Farmers seeking certainty while irrigation lobby takes a 4×2 to the reform process
By pure co-incidence I delivered a lecture on the importance of including environmental values into our economic accounts in Mildura on the very day the Murray-Darling Basin Authority held its public consultation.
I planned to use my recent work on the economic value of wetlands to the Basin economy as the example in my public lecture.
I wanted to highlight, in particular, the value of the services provided for free to surrounding communities by a healthy wetland – water storage and filtration, flood control and habitat for pollinators and insect predators.
We only need to look at the recent $150 billion cost to the US economy that came from the loss of bee colonies and their free pollination services resulting in massive losses in fruit and nut production.
Arriving in Mildura, it was immediately clear almost everyone in the area is in some way related to a ‘blockie’, the small to medium sized irrigators that grow the wine and table grapes and dried fruit the region is famous for.
So what did I find? Many of these family farmers have had it tough for years, knocked around by the drought, commodity prices dropping, exchange rates increasing and the whims of consumer tastes.
It’s no surprise to farmers that they are dynamic and will adapt: changing farming techniques, investing in water efficient irrigation systems, choosing better adapted crop species that use less water and so on.
I didn’t meet a single person who did not agree that the river is dying and needs more water. The question of how we go about this change is what remains in dispute.
The blockies in Mildura that I spoke to aren’t ruthless profit-maximising farmers, ripping the guts out of the land. They are all deeply concerned and fearful for the future of their community and, most particularly, about whether their children and grandchildren will be able to remain in this region that they love.
What I realised is that the national debate about the future of the Murray-Darling has failed to focus on what is important – how do we deliver a transition that gives water back to the Murray-Darling at a level that not only slows its decline but improves its health, while looking after the communities that rely on the river?
To go through this reform, and deliver enough water that only draws out the death of the river system does justice to no one – not the birds, not the trees, not the fish, not the blockies.
Unfortunately, the industry bodies meant to be representing the blockies are doing them a disservice.
The powerful irrigation lobby groups are currently doing nothing to find a solution. Instead they insist on battering with a 4x2 the reform process everyone agrees we need to have, whilst fanning the flames of fear in farming communities.
With $9 billion of government funds on the table, there is certainly no shortage of cash to provide a solution that keeps healthy communities in a healthy Basin environment.
And for me, continuing to destroy the very river that provides the Basin with jobs, food and water is bad economic management.