Seeking balance in basin

By Country News

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has released profiles of social and economic trends in 45 communities across the southern basin.

This is a preliminary part of the work we are doing to analyse the reasons for social and economic changes that basin communities have experienced over the past 15 years’ work, which we aim to release in full in April 2018.

The community profiles released outline the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, combined with water recovery data for each community, however they do not yet capture the full story, and need to be interpreted with care.

While the basin economy as a whole has continued to grow steadily over the past five years, we know that there are some communities in the basin that have been doing it tough.

The MDBA has always been transparent about the results of our work to understand the social and economic impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Unfortunately, sometimes this work is misinterpreted, with any and all negative social and economic change attributed to the basin plan.

In fact, the ABS data shows that many basin communities are experiencing similar socio-economic trends regardless of the amount of water recovery in those communities.

For example, in the Berrigan-Finley area in NSW, the agricultural workforce decreased by 40 per cent during the 15 years to 2016. However, water recovery for the basin plan represented a net reduction in water available for production of just 5.6 per cent.

This points to the fact that the basin plan is just one of a number of factors behind social and economic change and that in many communities it may not be the most significant factor.

For example, in a number of communities — such as Berri, Coleambally, Hay, Kerang-Cohuna and Renmark — growth in the government services sector between 2001 and 2011, followed by reduction in the sector between 2011 and 2016, has been a significant factor affecting populations and job numbers.

There are also social and economic trends and pressures that precede the basin plan, many of which are affecting rural and regional communities more broadly, such as the increasing mechanisation of agriculture, droughts, population change and changes in the economic diversity of communities.

We are currently undertaking work to better understand the degree to which the basin plan plays a role in social and economic change in basin communities, and the factors that have served to amplify or insulate communities from the effects of basin plan water recovery.

Until this work is complete, it is important not to draw conclusions from the data that are not supported by the evidence.

We are releasing this preliminary and foundational work now to give people the opportunity to examine the data for themselves, and so we can be confident about the data we are using to inform our socio-economic analysis.

I hope that it will form part of a constructive, open and ongoing dialogue with communities about how best to implement the basin plan, and how the plan is affecting your towns on the ground.

That’s because data and numbers are just one small part of the information base that we draw on in our work to optimise the social, economic and environmental outcomes of the plan. We know that you understand what’s happening in your town, your environment and on your land better than anyone and we place great value on your insights and advice.

I know that there are many in basin communities who simply want certainty so that they can get on with business.

That is a big part of what the basin plan is about — delivering long-term stability and resource security to communities after many years of significant flux and uncertainty due to frequent policy changes, over-allocation in the system and increasing climate variability.

The basin plan remains our nation’s best option for achieving this, and I am hopeful that we are on the verge of delivering the certainty that many basin communities want in order to move forward.

We remain committed to gathering the best available information and evidence, to listening to you and working with you to ensure that we get the balance right in implementing the basin plan.

—Phillip Glyde

MDBA chief executive