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Water consensus

By Bruce Haigh - posted Friday, 7 November 2008


The components of the water crisis in Australia are environmental, managerial and political. Southern catchment systems and rivers are degraded through greed and mismanagement, with the latter centred on inappropriate agricultural practices such as flood irrigation.

The increasingly obvious manifestation of climate change, still referred to as drought by those in denial, including farmer organisations and Rural Press, has ensured increasing focus and debate over long term management, conservation and supply of water.

However the debate so far has been conducted within the narrow and selfish framework that the market knows best. Essentially this is expressed as the market will establish the true cost of water and water will flow to those who pay this cost.

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This is to be achieved through the sale of water licences, too many of which have been issued for the amount of water available, and by the sale of water by licence holders. To compound this problem water can be sold from one geographic area to another even though the buyer might not have the water available or have a much diminished supply which will do harm to local creek and river systems when that buyer seeks to fulfil the terms of purchase.

Water is essential to sustaining life and all other activities undertaken by man. As such it makes no sense that large companies, cartels and monopolies should control and allocate this vital resource. They have no interest, nor indeed mandate, in protecting or fulfilling public interest, so that the least powerful and often the most needy have diminished or no access to the vital commodity of water.

This is the situation that increasingly applies within the Murray/Darling Basin (MDB). However the problem of managing the sustainable use of water extends far beyond the MBD. The obvious problems of the Basin are the not so obvious problems of tomorrow in all other basins, rivers and tributaries in Australia.

The use and allocation of water in Australia is at crisis point. Water is both a hidden and visible export. Wine and bottled water are visible, the washing of coal is not. Waste is not often visible. Waste is caused by evaporation, poor mining methods and long term damage caused by mining and irrigation. Permanent damage to the environment is bad for business and for sustainability.

Who will make the decisions on the long term sustainability of water use? Will it be private enterprise acting in concert with government or will abuse and overuse force the federal government to take over the management of water?

The collapse of international financial markets and the move into recession, caused primarily by greed and lack of regulation, should stand as a warning to those similarly motivated in agribusiness, irrigation and mining with respect to water.

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In the absence of consensus and goodwill towards the needs of all water users the federal government may be forced to intervene sooner rather than later in the management and distribution of water nationally.

What about state governments you ask?

Disorganised, dysfunctional and in some cases corrupt state governments have acted in concert with the most powerful users of water to deliver unsustainable outcomes. Through incompetence or worse they have abrogated the right to sustainably manage the scarce resource of water. The task is beyond them and they have had plenty of time to demonstrate otherwise.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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