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Oct 20, 2010

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Tony Kevin writes: Farmer David Furphy’s comparison is apt: Australian city dwellers would certainly resent it if a Government-commissioned report was put out for public discussion, recommending that one third of their electricity supply, or one third of their suburban road network, should be closed down.

Irrigated agriculture systems, like electric grids and city road transport networks, are human engineering constructs. They are not gifts of nature. And like electric and road grids, irrigation systems trigger by their existence a government’s duty of care to the human communities that they sustain.

Particularly when those systems were built with the blood, sweat and tears that went into the building of our Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) irrigation communities over the past 100 years.

We see now, in the latest MDB Report, the results of a perverse alliance of convenience between two extremist ideologies: the market rationalism which only values water as a tradeable good to be sold to the highest bidders, and the deep green environmentalism which opposes any interference to natural ecologies for purposes of building and sustaining human settlements.

To the latter ideology, any irrigation system (or any major water storage and diversion system like the Snowy Mountains Scheme) is actually an unacceptable interference with nature.

Here are some principles which I hope might better inform the current debate:

First, irrigation is intrinsically a good thing for human civilisations. It collects and stores rainwater falling in arid, mountainous, high rainfall areas, and then reticulates this water by controlled means to flat, easily-tilled fertile-soil plains where food can be grown more safely and efficiently.

Irrigation makes sense, as the best means of sustaining human food security under conditions of irregular rainfall in the wrong places. It is as old as Ancient Babylon or Egypt.

Second, if it is proposed to withdraw substantial quantities of water from the existing irrigation-based human settlements in the MDB, in order to restore (temporarily, until the next drought cycle hits) ecological health to the MDB river system, it must not be left to the chance vagaries of market forces to decide who stays and who goes.

It could be the big high-profit mechanised cotton and rice farms that stay, and the small mixed farmers, orchardists and horticulturalists that will go one by one. This is not a good social outcome. It will destroy human communities. We are part of the ecology too.

To claim that the Government will buy back water only from ‘willing sellers’ misses the key sociological point. Once an irrigation-based community, which is all about cooperation, starts to lose members, it starts to fall apart in an irreversible feedback process. The people (and local bankers) in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area understand this very well. Only economists in ivory towers do not want to see it.

Third, the Australian nation owes the people who live in our irrigation communities a lot — we encouraged them to work hard to develop these areas for our national food security. They are us.

Fourth, it makes sense now, taking a longer view, to help these communities sustain themselves, because city-dwelling Australians will again need their food-growing potential in future, as climate change and peak oil hit our nation harder, inevitably reshaping our national food import and export patterns.

It would be reckless to rely on cheap food imports bought on the proceeds of our present massive coal and minerals sales abroad. This bonanza will not last in a world of accelerating climate change and peak oil.

The present temporarily benign weather patterns in the MDB are no guide to the future policy environment. The reality of severe coming climate change must be factored into policy. Against a background of the inevitable desertification through climate change of most of the unirrigated MDB region, especially in the south, our irrigation communities should correctly be cherished, as places that will become like oases in the Arabian or Sahara Deserts.

Arab desert people cherish their oases and look after them as precious sources of food — they do not walk away from them.

There is a huge social capital and farming expertise invested in our irrigation communities. We need to sustain this national asset, not wilfully disrupt it.

Independent MP Tony Windsor has urged a wider perspective on the problem: more efficiency in the way water is reticulated to the farm gate and used on the farm; and a preparedness, in a time of climate change, to look outside the MDB catchment for more water.

On the latter point, I salute his courage. We need to challenge the fundamentalist market economics and environmentalist doctrines that say it is wrong to pump water from one river catchment to another.

In the final, future scenario-setting chapter of my climate change policy book Crunch Time, I envisaged the future need for a series of solar or wind-powered Snowy-type schemes along the east-flowing rivers of Eastern Australia, to pump increasingly over-abundant coastal rainfall due to climate change up to highland storages just across the Great Dividing Range.

The advantage of beginning such a public works program now is that it will provide enough water over the next few years to sustain both the natural river ecologies and the irrigation communities of the MDB.

Additionally, such highland water storage and diversion infrastructure will be an insurance-premium against the time — maybe only 20 years off — when all of southern Australia will face severe average temperature increases and coastal region sea-levels start to rise faster, disrupting international trade and coastal communities, and forcing migration inland to higher, cooler areas.

We should think about planning ahead for such climate change disruption now, while our nation can still afford it.

