Time to give the Murray-Darling river system its own rights

The Darling River near Pooncarie, on August 15, 2019. Dwindling water supply in the river over two decades has raised serious questions about how the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is being managed. Photo: Jenny Evans/Getty Images
The Darling River near Pooncarie, on August 15, 2019. Dwindling water supply in the river over two decades has raised serious questions about how the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is being managed. Photo: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

Last Friday, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council (MinCo) met to review progress with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

At the centre of debate was whether member states could deliver their share of the bargain to restore healthy river flows by July 2024.

NSW and Victoria are calling for the 2024 deadline to be pushed back - again. Both states are desperately trying to develop water "offset" projects to relieve them of their obligation to recover actual water for the river.

Not only are these projects controversial and risky, they are years behind schedule. Pushing back the deadline would mean depriving fish, waterbirds and desperate communities of much needed water at a time when it is most needed.

The Basin Plan exists because the river is over-allocated: the amount of water taken for irrigation is threatening the river's ability to survive.

Recent reviews by the Interim Inspector-General Mick Keelty, the top cop in the Basin, have found a drying climate is already doing damage. In fact, Keelty reported that water flows into the Murray have gone down 50 per cent over the past 20 years compared to the century before.

The Basin Plan put forward three pathways to start reviving the river: buying back licences from irrigators directly, paying for expensive irrigation efficiency upgrades to save water, and developing offset projects that (theoretically at least) support fish and frogs to live with less water.

Offset projects came under scrutiny at MinCo. Most of these proposals are based on the premise that wetland habitat can be "improved" without a natural flow of water.

Rather than river channels connecting with floodplains, water would be pumped into isolated wetlands, much like an irrigation bay. Rather than allowing water to evaporate, lakes would be quickly drained.

But who benefits from these water savings? The projects are purported to provide the equivalent "ecological outcomes" of 605 billion litres of water - a bit more than the water sitting in Sydney Harbour.

The winners are irrigators and other major water users like mines, as that water stays in the private water market rather than being returned to the river.

However, the losers from this approach are obvious. Nobody knows how much water each project "saves", and the damage to globally unique forests in one location can be traded off against benefits to fish or birds somewhere else.

It is a warped kind of accounting. It turns living wetland ecosystems into industrialised marketplaces.

The core problem is how we value water. Today it is viewed as a commodity, every thousand litres in every valley has a price tag, it can be traded and new frontiers have opened for speculators trying to grab the value of the water flowing by.

As the river is being turned into something more akin to an industrial channel rather than a living system - the river has begun to die.

But there is another way of looking at it that comes back to listening to the voices of those who managed the rivers successfully for tens of thousands of years.

At a recent screening of the Australian documentary When the River Runs Dry, directed by Rory McLeod and currently available to stream on SBS, Aunty Stephanie Armstrong, a Gamilaraay woman from northern NSW who now lives and works in Victoria, shed light on how to respect the river.

In New Zealand, the river is "a living thing. It has its own rights. That's what I'd like for our river," she said. "If water is used to heal us, we should be healing water as well. It's a reciprocal thing."

In our time, the economy was built on expropriating land and water from First Nations people, land and water that are so central to life and spirituality.

While the rivers are dying in front of our eyes, they are being asked to buy their own water back. It is a tragedy that we have a duty to make right.

Instead of viewing the river as a commodity, we need to recognise the river has an intrinsic right to live.

Instead of viewing the river as a commodity, we need to recognise the river has an intrinsic right to live.

The notion of giving rights to a river has recently been enacted into law in New Zealand, where the Whanganui River has been given its own legal rights and identity.

As it stands, the politicians driving water policy in Australia remain fixated on short-term economic solutions and environmental shortcuts.

Could this recognition of the intrinsic rights and values of the river be part of the solution for the Murray-Darling system that our MinCo representatives are missing?

Tyler Rotche is a healthy rivers campaigner for Environment Victoria.

This story The vital perspective missing at MinCo first appeared on The Canberra Times.