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An inconvenient truth ignored: the future of the Murray Darling Basin

09 July 2019

Australia desperately needs an audit of water usage under the “national scandal” Murray Darling Basin Plan according to Crawford School Professor and UNESCO Chair for Water Economics Quentin Grafton on the ABC’s Four Corners program ‘Cash Splash’.

With water prices at an all-time high, and last year’s fish kills still at the forefront of peoples’ minds, the Murray Darling Basin Plan has come under closer scrutiny.

Professor Grafton told the show that, at this stage, no accurate data on water usage is available and that the water in the environment might have actually decreased.

“In the best case scenario it’s less than half of what the government claims, and in the worst case scenario we’ve gone backwards not forwards. Then, in fact, the water in the environment has actually declined. That could be backwards by more than 100 billion litres. We don’t know – and that’s why we need a water audit,” he said.

But the problems are far from new. Studies have shown for decades that reducing waste waters on fields means that less seeps back into the rivers.

“The Productivity Commission identified this as a problem in 2006. As you increase the amount of water consumed on the irrigator’s field – which is fine for the irrigator, it gets more bang for the irrigator’s buck – the downside is once you become more efficient in delivering water to your plants, it also means that there’s less water going back in terms of seepage into the groundwater, and there’s much less water going back in terms of run off,” Professor Grafton said.

Professor Grafton has been calling for accurate data on water use since the Murray Darling Basin scheme was designed, but has encountered pushbacks from government when he confronted officials with his findings.

“They just don’t want to know. It’s an inconvenient truth. We knock on the door, we tell them what we’ve done, we give them the evidence and we get pushback. So, the pushback is “no, you’re wrong” and so we say “that’s fine, maybe we are wrong, tell us where we’re wrong”, but there’s no response on where we’re wrong.

“The continuous response has been “just go away and don’t even talk about it”. Sorry, I’m not going away, this isn’t going away, it’s not working. We could’ve taken the same amount of money, delivered for the environment, helped communities with hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in terms of various programs. Yet we chose not to do that. We chose to put it into pipes, we chose to put it into concrete, we chose to deliver private benefits with public money. And that is a national scandal,” he said.

You can watch the full Four Corners program ‘Cash Splash’ here.

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Updated:  11 July 2020/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team