Meanwhile, extra water pumped over the Divide into the MDB could be used to sustain the national asset of our present MDB irrigation communities — as well as the natural river ecologies.

Tony Windsor’s questions about going outside the MDB for more water are on the right track. I hope he won’t let doctrinaire market rationalist economists and environment fundamentalists mock him into silence.

Tony Kevin is the author of Crunch Time, a book exploring Australia’s inadequate policy responses to the climate change crisis. This article first appeared on Eureka Street. This is part of Rooted series from different interested parties — farmers, lobby groups, environmentalists, etc — discussing their reactions to the guide of the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the community consultations surrounding it, called Murray Murmurings. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, email ajamieson[at]crikey.com.au

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18 thoughts on “Murray Murmurings: What happens when two extremist ideologies meet

  1. zoomster

    lindsayb

    live in a rural community, have an irrigation license myself (a very small one), so naturally all my evidence is anecdotal – I’m scarcely going to name and shame my neighbours.

    I wasn’t talking about direct subsidies. We certainly provide some – diesel fuel, for example – but it is a simple fact of life that most services provided to country areas are subsidised by state or federal governments. Roads, telecommunications, health and education, all cost considerably more to provide in rural and regional areas than they do in cities, due to economies of scale, distances and the difficulty in attracting staff. Even the present upgrades to irrigation infrastructure in Victoria are being subsidised by Melbourne Water.

    And in times of drought, we provide farmers with Centrelink benefits without asking them to meet the same conditions other people on welfare are required to. If the farm isn’t making money, and is basically closed for business, why shouldn’t we be asking the farmer to look for work? But we don’t.

    My statements about employment are also based on personal knowledge. Most of our local labourers come in from Pacific Islands for the picking season. Friends in the union movement report appalling cases of exploitation of migrant workers and there are regular raids locally which pick up illegal migrants, most of whom are being paid less than award wages.

    And no, the answer isn’t increasing food prices. It’s recognising that some products are no longer economical to grow locally and encouraging farmers to diversity to products which are.

    The shortfall in all of these areas are met by city dwelling taxpayers.

    To get back to the headline article, which I wasn’t able to deal with in full due to time:

    [a series of solar or wind-powered Snowy-type schemes along the east-flowing rivers of Eastern Australia, to pump increasingly over-abundant coastal rainfall due to climate change up to highland storages just across the Great Dividing Range.]

    Firstly, I’m not sure which east flowing rivers we’re talking about. Especially ones ‘just across the GDR’. I mean, it’s so simple; what’s a mountain between friends?

    Secondly, I’ve not seen any climate change research (and look, it’s possible that I’ve missed it; I haven’t read everything on this subject, and certainly not your book, which – on the basis of what I’ve read here, I encourage people not to buy) which suggests an increase in coastal rainfall, let alone an overabundance. My understanding is that it mightn’t be as badly hit as some areas.

    [The advantage of beginning such a public works program now is that it will provide enough water over the next few years to sustain both the natural river ecologies and the irrigation communities of the MDB.]

    Well, no it won’t. It’s not ‘oh let’s do it’ and it magically happens. What you’re talking about wouldn’t be pumping water anywhere for probably at least a decade (when you take all the practicalities into account). And you haven’t explained how it gets from your highland storages to the MDB.

    If you’re talking about the fabled scheme cobbled together years ago to redirect water into the headwaters of the Darlng via various other conduits, my understanding is that we’re talking billions of dollars, years of work, and some major engineering projects. And in terms of the cost of the water provided, that one’s been ruled out as uneconomic every time anyone’s gone near it.

    If you’re not (and I don’t think you are) then you need to explain where your water comes from, how it is diverted, how it is transferred to these highland reservoirs, and how it is then put into the MDB. None of these steps are anywhere near as simple (or as cheap) as they sound when you write them down on paper.

    The Victorian N-S pipeline cost $750 million (over $10 million per kilometre), for example.

    The ‘we’re running out of water, so let’s pump it from somewhere else’ mentality is a strange one. What is wrong ‘we’re running out of water, so let’s use what we have more wisely’ or even ‘we’re running out of water, so let’s reduce the number of users and use what we have in a more efficient and secure way’?

    I could go on (and on and on) because such twittiness irritates me incredibly. But I won’t, because it’s so twitty it’s not worth it.

