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Lifeblood: The Murray-Darling Draft Plan and What it Means for Us

On Tuesday 10th April a meeting was held to discuss the fate of the River Murray and the implications for South Australia of the Murray-Darling draft plan to bring the river back to health. The Community Meeting for the Murray, hosted by a coalition of environmental organizations – the Wilderness Society, the Conservation Council, and the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) – was intended to bring dialogue regarding the draft plan to a public forum, to raise awareness of one the of the most vital environmental issues of our time, and to impress accountability upon the powers that be for the powers they exert.

In a display of respect for the traditional custodians of the land that conveyed more sincerity of feeling than the usual lip service the event was opened by Ngarrindjeri brother and sister duo, Rita and Michael Lindsay, with a hauntingly beautiful song for the Murray written by their mother Audrey in honour of the wealth of life generated by the river Murray, the lifeblood of the Ngarrindjeri homeland. Welcome to country was delivered by Kaurna elder Uncle Lewis O’Brien, in observation of the Kaurna people on whose land the meeting took place.

Formal speakers at the meeting sat on two panels, the first of which included Jay Weatherill, South Australian Premier, Peter Owen, South Australian Wilderness Society campaign manager, and Richard Kingsford, Director of the Australian Wetlands and River Centre, UNSW. The second panel was made up entirely of politicians including Senator Simon Birmingham, Kate Ellis, Member for Adelaide, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, and Senator Nick Xenophon. Tony Burke, Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, had the privilege of fielding the majority of audience questions and providing his responses in defense of the plan. The ratio of politicians to scientists did not escape the attention of the audience, keen to hear more than rhetoric regarding the restoration of the river.

Jay Weatherill began the first panel with the uncomfortable acknowledgement that in traditional aboriginal culture people naturally share their resources, and that this is something we seem to have forgotten how to do. In light of the fact that South Australians have lived well within their means, taking only 1% of the available water for Adelaide’s needs, the draft plan falls far short of delivering justice as it fails to acknowledge the use and abuse of the water system by the state’s northern neighbours, depriving the southern regions of drinking water and raising salinity levels to worrying heights. Such lack of respect for one’s neighbours constitutes not only an injustice, but is ecologically, economically, and socially unsustainable, remarked Weatherill.

Second to speak was Peter Owen, South Australian of the year (Environment). Owen was frank in his assertion that the last 10 years have provided a graphic image of how out of sync we have become with the natural system, and that we only have a couple of years to get the process right now before we are faced with another severe dry period. Owen spoke incredulously of how the Murray draft plan rejects the advice of Australia’s leading scientists and incorporates built-in delays to action, not intended to be fully manifest until 2019. In addition to the absurd delays Owen outlined how the plan further seeks to disregard science by entertaining massive groundwater extraction in New South Wales – a dangerous experiment when we don’t fully understand how these groundwater systems work.

Dr. Richard Kingsford wrapped up the first panel with reminders of the extent to which we have depleted out wetlands with 66% of Australian water use coming from the Murray Darling Basin.  Our damming of the area to extract the valuable water resource is a stark indication of how we seem to forget our relationship with our landbase as necessarily reciprocal, disregarding the value of the biodiversity of the region as something of which we are a part. The 2750 GL of water written into the draft plan falls far short of what is needed to reciprocate what the river has given us.

The second panel, all politicians, served as a reminder that our society is not yet ready to put decisions regarding scientific matters in the hands of scientists, preferring to argue opinions based on vested interests with rhetoric in place of reason. Kate Ellis provided a prime example of politically appealing rhetoric more carefully timed than it was passionate, using the vocabulary of sentiment rather than injecting her speech with any of it. Ellis did, however, ring true in mentioning that South Australia has been ignored by the northern states in the discussion, with Victoria and New South Wales historically divvying up the available resources without consideration for the other states in the tradition of empire only to be expected from a country whose modern manifestation is founded on imperialist power-play.

Senator Simon Birmingham took over where Ellis left off by quoting mark Twain: “whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting over”, and nothing could be more poignant here in South Australia. Birmingham urged evidence-based scientific and economic reasoning, expressing concerns that the discussion is far too caught up in the selfish concept of entitlement, neglecting environmental targets, which ought to be at the forefront of the plan.

Equity was the bottom line for senator Nick Xenophon in response to the draft plan, with recognition of the early adoption of conservative usage by South Australia in the face of overconsumption further north. Xenophon referred to the plan as being the equivalent of putting a kid in detention for handing up their A-grade homework early! The senator also stressed the importance of biodiversity, climate change, and the recognition that, as river systems die from the mouth up, planning needs to take this into account.

In her usual style senator Sarah Hanson-Young appeared genuinely passionate in her less-rehearsed forthrightness. Hanson-Young spoke with a courage born of genuine concern for the greater need, referring to the plan as being based on bogus science, and thoroughly failing to take into account the indigenous culture, and the threat of climate change, against which the plan needs to be robust. Hanson-Young was unhesitant in pointing out the absurdity of decades of debate regarding over-allocation of surface water now being followed by a simple acceptance of groundwater allocation without consideration. Urging certainty based on science and the need for transparency the senator warned against what she views to be a political mistake that will simply land us in court later based on a politically appealing figure of 2750 GL that seems to have come from nowhere.

With an unusual, refreshing, and long-awaited recognition of the need for inclusion the Ngarrindjeri people of the Murray-Darling basin were represented via DVD by elder Major Sumner, who expressed his apologies for being unable to attend the meeting in person. Sumner’s non-attendance was due to his engagement in the Ngarrindjeri river ceremony – a ceremony intended to dance the spirit back into the river and the people, and one that shows a true understanding of our connection to the lifeblood of the landbase that sustains us.

Sumner commented that the Narinjerri people have suffered a greatly, their human rights not being taken into account alongside the lack of concern for a river system that will rapidly become poisoned from the mouth up without sufficient water to flush it out. Sumner referred to the land and water as part of a living body, stating without a hint of a metaphor that if they die then so do we. All our lives depend on it – we need to think of the next generations and stop thinking only of ourselves.

One would hope that Tony Burke might have been humbled by such genuine truth of feeling and a concern that is felt most deeply by those who are quickest to recognize our connection to our lifeblood. However, Burke was present only to defend the draft plan, commenting that, although imperfect, it is sufficient as a starting point, and need not be renegotiated until a later date. Such words ring hollow in light of the financially-oriented rhetoric of constraints playing at the forefront of Burke’s bag of tricks. Burke’s insistence on proceeding without delay seemed more a matter of rushing through a plan lacking in credibility rather than a genuine concern for expediency with regard to the urgency of the issue. Burke’s repetition of infrastructural constraints came across as a lack of internalized knowledge of the situation or the science behind it, with the minister resorting to convoluted political tap-dancing rather than speaking plainly about the realities we face. It can be inferred that the true constraints are in the actions of the politicians in power, and that shifting the blame to infrastructure is merely a cop-out aimed at convincing the less critical to question no further.

In closing the audience were reminded of the reality of the situation by Don Henry, CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation. Henry closed with comments of concern regarding the amount of water pledged in light of climate change, the use of groundwater, and the matters of ecological, economic, and social justice. With only days left for the public to make their voices heard Henry urged the audience to call for a stronger plan to return the river to health: to restore the wetlands, flush out the salt deposits, and keep the mouth open. Henry’s final comment, resonant with all, is the simple truth our culture has become so pathologically detached from: “There’s no future on a dead river no matter who you are”.


If you would like to check out the complete Murray-Darling draft plan for yourself please visit: