The Murray Darling Basin Plan is not delivering …

there’s no more time to waste.

That’s the headline for a piece in The Conversation I’ve signed along with a dozen or so prominent scientists and economists who have worked for many years on the problems of the Murray Darling Basin. It’s been released along with a Declaration, reproduced over the fold.


We, the undersigned, call for:

One: A halt to all publicly-funded water recovery associated with irrigation infrastructure subsidies/grants in the Murray-Darling Basin, until a comprehensive and independent audit of Basin water recovery is published;

Two: A publicly available, comprehensive and independent economic and scientific audit of all completed Basin water recovery and a full scientific review of planned Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustments including details of environmental water recovered, expenditures and actual environmental outcomes (to date and projected), especially the effects on Basin stream flows, including at the Murray Mouth, and on floodplain inundation; and

Three: An adequately funded, expert, scientific and independent body to monitor, measure and give advice about delivery of the Water Act (2007) including: spatial and temporal hydrological and environmental changes in the Basin; comprehensive economic and scientific audits of the costs, benefits and outcomes of the Basin Plan and water recovery; river-scale assessments of effectiveness of measured water use from rivers and on floodplains; and evaluations of the adequacy of State river management and regulation to fully deliver the Water Act (2007).

Unless the Australian and State governments fully deliver on the key objects of the Water Act (2007), the Basin’s aquatic environments will remain impaired and billions of public money risks being spent without leading to the long-term sustainability of either irrigation or the environment and the support needed for key social-cultural values.

17 thoughts on “The Murray Darling Basin Plan is not delivering …

  1. JQ: Looks like no retirement for you. Youll need to keep fighting on at UoQ for some time yet till such problems are resolved. JC

  2. And at the very moment I type this comment the signatories are on ABC News 24 discussing the declaration.

  3. Thanks John for contributing this. These sorts of warnings must be done repeatedly if only to seed the younger generation and give the Greens a kick/reminder of where the real priorities lie in respect to notional philosophy of ecological sustainabilty.

    But sadly it also feel to me like a case of Groundhog Day and something more is needed beyond a few professionals trying to emulate the old Wentworth Group’s early successes.

    This call reminded me of a few years back sitting in an institution of engineers audience listenning to the launch of a/the plan or a component, written by an erstwhile colleague – very sincere but from my perspective (armchair socialist hat) very sad and likely to end on the shelf more or less which is where your call suggests it is. I recall it (and probably have the glossy book somewhere) because it was one of the first times I heard that oxymoron ‘Green Growth’ promoted by those who really dont get ‘limits to growth’ yet. My memory is hazy but I think this was around 2012 when the drought broke and there was the abysmal big brother the Rio 20+ conference where sustainability had morphed into ‘sustainable growth’. And all of a suddent the Millennium drought (and of course Climate Change) dropped of cabinet’s priority and the deniers were able to make lots of inroads into publich opinion.

    I guess my perception/cynicism here is that your call is pretty much a recycling of what I remember from 15 years ago. So what happenned to all the earlier good initiatives and why not simply call for ‘back to the future’? Three things I would note here which makes me question whether this call will do anything more alter a passing breeze:

    1. It finally rained taking the pressure off government and leading to a slashing of management programs and budget – and of course all the water conservation and management items were dropped off the agenda as a priority and things returned to the status quo – with old friends still in the bureaucracy despite the cuts trying to do the same (not more) with less, thanks to that piece of Labor policy crap invented by Hawke Keating, i.e. “Efficiency Dividends” an expression now used by all governments for ongoing cut backs even when as in NSW the coffers are overflowing. So as its still raining more or less I fear your call will fall on deaf ears compared to other priorities – like the unending demand to spend more on roads (robotic cars?) and health.

    2. Previously there was the serendipity facilitated by Peter Cullen sadly missed who had Howard’s ear to a significant degree. The last time I met him (as did so many of us) it was over a CRC free lunch junket where I got to ask him how he had managed to get the ear of Government and of course the money. He explained it was all about going to the right Canberra cocktail parties.

    3. Finally of course there is the change whereby science is now a recognised member of the Evil Empire working with the communists to stop economic growth. (which arguably is true except I doubt most environmental scientists today realize they are so politically subversive).

    Yet there is some good/bad news on the horizon which I’m suprised you didnt mention (but maybe that would be too populist), the rapidly growing Cape Town disaster.

    The numbers here are dire and seem likely to vindicate in hindsight all the desalination and recycle water schemes which evolved here during the 2000s. I confess I wasnt aware nor were colleagues about the scale and pace of this slow motion disaster for which nothing can be done until recently.

    A particularly interesting item is this from the NY Times which suggests a piece of fascinating perversity. It appears that Cape Town did actually promote efficiency and conservation and were successful within the limits of South Africa’s shaky governance.

