YOUTH VOICE: Smokescreens and Mirrors — Is Climate Change Really to Blame for the State of the Murray?

Posted on October 13, 2010 by


Few would argue against the fact that the Murray Darling Basin is an Australian icon.  It is home to symbols of ‘Australianism’ such as Murray Cod, Murray River red gums and the world renowned food bowl which produces quality cheese, olives and wine among other things. However the health of the basin is declining at an alarming rate. Since 2001, there has been a net loss of 200m³ of water from the basin. Projections by the CSIRO also suggest that there could be 41% less water available for consumption by 2030. In anyone’s language this is a problem of massive proportions. One made even more damning once you add in the fact that the gross value of the irrigated agriculture produced via the Murray-Darling Basin is a staggering $5.5 billion, showing how heavily we rely on it as consumers. Many people blame this crisis on climate change, which seems to have established itself as the preeminent topic among the Australian public. Whilst it would be impossible to deny that climate change has had some effect on the Murray-Darling Basin, I believe that it is due to a myriad of other reasons that the health of the basin has dwindled. These include unsustainable irrigation, shortfalls with government policy and the makeup of the Australian political system.

The major reason for this dilemma is that current levels of irrigation in the region are unsustainable (irrigation currently accounts for 95% of water allocation in the system). A key characteristic of the basin is that it has greatly variable flows. This variability means that the Murray-Darling basin needs approximately twice the capacity of the world average to generate an equivalent level of security. At the time of the massive expansion of irrigation throughout the region (1950-2000), this was not a problem as the basin was at the fullest peak of its variability. However the last decade has seen the water available in the basin decline dramatically. This has meant that the water demanded by irrigators is beginning to match that which is available, putting the ecosystem of the basin at risk. It is now a case of a trade-off between supporting the ecosystem or the industries which are heavily reliant in the water in which the system provides.

Most people would reasonably assume that the federal government has been taking steps to rectify this situation. And they would be correct. However the policies that they have rolled out are ill-conceived. Although the government’s concept of controlling the ownership of the water available in the Murray-Darling Basin via a market system is thought to be the solution by many economists, it is the fine print of the policies which limit its effectiveness. These measures encourage irrigators to sell off their water rights (effectively rendering them unable to continue as producers). Whilst this diminishes the problem of demand for water being too high throughout the basin, it is having negative effects as well. The downfall of using a market scheme is that it encourages users of the water who are least profitable to sell their allocations first. In addition to this limits are imposed as to how much water irrigators can sell per year back to the government. This restriction means that they have to offload the rest of their allocation, at reduced prices, to other irrigators. These scenarios leave many of our farmers at a distinct financial disadvantage.

The other flaw in the action taken by both the federal and state governments is that they are currently removing far too little water from the water market to be used in the environment (approximately 1,200GL). Although this only accounts for the first few years of a program which has a ten year time frame, the forecasted volume of water to be removed is merely 2,870GL. This amount is well short of the 4,400GL that is projected to be needed to save the Murray-Darling Basin.

The reason for these ad hoc policies can be attributed to the fact that the Murray-Darling Basin is encompassed by very few marginal electorate seats. This means that political parties are reluctant to develop, and most importantly finance, policies in the region. They see their money and time as better spent “buying votes” in marginal electorates. There is no greater example of this than the current political climate in which both major parties have been jostling for the support of independent members in an effort to form government, throwing millions upon millions of dollars at their respective electorates in an effort to “buy the vote”. Surely if the area contained more marginal seats, the government (and certainly the opposition) would have taken the time to iron out the kinks of the policies.

All of these reasons go to show that climate change is not the silent killer of the Murray-Darling Basin like it is made out to be.  However, as the effects of climate change worsen, it will begin to amplify the existing problems experienced.  Recent studies indicate that (at current rates of emissions) there will be even greater variability of rainfall levels, therefore making the basin even less reliable in the context of removing water for production. In addition to this, evaporation of water will increase by up to 15% by 2030 and average temperatures will rise by up to 2°c. These effects will greatly affect the basin, leading to significant impediments on our daily lives.

In conclusion, I believe the current condition of the Murray-Darling Basin is primarily a result of pre-existing problems rather than climate change. These problems include unsustainable irrigation, shortfalls with government policy and the makeup of the Australian political system. These pitfalls will only be amplified by the worsening conditions that climate change brings. I believe that it is plain for all to see that we must act now, before our lives are impeded by the changes, and we are left without the very things that we associate with being Australian.


Australian Government – Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency 2010, Murray Darling Basin, Australian Government, accessed 7 September 2010,

Bennett, J 2005, “Managing the environmental health of the river Murray: an economic perspective”, Connections: Farm, Food and Resource Issues, Spring (October), accessed 8 September 2010,

Crase, L 2007, “Pipes and Drains, Rabbits and Hats, Politicians and Promises”, Connections: Farm, Food and Resource Issues, accessed 22 July 2010,

CSIRO 2006, Planning for change in the Murray-Darling Basin, CSIRO, accessed 6 September 2010,

Meyer, W 2009, Drier Murray-Darling Basin? Get used to it, accessed 28 July 2010,

Pincock  S 2008, Food bowl to dustbowl?, article, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, accessed 6 September 2010,

South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative (SEACI) n.d., Answering questions about climate in South Eastern Australia, accessed 28 July 2010,

Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists 2010, Sustainable Diversions in the Murray-Darling Basin – An analysis of options for achieving a sustainable diversion limit in the Murray-Darling Basin, accessed 22 July 2010,


Sam is a 21-year-old student at La Trobe Albury-Wodonga campus.  He prepared this opinion piece on the Murray-Darling Basin as part of the course Climate, Society and Sustainability which is a prerequisite for the Bachelor of Business.  He commenced study this year with a view to obtaining business skills and broadening his knowledge of the world.  Sam also works as a chef for a local establishment.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.