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Donít waste the Murray River!

By Valerie Yule - posted Thursday, 1 July 2010

The greatest waste of the Murray River, the lifeblood of the breadbasket of Australia, is the North-South Pipeline of Victoria. This is a construction of the Victorian government which, to keep the Melbourne electorates happy, takes water down south for Melbourne which otherwise would flow down the Goulburn River to the Murray River and associated irrigators. The government’s excuse is that Melbourne consumers of this water will pay for the remainder of the government’s waterworks in the North. It would be better to find another source of funds and keep all the water where it belongs.

The second great waste of the Murray River is the private ownership of water. This means that government must pay private interests for water to use in the public interest. Originally far-seeing legislators in Victoria decreed that all water belonged to the state, which gave irrigators and others the rights to use it. Unfortunately this right has become a right to own it. Not only irrigators but financial interests have now got a source of income that costs the Murray River and the State dearly. A title system for the use of water similar to land ownership would be disastrous for this dry country.

Farmers' and States' trading of rights to use water on an annual basis is one thing. To have titles to private ownership of water is reckless.


Water ownership would inevitably accumulate into the hands of a few. There would be no legal way to prevent foreign ownership. Greedy people have their eyes on water ownership globally, as with growing population pressures it becomes the most valuable commodity on earth. The pressure on governments from these private interests may already be great and must be resisted.

There is such a thing as treason and selling away our life-blood is one of them. Although distribution can be allowed through private companies, and private interests assist in infrastructure, the living water itself must remain inalienably in public ownership and subject to public control. Free trade agreements must never have a legal chance to include water.

Anyone buying a bottle of water rather than drinking from a tap should consider what future prices for all water could be like. For farmers it could be worse still. It is in line with what is happening across the world as water becomes a precious resource. Private interests get control.

It means for Australia that millions of dollars must be spent to buy water to keep the Murray River and its active irrigators alive and decisions of priorities are influenced by the private owners.

To make more waste, four States of Australia squabble over what water there is - Queensland, where much of the water originates, New South Wales and Victoria which have the problem of whether to keep the trees of the flood plains alive, and South Australia, where the river used to flow into the sea and is now struggling to keep the lakes and estuary alive, as well as the capital of Adelaide. Water Boards within the States, once in Victoria subsumed in the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, also need greater co-ordination and co-operation.

Water waste by irrigators and country towns is now greatly reduced by more enlightened practices, but some areas are more progressive than others. It is still not worked out which crops are best suited to different areas especially with water-hungry cotton and rice. Other crops such as dried fruit would prosper more if they could compete with Middle Eastern imports which have low labour costs but a high real cost in freight.


There are some crops necessary for the feeding of the population which it would be wiser to grow, to some extent at least, in our fertile Murray River Basin rather than rely entirely on imports. Water is a scarce commodity for the most of the world and we are using the water overseas for the production of our imported food too.

Is water wasted that is not directly used by the people? Is it wasted if it floods the plains where the red gums grow, or keeps alive the swamps, which the migrating birds and other wildlife depend upon? This is a question which must be answered by us all now for the sake of the future.

Millions of us depend upon this river. We look at the Aboriginal inhabitants who in 40,000 years or more lived sustainably on its banks and harvested its wildlife without extinctions. A notable element in this sustainability was keeping their population within the bounds of droughts and floods. We have the technology to manage the bad years and save in the good years, for a larger population than they had. But how large?

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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