The vital Murray-Darling basin system is dying and it's up to a combined effort between politicians and scientists to save it, writes Dr David Shearman. (Read the article with hyperlinks here.)
Those moving to South Australia from the UK soon hear about the mighty river Murray and so in 1981, as a family, we decided to visit the iconic river mouth where water from thousands of kilometres of the Murray and tributaries flowed into the sea. We were accustomed to the babbling streams and fast-flowing rivers of Scotland, so this new experience would be breathtaking. It was an “emperor has no new clothes” moment as the cry went out: “But Dad, it’s only a pond!” Indeed, it was and the sea was hundreds of metres away. The Murray is yet to run free to the sea and this is a measure of its increasing sickness nearly 40 years later.
The demise of the Murray, which now seems likely, will tear the heart out of the Australian economy, wreak the true sustainability of the nation and the health and social circumstances of thousands. The bottom line is water to drink, for without this many inland towns will die. Almost 3 million people rely on water from the Murray and its tributaries. It supports a diverse range of ecosystems, plants and animals which are vital for the region to be environmentally sustainable. It produces more than one-third of the nation’s food and $22 billion p.a. in agriculture each year.
Even before the SA Royal Commission reported, the political fighting and blaming had commenced over leaked evidence.
The Murray issue is just one of several complex issues that governments can no longer manage for the future, simply because human nature being as it is, electoral needs and demands will always hold sway. Management of the Great Barrier Reef and climate change policy fit into the same category — they must be taken out of the political sphere.
From the SA Royal Commission report, we knew that the original plan was flawed in several ways and its impacts were further compromised by management incompetence, political deals and possible corruption, all confirmed by the Australian Academy of Science report.
Most importantly, the effect of climate change had not been modelled into projected water flows. No lessons had been learned from the fate of other rivers in drought regions of the world, for example, the mighty Colorado in the U.S.
When the fish kills indicated the gravity and urgency of the situation, Bill Shorten made an important decision — to call for a truly independent scientific report from the experts, the Australian Academy of Science (AAS). Their reply contained an important message that politicians to date have failed to understand.
The Academy welcomed ‘the opportunity to provide independent scientific advice to the federal Leader of the Opposition’ and said: A commitment to using science from independent expert sources to inform policy decisions is crucial for effective decision making in Australia. It is common in other comparable countries for governments to routinely seek formal independent scientific advice from their respective national academy. For example in the UK, the Royal Society is an independent scientific adviser to government and in the US the National Academies of Science perform this role.
How should we deliver independent scientific advice to provide secure outcomes? This is the crucial Murray question.
The AAS makes the point that independent scientific advice from the leading scientific organisations is vital. We can surmise it is more than scientific advice organised by the Minister or their Department.
The possible solution to such needs has come from APEEL, a group of distinguished lawyers which included the late Hon Justice Murray Wilcox. It recommended a high-level (such as the Reserve Bank) Commonwealth Environment Commission (CEC) that would be responsible for, amongst other things, the conduct of environmental inquiries of a strategic nature and the necessary outcomes would be delivered by a National Environmental Protection Agency. The system would have the security of the Reserve Bank, vital decisions on the Murray could be delivered without political chicanery in the same way as interest rates and related matters are delivered securely.
These new laws have been supported by The Places You Love Alliance of environmental and health organisations.
The future task is confronting. Essentially, contraction of the Murray water resource due to increasing droughts and climate change has to be managed. Therefore, as a first step, a report from independent scientists working in a statutory Sustainability Commission would define the volume of water to maintain the health of the river and then indicate the diminished amount for human use. Then, the Commonwealth could deliver sound but socially difficult policy via an EPA.
A Sustainability Commission (previously called the CEC) and a national EPA were detailed in draft Labor policy last year and hopefully, this was in Bill Shorten’s mind when he made his request to the AAS. Without this security, the necessary vital changes in the existing plan will once more descend into the political abyss.
As expected, the AAS report says that their findings point to serious deficiencies in governance and management, which collectively have eroded the intent of the Water Act 2007 and the framework of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (2012) and it recommends: ‘Improve the health of the Darling River, through adequate and effective planning which is scientifically informed.’
In the current Labor policy, the EPA proposal is still evident but the Sustainability Commission seems to have disappeared like water from the Murray. The report produced by the AAS in response to his request may convince Mr Shorten otherwise. The next few years will be the last opportunity to save the river and new environmental laws must be used so that the river survives political incompetence and subterfuge.
Dr David Shearman AM FRACP is Hon Advisor to Doctors for the Environment Australia www.dea.org.au and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University.