    To sum up the rational argument: buying water from people who want to sell it will reduce the problems caused by trying to take more water from the system than it currently holds. It will allow farmers to leave unviable farms with their dignity intact and hopefully without a burden of debt. It will increase the value of the asset for those farmers who remain, give them more certainty about the availability of water into the future (and thus better income security) and encourage them to use water more effectively and efficiently.

    It will also have the added benefit of helping to restore river health.

    The alternatives on offer seem to be a series of crackpot schemes which won’t solve the present problems, are uneconomic and will create their own series of problems for future generations to deal with.

    Or going on just the way we are at present, which nobody seems to think is a very good idea.

  2. fredex

    lindsayb
    A $100 per meg and now the sale price is what?
    In the thousands?
    Thats a good investment isn’t it?
    Gravy.

    You are citing ABARE without a direct link.
    For ALL farmers in Australia not the few irrigators along the MDB which are a fraction of the total.
    Hint…farmers in WA and Tassie, included in your figures, have no relationship to the irrigation along the MDB.
    Strawman.

    Got the figures for average farmer income?

    Nice of you to admit that educaion is a major export earner for Oz.

    Perhaps we ought to subsidise teachers?

    And comparing city costs to virtually free water for irrigators is a valid comparison.
    Irrigation water is primarily available because of a vast expensive to build and expensive to maintain infrastrucure that controls and manages flow and is financed by the taxpayers.
    There are these things called dams and weirs and the people that maintain and manage them .

    Sure irrigaors such as myself rely on less local infrastructure than urban users but there is still a cost in providing the water to us
    And we pay next to nothing for it.
    A lot of the minimal extra costs for water that irrigators complain about has been caused by the fact that they are responsible for creating a scarce resource and are competing for extra water that would not need to be purchasd if the allocation of water to irrigators had not exceeded the flow rates of the river.
    Its a bit cheeky, create a problem and then complain about the cost of trying to fix it

    Urban users would be paying thousands of dollars for the $100 your parents paid for a million litres [are you sure of that price, it sounds awfully cheap?].
    Adelaide has just spent about $2 billion for a desal plant that only became ‘necessary’ because Murray irrigators were using all available water.
    Buying those water licences of the irrigators would have cost a fraction of the cost of the desal plant [ignoring its heavy running costs] and ensured ‘water security’.
    Thats a subsidy, a hefty one.

    Thats the problem.
    With a limited finite amount of water available, a fact which seems to escape the attention of most commentators media and irrigation lobby in particular, what is given to one group is at the expense of all other groups who should have equal rights to the river water.
    Never forget that one such valid ‘group’ is the river itself.

    I’ve previously mentioned that because irrigators have appropriated so much water for themselves they have denied it to other users and that has caused both economic and environmental loss.
    But the entire ‘debate’, so far, has centred on the wants of irrigators.

    No attention is paid to the other interests.

    So we need to work out how to have a more equitable and sustainable system, one that will not crash when the next inevitable drought hits and which can withstand the increasingly growing impact of climate hange.
    But it the debate about this has alreay been hijacked by the hysteria and self interest of the priveliged irrigators who only see, as do the articles presented here thus far, issues purely from the point of view of ‘their’ self interest.
    And we are getting fallacies and furphies trotted out in support of ‘their’ self interest, as pointed out well by zoomster above.

    I don’t think we will come to anything approaching a fair an equitablearrangement for the river and all its users whilst the debate continues to be framed through the lens of the irrigators only.
    I’m quite pessimistic in fact.
    Their political clout, their noise, is rendering silent any responsible discussion.

  3. fredex

    “Just because you heard someone else say it does not make it true.”

    Very true.

    I’ve heard a lot of farmers, including irrigators, tell people how poor they are.
    That doesn’t make it true.

    Check out the ABS for employment group income and find out what average farmer incomes are compared to the Australian average and get back to us.
    You wil be surprised.

    I was one of 26 irrigators, most of whom I know well, at a public meeting a few months ago and their incomes were all well above average with assetts of many millions each.

    Thats one of the ironies in this present situation.

    The proposed scheme will cost …. guess who?
    Yep you got it right Australian taxpayers, including those despised city folk, many billion of dollars in compensation and paying for water licences and, again, guess who will receive those billions?
    Yep you got it right again, the irrigators.

    My current water allocation exceeds 100 million litres of water per year, it will cost me virtually nothing to take that out of the river yet hundreds city folk would be paying 100s of $$$$ each for comparatively minisule amounts.
    Thats a subsidy.
    And the salt irrigators put back inothe Murray which cost millions of dollars a year to remove.
    Who pays for that?
    Thats a subsidy.

