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Water

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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