    However what seems to have also happenned was that then government said in effect “great we can throw our money at other higher priority projects due to this Efficiency Dividend” – this would seem to have lessons for here?

    Will this near certain environmental disaster register with our governments here? This is an interesting question. I’d say probably yes/no considering the response to a somewhat smaller water crisis. Around 1993 Milwaukee experienced a massive Cryptosporidium outbreak (400000 cases) which severely spooked the water industry global. Work on drinking water management and this problem did develop here but very slowly because of the usual lack of foresight and old paradigms. Then in 1998 we had the Sydney Water incident and everyone jumped on the bandwagon and our water management system/guidelines were revamped to the point of becoming a global model. I’m not complaining as it kept me gainfully employed but I think this was a useful model for how national water management may unfold in coming years – via the two steps forward one step back method.

    As to why? that’s easy. As global regional populations (e.g. Sydney and Melbourne) continues to increase beyond carrying capacity in drought times and demand for water becomes more and more unreasonable more Cape Towns seem inevitable. We may not even need climate change to give government a kick along, climate variation being what it is.

  4. @Newtownian

    “It finally rained taking the pressure off government”

    During a drought all anybody cares about is water. During a not-drought nobody (except a few specialists) cares about water.

  5. I wish people who release documents like this “signed by XYZ this or that” would list the names of the signatories. I’m interested in the news item/declaration as well as who signed it. So Johb who are the dozen or so who have signed this? Are some of them shy?

  6. Professor Quiggin provided a link to the declaration website, which contains a page detailing who the signatories are, in the post.

  7. Small question, I may be reading the declaration wrong: Does ‘recovered’/’recovery’ mean recovered from irrigator and other allocations back to the rivers/environment or does it mean taken from the rivers or allocated to some entity?
    I can’t seem to work that out, sounds like the term is taken from the wording of the act.

    PS did the PM sign it on behalf if his ‘concerned’ group?

  8. OK since most of the references to recovery seem to be of ‘public funded recovery’ it looks like the former.

  9. @Newtownian – “As global regional populations (e.g. Sydney and Melbourne) continues to increase beyond carrying capacity… ”

    Re unsustainable population growth. Lately the once and would be PM in waiting (sorry, wedging), Abbott, has been gettin about saying that Australian immigration should be put on hold:

    “Until our infrastructure can catch up, our housing can catch up and, yes quite possibly in some instances, until our integration can catch up.”

    He’s said the government would “get credit” in an election for cracking down on immigration levels. He’s likely correct there.

    Despite Abbott saying “The point I keep making is we can dramatically take the pressure off power prices if we build a new coal-fired power station and end the emissions obsessions, that is every bit as necessary as Snowy 2.0″ the usual suspects at the big end of town are not happy with him further saying “The other thing we can do is boost wages and make housing more affordable if we are prepared to scale back immigration quite substantially because at the moment our cities are choking.” These agents of the bau point one percent reckon his anti-immigration call is “badly informed”.

    Abbott’s latest policy win-win strategy for him and the LNP apparently has several targets: from grabbing PHON voters and ousting Turnbull in any event win or lose next election, to grabbing battler and teal votes by way of Greens’ federal population policy schizoid waffle.

  10. This ‘declaration’ would be improved if (valid) arguments about the flaws of public investment in irrigation infrastructure were more fully developed, both with respect to hydrology and public finance. Furthermore, appeals to academic authority are seldom successful in the long-term, and may even be counter-productive in this case.

  11. So compliance is an issue? You could have predicted that. The Qld and NSW governments have no incentive at all to stop their farmers stealing water from downstream, so it should have been clear that compliance should be part of the MDBA’s remit with penalties under Federal rather than State law.

    Also, I’d not refer to “environmental flows”. That’s asking for the Barnaby Joyces of this world to claim that “it’s greenies putting the Lesser Wood-Spotted Beetle before people’s livelihoods again!” Call it “flushing flows” or “antisalination flows” or “antistagnation flows” or some other ugly quasi-technical term that implies they are an engineering requirement to preserve future livelihoods – which, inter alia, they are.

  12. @Svante
    “Until our infrastructure can catch up, our housing can catch up and, yes quite possibly in some instances, until our integration can catch up.”

    With sufficient govt investment all these things can “catch up”.

  13. @rog – “With sufficient govt investment all these things can “catch up”.”

    Sure things could catch up, but only after the population growth rate is reduced sufficiently, otherwise government won’t ever raise anything like sufficient funds. Without such reduction it is an impossibility with the high Australian population growth rate that in turn is largely due to the extremely high immigration rate of recent decades.

