Australian Economy

Murray-Darling Basin critical for Australia’s future, water advocates say, and time is running out

The Murray-Darling Basin has been shaping the lives of humans in Australia for as many as 40,000 years.  

It provided a place to live, a source of food and water and has acted as a meeting place for many First Nations groups who found their place along the river. 

Now, the basin is lined by growing towns, thousands of irrigators and locks and dams aimed at making sure the river can best serve human populations. 

One thing remains constant though — Australia relies on the Murray-Darling Basin to survive. 

Erawirung woman Lucille Sumner works as a ranger along the Murray River in South Australia’s Riverland, helping to rehabilitate the environment after years of drought and water manipulation. 

A woman wearing a cream-coloured shirt standing in front of a river.
Ms Sumner says working to rehabilitate river environments has helped her reconnect with her culture.(ABC Riverland: Sam Bradbrook)

She said Australia needed to put the health of the river, its environment, animals and people before profit. 

“We’ve all got to survive on this river, and we all don’t want to be living in the semi-desert. 

“We’ve already done too much damage as it is in my eyes.

“If we start doing something really deadly and working together, without having to put a dollar sign to everything, we might make something of this place.” 

A parched, dry landscape, darkened in sections where a river has previously run.
The Murray Darling Basin is one of the waterwas from around the world that features in a new documentary.(Supplied: Madman)

Ms Sumner’s calls come as a new ABC, BBC and Screen Australia documentary, River, takes a look at the world’s mightiest waterways and how human intervention has left many on the brink. 

The documentary, made with Create NSW, gives a cinematic view of the planet’s rivers, with music by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. 

‘We are all going to suffer’

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was established in 2012 and outlined a road map for each state to rehabilitate the system in the wake of the Millennium drought. 

It included a number clauses that needed to be fulfilled, but two years before its June 2024 completion deadline, many of these are yet to have been met. 

Competing horticultural, environmental and cultural interests around the basin mean the area remains a hot political topic. 

A man wearing a blue shirt standing in front of a lake.
Quentin Grafton says greater leadership is needed to create the best outcomes for the basin.(Supplied: Quentin Grafton)

Australian National University economics and water expert Quentin Grafton has held myriad water-related positions across the globe and is currently the lead expert and commissioner for the Global Commission on the Economics of Water. 

He said Australia had a poor global reputation when it came to how we dealt with water.

“Droughts of course contribute, but they are not the cause or factor alone — it’s over-extraction [of water].

An irrigation channel flows away from camera into the distance.
Professor Grafton says over-extraction of water is one of the the main reasons for the from the Murray-Darling’s poor health.(ABC Rural: Anna Vidot)

“It’s not a right or left issue, it’s not a green issue, it’s an Australian issue. This is our environment and if we continue to damage it in this way, we will all suffer. 

‘Holistic’ view of the basin needed 

Karlene Maywald has seen the Murray-Darling Basin from several different viewpoints. 

She served as an MP for the Riverland electorate of Chaffey in that state’s parliament, was minister for the River Murray and now works in global water sustainability. 

Former SA minister for the River Murray Karlene Maywald
Karlene Maywald now works across the globe advocating for water sustainability.(ABC News: Simon Royal)

Ms Maywald disagreed with Professor Grafton’s comments that Australia had a poor negative reputation, but said there needed to be more cooperation in the basin. 

She believes water cannot be considered its own policy issue, but rather an integral component of all decision making. 

“When people realise how valuable water is and how precious it is when we don’t have it.

“When we have droughts or floods that are becoming ever increasing, then people are understanding how water impacts everything we do.” 

The Murray River at sunrise, with gum trees silhouetted on the riverbank on the other side of the water.
Karlene Maywald says water security should be front of mind for decision makers.(ABC Rural: Clint Jasper)

Ms Maywald said “the globe is in huge trouble” if all stakeholders failed to come together to ensure water sustainability. 

“We actually need to face this as a globe and we need to actually start, as a globe, to address water as an essential part that allows us to do what we do as a human race,” she said. 

Lakes giving hope for further recovery

The Menindee Lakes, along the Baaka-Darling River, show what can happen when a river system is able to recover. 

Heavy rains in New South Wales and Queensland meant the lake system was filled with water for the first time in five years in 2021. 

A spot that was once the site of mass native fish kills saw native birds and other wildlife return with the floodwater. 

A composite image of dead fish on the surface of green water in 2019 and a sunrise over Lake Pamamaroo this year.
Floodwaters have transformed the Menindee Lakes System from a fish kill hotspot into an abundant wetlands ecosystem.(ABC News: Debbie Newitt/Niall Lenihan)

Menindee resident and community advocate Graeme McCrabb said the revival should motivate Australia to deliver similar outcomes elsewhere in the basin. 

“And the bird life that is here at the moment and feeding on the shrimp and the small fish, it’s just staggering to see.”

Am man stands in front of a body of water
Graeme McCrabb says the recent revival of the Menindee Lakes should not be in vain.(ABC News: Niall Lenihan)

Mr McCrabb said Australia could not afford to go backwards with its management of the Murray-Darling Basin. 

“We have to use a priority [for water] of critical human needs, then the environment, then extraction,” he said. 

“We have to look at those basin communities that are going to struggle financially because of less extraction and he we transition those economy.

“I think the day will come when the Murray starts to run dry, and that’s when we’ll get real change in water policy, when it’s confronting for hundreds of thousands of people.” 

Watch River, tonight on ABC TV at 9.30pm, or stream it now on ABC iView.

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