    At around $1-2000 per megalitre [at least] payment from the taxpayer to buy my licence from me look at the sums of money irrigators will receive, for the water alone not counting anything else, from this proposed scheme.
    I stand to make a very handsome profit on my licence compared to the price I paid for my licence years ago
    It has appreciated far faster than inflation.

    Australian farmers are heavily subsidised, in a myriad of ways, here try this article to get an inkling of the size of the problem.

    http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=733&page=0

    Just as a matter of interest who generates more export dollars for Australia?
    The education industry or irrigation?

    .

  4. lindsayb

    zoomster@4
    “Most of them don’t pay taxes, even in good years”

    This is a big statement. What is your evidence for it? It certainly does not hold true for the farmers that I know.

    “and they rely heavily on subsidies from the rest of us to survive.”

    This is complete rubbish. Australian farmers are the least subsidised in the world, and they still have to compete in the world market with the heavily subsidised USA and Europe and the cheap labour of Asia and South America. If you are going to make this sort of statement, provide some evidence. Just because you heard someone else say it does not make it true.

    “They are some of the most exploitative employers we have – the wages and conditions of farm labourers are the lowest in the country.”

    Simplistic statement at best. Generally farm labourers earn more per hour than farmers do, and farmers look after their employees because good people are hard to find (unless you are a corporation who can import labourers on 457 visas).
    If you want to see farm wages go up, lobby government to increase the percentage of the shelf price our supermarket duopoly pay primary producers (currently around 5%, used to be 40%), and introduce tarrifs on importing goods from countries with subsidise their agricultural exports.
    If this level of understanding of the issues surrounding farming is reflective of general community understanding, no wonder there is so much hostility towards farmers. The truth is that they are less than 5% of the population, and they generate a significant percentage of our export earnings. In addition, the goods that they produce are subsequently processed, providing tens of thousands of additional jobs. Without them, the standard of living we all enjoy would be a lot poorer.

  5. zoomster

    [First, irrigation is intrinsically a good thing]

    The assumption here is that the MDB report is arguing against continued irrigation. It isn’t. No one is arguing that irrigation is bad and should be abandoned.

    [It is as old as Ancient Babylon or Egypt.]

    Oh dear. And how is AB going? Still a thriving community of irrigators?

    The Middle East is a very nice example of what happens when an area is over farmed. Egypt (since the building of the Aswan) is a very nice example of what can go wrong when natural systems are interfered with.

    [Second, if it is proposed to withdraw substantial quantities of water from the existing irrigation-based human settlements in the MDB, in order to restore (temporarily, until the next drought cycle hits) ecological health to the MDB river system, it must not be left to the chance vagaries of market forces to decide who stays and who goes.]

    Firstly, this is not just about the ecological health of the system. It’s about the ongoing viability of the basin as a whole. You can’t take out more water than is going in and give farmers the certainty they need. Well before there was any suggestion of harm to the lower lakes (back to 2000 at least) governments – and farming communities – were discussing the need to tackle the problem of over allocations.

    If anything, the drought delayed this process, because survival of farming communities meant the environment took second place.

    Secondly, like David before you, you don’t suggest any alternative way of finding the water. If you don’t want to buy from willing sellers because that will lead to the favouring of particular farming enterprises over others, how do you propose to do it? I would think government intervention would be even more disasterous, and that’s the only other option I can think of.

    Thirdly, you miss the point about willing sellers. There are people who wish to get out of farming. They have huge debt burdens, because they have tried to keep farming in unsustainable conditions. Some of these farms have never made money and should never have existed in the first place.

    As Tony Burke pointed out when he was Min for Ag, propping up people on unviable farming land doesn’t do them any favours. Buying their water from them (as willing sellers) in many cases gives them the opportunity to leave with dignity.

    You seem to be suggesting that they should be forced to stay, for the ‘good’ of the wider community.

    [Third, the Australian nation owes the people who live in our irrigation communities a lot — we encouraged them to work hard to develop these areas for our national food security.]

    No, we don’t. They didn’t go into farming as a form of national service. They went into farming to make money. Most of them don’t pay taxes, even in good years, and they rely heavily on subsidies from the rest of us to survive. They are some of the most exploitative employers we have – the wages and conditions of farm labourers are the lowest in the country.

    We didn’t develop the irrigation communities to secure a food supply. We’ve always had that. Again, it was a commercial decision.