    The downward spiral of hasty population growth
    By Jane O’Sullivan ( – posted Monday, 8 March 2010

    “Charles Berger’s valuable piece “If Norway can prosper with a stable population, why can’t Australia?” (On Line Opinion, February 22, 2010) highlighted the lack of evidence supporting the supposition that population growth stimulates economic prosperity. He revealed that no correlation exists between population growth rate and per capita GDP growth among OECD countries. The 2010 Intergenerational Report (PDF 1.02MB) contrived to imply such a correlation by selecting only the “basket cases” of Japan and Italy to compare with Australia. Why not contrast ourselves with Norway or Slovenia, he asked.

    However, his discussion perpetuates the vacillation about the economic costs and benefits of population growth, by citing the so-called “economies and diseconomies of scale”. This is the wrong framing of the question. It was wrong when the National Population Council cited it in 1992, and this wrong-headedness is why our understanding has moved so little since then.

    Instead of focusing on scale, we should be looking to a far greater extent at the economies and diseconomies of growth rate…”

    “While most analyses of economic impacts of population growth have been equivocal, this article describes a new perspective from which the effects are strongly negative. The economies and diseconomies of population size are largely circumstantial and empirically inconsistent, but those of growth rate are intrinsic and consistent.

    These impacts are not apparent on income and per capita GDP, but on costs. The article estimates these costs using the logic of calculus rather than marginal accounting. Specifically, the cost of maintaining per capita capacity of durable assets, including infrastructure, equipment and skilled personnel, is increased by population growth by a factor proportional to the working lifespan of the asset class…”

    Why Australia Needs a Sustainable Population Policy
    By Peter Howat and Melissa Stoneham

    Issues Requiring a Sustainable Population Policy

    Climate Change and Global Warming
    Limited Arable Land
    Waste Production
    Traffic Congestion
    Housing Affordability
    Mental Health
    Other Health Issues
    Aged Care Services
    A Policy on Sustainable Population
    Population Planning

    In most Australian cities, the infrastructure cannot cope with the populations it serves. This is true of schools and colleges, roads and transport systems, hospitals and health care, housing supply, water, power and gas utilities, and other amenities.

    Current population growth rates push the demands for these services well beyond the capacity for governments to fund them. The result is declining quality and availability. Disadvantaged groups in the community are most affected by this, says Pelser.

    Jane O’Sullivan of The University of Queensland points out that infrastructure lasts on average 50 years, so about 2% of it needs to be replaced each year. That’s with a stable population. But if population is growing by 2% per year (as it was in 2009–10) we need an extra 2% of new infrastructure, which doubles the cost. This is probably more money than any government can extract from taxpayers, which explains why infrastructure is so inadequate in areas where population is growing fast.

    Note that the same thing is true of trained professionals like doctors and nurses. If population grows at 2% per year, we need to graduate twice as many of them each year –unless we “pirate” them as immigrants from developing countries, which seems unfair…”

    Australia’s population debate
    Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe (2012)

    “…In fact the infrastructure in all our major cities is failing to keep pace with the growing population and this is causing a decline in material living standards. A perceptive US economist actually predicted and quantified this problem 25 years ago, while a local academic has refined the calculation for the current situation in south east Queensland. Lester Thurow ( ) argued that the average life of built infrastructure like roads, water supply, sewers and transport systems is about 50 years, so the annual bill for replacement would normally be about 2% of the total capital invested. If the population is growing by 2% the infrastructure bill is the normal 2% replacement plus an extra 2% for the new people, or 4% of the total capital. So as Dr Jane O’Sullivan has pointed out, quite a modest rate of growth, about the average in recent years in south east Queensland actually doubles the infrastructure bill. But the revenue base will only have grown by 2%.”

    Ian Lowe and the population debate: Is bigger better? (interview)

    Wayne Swan plans to crank up the Ageing Population Myth

    The huge, hidden cost of population growth

    Why a population of, say, 15 million makes sense for Australia

    How many people can Australia feed?

    Australia doesn’t have a population policy – why?

    25 million population ‘disaster’: ‘It will destroy Australia’

    “…we’re actually falling behind, so the quality of life people are enjoying is going backwards.”

    Dr O’Sullivan said the “usual rejoinder” was that governments had failed to spend adequately on infrastructure, but the numbers didn’t bear that out.

    “They have more than increased their spending in proportion to population growth, it’s just becoming increasingly expensive as our megacities cities become bigger and denser,” she said.

    “The cost of every extra person becomes more expensive because suddenly you have to build road tunnels, high-rises, refit increased sewerage capacity.

    “People think Australia has a small population, but our cities are huge by developed country standards. They’re way past economies of scale, to [arguably] diseconomies of scale.”

    Lester Thurow: Tribute to a Global Economic Pioneer

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