Oh, Darling

Murray-Darling River

Australia’s beloved basin needs short-term pain for long-term gain, writes Willem Vervoort.

Australia is known for its variability in climate, but humans don’t like variability.

Most of human management is aimed at reducing variability and making sure everything happens in a more predictable way. Agriculture is a major example of this, so is river regulation for navigation, or government monetary policy. The variable climate and fragile environment of the Murray-Darling Basin has created enormous challenges and generations of Australians have worked tirelessly to try and regulate their environment.

As a result, irrigation schemes and large-scale agriculture have been developed. This has stabilised and lowered food prices, created export wealth and both city and country have prospered. For years we have been happy with this situation, but thinking and times change, and we now worry about the impact that this management has had on the environment in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Travelling through the basin, you are confronted with dilemmas and choices. There are the towns made prosperous through irrigation and the drought-stricken farms. There are the beautiful national heritage areas and the red river gums dying in saline pools of water.

The environmental crisis in the basin is a regular news item, with dire predictions of major water shortages, acid sulphate soils and suggestions that agriculture should be abandoned. However, food shortages for our bulging world population and the plight of Australia’s drought-affected rural population appear just as regularly.

The discussion about the future of the basin can be highly emotive, but it is important we make careful decisions. What happens in the Murray-Darling Basin will affect all Australians.

Its environment is influenced by three levels of change, operating in different time scales.

The first is the geological time scale, where processes slowly develop under the influence of changes in the earth’s crust and the tilt of the earth’s axis. These processes move the earth’s climate slowly between ice ages and warm periods. As far as we know, humans have no impact on this.

The second level is climate variability and climate change due to cycles in the sea surface temperatures and atmospheric dust, ozone and carbon levels. These result in Australia’s recurring droughts and floods and long-term variation in rainfall and temperature. We now know that our increased industrial activity has affected these processes and accelerated warming of the planet.

Finally, there is the short-term impact of dry years and wet years, water extraction and management for humans, such as for irrigation, industry and towns.

The success of Australian agriculture in the basin is reflected in the literature. Wheat and wool production are highlights of the achievements and our irrigation practices and production are the envy of many countries. Mining can be added to the list of activities in the basin that bring prosperity but also have great impact on the environment.

This prosperity has not only benefited the rural population, but also the cities. However, as a result of its success, the basin has become a river system that is highly managed by humans.

The dilemma we now face is how we can maintain the benefits of the highly developed agricultural and other activities while also maintaining and protecting the fragile environment.

There has been much talk about protecting certain iconic sites, while giving up others. Such trade-offs are often favoured by politicians and economists as quick ways of achieving multiple goals. In my opinion, this is not the best solution. The biophysical system is so connected that separation is difficult to achieve.

Therefore, the goal should be to lower the overall impact rather than separate the activities from the environmental assets.

For this, we need to find ways to lower the impact of agricultural and production activities on the environment and that might initially result in lower rates of production. We need to clearly separate what effects on the environment are due to drought, climate change or other variables, which we cannot manage and what effects are due to production activities, which we can manage.

Given the complexity of nature, this is not an easy task. However, we also need to be rather quick, as the state of the basin is deteriorating. Current science can offer some solutions and promises a better future, but I am afraid there is not yet an easy solution.

In the short term, we will have to give up some of our personal prosperity and accept higher food prices, lower export income or other changes in the Australian economy in order to maintain the basin’s environment. This will affect all of us, whether our postcode is 2022 or 2715.

Willem Vervoort is senior lecturer in Hydrology and Catchment Management at the University of Sydney.