should be about the way that the government treats the people who perform this essential role in our economy, the producers in our society. Michael McCormack MP, the federal representative for Riverina, asked this question in his maiden speech to parliament:

“Do we, as a nation, now repay the farmers who have still managed to put food on our tables despite a dozen years of the worst ever drought by taking the precious resource with which they need to grow their produce? Can we, in all conscience, allow a situation whereby the very people who feed us and sustain us are coerced, encouraged or forced—call it what you like—into selling their right to use water?”

Country people, especially irrigators and those who work on the land, understand the cyclical nature of the climate. They’re aware of the importance of the environment, not least because of its importance to their livelihood. Australians have always believed in a fair go. Surely it is now time to start giving the people who feed this nation a fair go. In depriving irrigators of their rights to use water, we are starving ourselves of the opportunity to grow our own food and denying rural communities their chance to prosper economically and socially. One can only wonder what Deakin would be thinking of this situation if he were alive today. Perhaps he would simply shake his head in disbelief that, at the very time of wet weather, our irrigators are being hung out to dry.

Paul McCormack is a high school teacher in Wagga Wagga.

[1] Comment by Andrew Broad, VFF President, The Weekly Times, 20th October 2010