Basin plan hit for a six

By Geoff Adams

A new report on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has called for a slowing down of water recovery in a bid to address socio-economic impacts on rural communities and to save costs.

The report, conducted by an independent panel, is critical of consultation and engagement over the plan and acknowledges an uneven impact on regional communities.

“ ... significant transfers of wealth and opportunity across industries and regions have taken place — some communities have watched jobs dwindle away, communities decline, and in some cases nearly disappear,” the report said.

Recovering the 450 Gl of upwater by 2024 would cost more than $4 billion at current water market prices, while slowing the pace of recovery may bring down costs to the Australian taxpayer.

“Slowing the pace of recovery will enable implementation of programs that address pressing socio-economic concerns, especially under the current drought, and help maintain community support for basin water reforms,” the report said.

“Without clear evidence of the environmental, social and working river benefits of achieving the 2024 recovery targets, the potential costs imposed on irrigation communities are not justifiable.

“Slowing recovery will allow time for the Australian Government to work with basin communities to show better evidence of the enhanced environmental, working river and social wellbeing benefits of past and future water recovery.’’

The panel delivered a finding which strikes at the heart of the purpose of the plan and the work of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

“The panel considers there is insufficient evidence that future water recovery is being implemented to deliver water in the places needed to effectively achieve enhanced environmental outcomes, working river systems and improved social wellbeing in the basin.

“Research commissioned by the panel found future water recovery is likely to lead to significant falls in water use and production by irrigated cropping, pastures, rice and dairy sectors.

“While increasing dryland production will offset some of these falls, towns and communities in these regions will still be impacted negatively, especially under drought conditions.

“The panel also notes the long time it can take communities to recover from the impacts of drought.’’

The report also points to a lack of publicly available evidence on environmental outcomes that is supposed to be the focus of the plan.

The panel urged a slowing down in water recovery for the environment and speeding up of efforts to relax delivery constraints.

The panel wants funds to co-ordinate efforts to monitor and evaluate environmental benefits, and research to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of environmental watering.

The report has numerous references to the damage caused to rural communities by the loss of water.

“In previously vibrant communities, volatility, rapid change and uncertainty are resulting in sharp falls in investment and a loss of confidence. These outcomes have contributed to widespread farm exits, social dislocation, vulnerable supply chains, small town decline and downstream processors and employers contemplating their future in the basin.’’

The panel report also found complaints that people were “over-consulted and under-listened to”.

“As a panel, we were disheartened to see communities at a crossroads despite countless studies, reviews and inquiries.

“Visions and policies in our irrigated communities focusing on overall gains have not dealt fairly with those left behind, nor worked hard enough to be fully inclusive.

“Our basin communities are changing. The pace has been rapid and the impacts profound. The future is no longer secure or certain for some people and regions, despite their hard work.

“We heard from people caught in a one-way conversation — over-consulted and under-listened to. They were frustrated that decisions are being made ‘for’ them, often with short term objectives as the predominant driver. They want to be part of a conversation that sets a coherent vision and drives sound policy that deals them in again.

“Morale has eroded, and a sense of hopelessness is spreading; in many cases, people no longer feel confident in their future. These impacts are not only being felt in the ‘back pocket’, but witnessed in the main streets of towns, and in the prospects for our next generation,’’

The report is titled: Panel Report: Independent assessment of social and economic conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin.