Can the Murray Darling once again lead the world in water management?

Arguments over water in the Murray Darling are about profits, not life and death. jon gos/Flickr

Almost every major river basin in the world is significantly impacted by humans. The situation in the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) is certainly not unique.

In river basins all over the world, communities and governments are facing increasing pressure over water resources, and how these should be shared and used. In many cases the problems are much more severe than what we have to face here: they are a matter of life and death, rather than profit or less profit.

For many years, the MDB was held up across the world as a beacon of excellence in Integrated Water Resources Management. But events over the last few years have cast doubt on its claim to that role.

When addressing the challenges of water management in large river basins like the MDB, there are three basic things we must do:

  • Consider the views, values and needs of all the stakeholders.

  • Implement measures to guarantee the ecological integrity of our life support system (the earth, we are part of it).

  • Maximise efficiency, effectiveness and equity in the use of our scarce and valuable natural resources.

To take these steps, we need information. Some of this will be scientifically based on empirical evidence, from long-term studies on ecological and hydrological processes and their interaction with humans. Because of such studies, we now begin to understand the basic earth-system processes that are fundamental to maintaining our life support system.

But science is not enough; water management is complex - policy and people are part of the story too.

Water is so fundamental to every culture, it elicits a wide range of strong values across global populations. Every community has deeply held senses of belonging, views on their place in society and environmental values. But wide variation exists between communities in terms of their allocation of priorities.

To manage a complex integrated and connected river system more effectively, we must recognise this variability of conditions and values, and the importance of other non-scientific information should be included, and addressed explicitly within our management decision processes.

It is essential to recognise that the availability, reliability, validity and scale of data used to support policy is a crucial determinant of its success.

Local decisions need data at a different scale from those required at the national scale. To cater for this, we will need to build a comprehensive and integrated dataset to support our future decision processes within the basin.

Most people would agree that if your dam dries up, the fish generally die. Best scientific practice proves the validity of this belief, and this science makes it possible to develop acceptable policies around the need to allocate water for environmental flows.

Environmental flows are important to us because they ensure that the ecosystem services provided by healthy rivers continue to flow into the future. This supports our own survival in a truly ecological sustainable way.

What is less well understood, however, is exactly what the environment needs to ensure this integrity. Logic could tell us that a healthy ecosystem needs the water which is provided by a natural rainfall regime, with rivers and groundwater unmodified by humans. This is, of course, impossible to maintain if we want to withdraw water to support our range of demands.

In most parts of the world today, human water withdrawals are impacting heavily on natural systems. We are now faced with the task of recognising the realities of these “limits to growth”.

To consider such a thorny problem, stakeholder consultation and engagement is the key. Without effective and meaningful processes to deliver this, conflicts and dissatisfaction and everything these bring, are inevitable.

To address this, the concept of distributive justice needs to be embedded into river basin planning. Everyone wants a more robust and sustainable river system. If we can move forward in a spirit of equitable cooperation, we can make progress.

This will lay out a path to make the Murray Darling once again a beacon of excellence in water management, and the model for others to follow.