    [Fourth, it makes sense now, taking a longer view, to help these communities sustain themselves, because city-dwelling Australians will again need their food-growing potential in future, as climate change and peak oil hit our nation harder, inevitably reshaping our national food import and export patterns.]

    At present, even in the drought, we export over 60% of the food we produce. So reducing this by a third (which assumes that farmers won’t be able to cope with the cuts, which the evidence of their ability to keep up production during the drought years suggests isn’t the case) still leaves us with 40% more food than we need.

    [The present temporarily benign weather patterns in the MDB are no guide to the future policy environment.]

    Which is why this whole process started in the middle of a drought.

    [Against a background of the inevitable desertification through climate change of most of the unirrigated MDB region, especially in the south, our irrigation communities should correctly be cherished,]

    Oh, so we should allow high rainfall areas to become deserts while we continue to send water to the desert? Surely it would make more sense to use the water to keep the unirrigated areas (which are? I don’t know of any; most farms irrigate) upstream going.

    [Arab desert people cherish their oases and look after them as precious sources of food — they do not walk away from them.]

    We’re not talking about oases – natural water sources – we’re talking about taking water from oases and using it to water what would otherwise be desert.

    *** I have to go to work. I’ll have a look at the rest of your post when I get back…

  6. fredex

    Wow!
    That opening sentence and analogy is a doozy!
    Sorry but its an absurdity,an analogy that depends on ….what?
    Where are the points of convergence?
    In what manner is presenting a long term sustainable multi purpose use plan for the Murray and all people who have a link to its present and future remotely related to closing one third of urban streets/electricity whatever?

    But it is a revealing analogy, or rather the wording of the sentence in which it is presented is revealing.
    Revealing of the attitude of the writer.
    The key word is ‘their’.
    As in ownership, as in belonging to.
    The writer is suggesting, stating even, that city dwellers own ‘their’ roads etc and would be unhappy with the closing of one third of such.

    But of course that it not what is being proposed, not even remotely suggested despite the hyperbole of the irrigation lobby.

    What is being suggested, attempting to use the writer’s forced analogy and make some sort of sense of it, is that maybe we ought to look at ways that will ensure that we have roads in the future.
    Because we sure as hell have suffered in recent years from road closure [read water shortages] and we as sure as hell will face the same problem in the [near]future if we don’t do something sensibly different to the sad state of affairs that presently exists with the distorted sense of ownership that has characterized water usage in the MDB.

    In fact the closest thing to a sensible interpretation we can get from the writer’s road analogy is that he thinks irrigators forcing all other users of the water, including the river itelf, should be content with ‘their’ roads being closed so that irrigators can continue with the privilege of having the road for ‘their’ pesonal use and the devil take the others.

    Perhaps the writer may wish to remove the ‘their’ from his opening sentence and ask himself who does ‘own’ the roads and or the water that is in the river.

    Is the water owned only by irrigators?

    No one else gets to ride on ‘their’ roads, no one else has a right to the use of river water, certainly not the river itself?

    The equivalent would be “who gets to use city roads”?
    Only those people who drive red cars?

    Or maybe road users could share ‘their’ roads with those who drive different coloured vehicles [not green] and trucks as well, perhaps even buses and maybe even, horror of horrors, bicycles of the motorized and nonmotorized types?

    Maybe we could consider the rights of a whole range of users of river water and not just presume that all water available belongs to irrigators and the rest have no rights.

    Because it is the overallocation of water for irrigators that has placed the river and all its users in the deplorable state it was in, is in, and will be again if things do not dramatically change very soon.

    In my section of the river I can see ‘other’ users of the river who have had their roads closed for the benefit of the irrigators.

    I live near one river town that relies on tourism and recreation for the bulk of its employment.
    It has suffered from lack of water and this has resulted in loss of trade, sales, customers, tourists and therefore jobs.
    Caravan parks relying on tourism fishing and recreational acivities have lost customers and jobs [I now of at least 3 such just in my short section of the river] , other tourism facilities have suffered losses in sales, all because irrigators have drained the river which is blatantly transparently dying and will continue to do so in the future if we do not acknowledge that overallocation of water to the irrigation industry cannot be sustained in the future..

    This cannot continue.
    Change must occur.
    The roads do not belong only to the irrigators.
    This town,and many others in the MDB will continue to suffer if irrigators are not prepared to decrease their over allocation of water and instead share such with other users.
    One of whom is the river itself.

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