What happens when there’s no water? How the Murray-Darling plan might affect communities

South Australian communities know what it’s like to live without water. AAP

When the Murray Darling Basin Authority commissioned me in 2011 to examine the social impacts on the Lower Murray and Lakes communities of low flows and drought, I was confronted with irrigation farmers who had no access to fresh water from 2007 to 2009. They hadn’t been compensated for losing part of their water licence, and they literally could not pump any water from the river or groundwater.

Before the crisis they had access to fresh water that was the poorest quality in the Basin because they were at the bottom of a river system over 1500 km long. That system drains soils which contain substantial remnant salt deposits, and the water has already been used and re-used many times over.

As this extreme social experiment continued, as the water levels receded up to two kilometres from shorelines, people had to adapt by making decisions which had permanent consequences.

These decisions were not solely driven by access to water. There were individual contexts that each family, each small business, each town had to account for and work within. These included demographic forces, bank and financial responsibilities, market prices and mining jobs.

The cascade effects included changed land use, changed business focus, alternative off-farm or “off-business” jobs, vacant houses, closed schools, emergence of action groups and increased mental health problems. And yet, within these effects, adaptive decisions that people made enabled many of them to survive and prosper.

What hurt people more than loss of water was the way in which state politicians caused “political low flows”. The greatest fear of people of the Lower Murray and Lakes is that before this Basin Plan is fully realised in 2019, another drought will occur, and they will be back in the same position again.

Communities don’t like it when they think environmental problems are caused by politics. mbaumann1983

This time-line is too long for people to remain in limbo; again, it is a political timeline. Part of the Commonwealth/States Accord on the Murray Darling Basin management under Council of Australian Governments was that all States party to the Murray Darling Basin have to harmonise their Water Resource Plans with the Water Act (2007). At the moment the Water Resource Plans of Queensland, NSW, SA and the ACT end in 2014; Victoria’s Water Resource Plan is due for review in 2019, giving the other states an excuse to push the timeline out until then.

The communities of the Lower Murray and Lakes have had to cope with enormous uncertainty since Melbourne Cup Day 2006, the moment that then-Premier Mike Rann announced the possibility of constructing a weir across the Murray as it enters Lake Alexandrina at Wellington.

The weir was to protect Adelaide’s water supply: the river level had dropped so much that the pumps at Mannum were almost sucking air. If the barrages were opened to let sea water in, then the salt water could reach the pumps. The consequences of the weir, however, were unknown, feared, dreaded. Much the same feelings are apparent in news stories this week as upstream irrigation communities contemplate the implications of the Draft Basin Plan.

Uncertainty was numbing people’s minds, in the same way that the current Draft Plan appears to, or could do. The Lower Murray and Lakes action groups formed to obtain information; such groups are already (re)forming across the Basin with the release of this Draft Basin Plan.

In SA in 2007-09, the Government didn’t want to engage in open debates until it had some or all the answers; in 2011 the range of initial reactions to the Draft Plan this week suggests that the devil is still in the detail, not yet released.

Waiting until 2019 is too long. My research showed that people are much better at making decisions about their lives and livelihoods when faced with a crisis which has fixed dimensions.

The Lower Murray and Lakes farmers, small business and towns were able to effect change within three years once they knew what their options were; what assets they had at their disposal; once they knew what was happening to their physical natural environment and social environment. Individuals have to make these decisions. Towns must learn and understand what is happening in their world and respond as best they can.

When farmers know what sort of future they face, they can make plans. AAP

My report, Life After Less Water, found three basic types of responses:

  • People who were vocal in their opposition to zero irrigation allocations, the weir, and then the regulators (earthen bunds to retain water over acid sulphate soils to prevent the release of sulphuric acid). They made changes grudgingly if noisily, some feeling like they were political pawns.

  • People who went to public meetings, learned what they could, went home and re-jigged their operations.

  • People who were unable to liquidate their assets or sell their business and so were stuck with an unenviable choice. In many cases the sale of the business was their superannuation, but there were no buyers.

Although most of these people were at least looking forward, a number of farmers looked back to what they had lost, and lost hope. Their depressed attitude increased their stress levels to the point where some were observed to become destructive: to themselves, their families and their communities.

One respondent said they created “a loud, useless noise” as they proclaimed conspiracy theories aimed at the Government. The result was “a denial of community identity, [as it focused attention on the individual and therefore] people sat back and deferred decision making”.

When a conspiracy theory was widely publicised it created uncertainty and inaction in others when in some cases decisive action was probably a better idea. This again contributed to the general anxiety and mind-numbing experience when facing imposed change without the information to deal with its consequences.

Based on the Lower Murray and Lakes irrigators experience, I do not foresee widespread dislocation of upstream communities from water, though many individuals and irrigation corporations may need to modify business models. The most extreme situation I reported was on the Narrung Peninsula, where there was no water and 76 irrigation pivots became “stranded assets” worth in excess of $20 million. I would not anticipate such losses are likely elsewhere.

At its most simplistic, if the Murray Mouth is kept open 90% of the time, as the Draft Plan aims to do, salt will be removed from the system and allocations can be built from the bottom up. That is, the total volume of allocations have to allow for sufficient water to carry salt out of the whole system; this means keeping the Murray Mouth open naturally, not dredged.

So during the one in 10 years (during periods of low Basin inflows) when the Murray Mouth may close, irrigators should also receive lower allocations depending on the total volume available.

After all, the river has earned the right to be healthy: What can we do to ensure it stays that way for our mutual benefit?