YOUTH VOICE: Drying Out — Climate Change Killing Australia’s Source of Life

Posted on October 19, 2010 by


Water is undoubtedly the most vital resource on earth, and for dry countries like Australia, it is in particularly scarce supply. As Australia’s main water source, the Murray Darling Basin is the most fundamental natural resource in Australia. The South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative (SEACI) states that; the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) is used for producing one third of Australia’s food supply, forty percent of our nation’s agricultural income and involves about seventy percent of Australia’s irrigation (SEACI n.d.). It is the main source of life and wealth in Australia. However despite all it’s worth the MDB has been decreasing in health and is reaching a devastating crisis point for many Australians. As the Liberal leader, Tony Abbott stated in January earlier this year; the declining Basin’s health is “a human problem……because millions of Australian’s living in the catchment largely depend on its rivers for their livelihood and even their drinking water” (Abbott 2010). So how did we let Australia’s most relied on water supply deteriorate so much?

The main contributor to the Murray-Darling Basin’s poor state is climate change. The leader of the Murray-Darling Basin Management agency stated that the MDB has the “fingerprints [of climate change] all over it” (Wiseman 2008). The warming climate and lack of precipitation in south eastern Australia is having a continual impact on the MDB. Natural resource scientist, Professor Wayne Meyer of the University of Adelaide, reports that there is “increasing evidence” of a “real shift in weather patterns” around south eastern Australia, which is causing a drier and warm environment (Meyer 2009). Increasing temperatures bring about more evaporation and less water in our river system. With great quantities of water being lost from the basin since 2001, as revealed by geophysicist Paul Tregonning, (Meyer 2009) and long periods of reduced rainfall reported over the last decade, by the SEACI researchers (SEACI n.d.), it is no wonder our basin is in strife.

The effect of climate change on the MDB does not only have a major impact on Australian citizen’s health and income but also on the ecosystems surrounding the river system. The Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (2010), predicts that the warming climate will show an increase in weed invasion, erosion and a great loss in biodiversity for ecosystems surrounding the Murray-Darling Basin.

Although climate change is the main cause of the MDB crisis, there are other natural phenomenons at work affecting the basin’s health. El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is known to have a major impact on the regions climate. SEACI researchers have “confirmed that warm dry conditions occur in spring during ENSO events” and that major droughts are also linked to its occurrence (SEACI n.d.). Similar natural cycles like the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and the Southern Annual Mode (SAM), have also been found to have a link to the rainfall and climate in the regions, (SEACI n.d.). These natural events are cyclic and have been occurring for many years. But Australia has experienced “warmer than average mean annual temperatures for seventeen of the past 19 years”(SEACI n.d.), proving that the Australian climate is getting increasingly warmer and is beginning to have adverse effects on the Murray-Darling Basin.

The main anthropogenic influence on the basin is the allocation and extraction of water from the basin. In their report “Sustainable Diversions in the Murray Darling Basin” (2010), the Wentworth group of Concerned Scientists, stated that industries along the river system have been extracting too much water and leaving too little to keep the MDB at a healthy level.

Over allocation of the water in the MDB is having a major impact on the rivers health and should be dealt with. However the primary concern of impact on the MDB should be placed on climate change as the Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency reports: “uncontrolled climate change will worsen the current water supply crisis in the Murray Darling Basin” which will inevitably affect water allocations let alone all of Australia. Agriculture production will also fall because of this and has been predicted, by the ABS, to drop by about twelve percent due to the current drought (Crase 2007).  And this will only continue to fall if climate change continues to cause temperatures in the region to increase.

So what is being done to help save the Murray-Darling Basin?

The Wentworth group of Concerned Scientists claim that to regain a healthy Murray Darling Basin we need to restore two thirds of the streams natural water level. This means that four-thousand four hundred gigaliters of water needs to be returned into the river system. So far the State and Federal government have restored one thousand two hundred gigaliters of this water over the last few years, however still fall far from the mark, (Wentworth group of Concerned Scientists 2010).

Two billion dollars has also been set aside as part of the water initiative with one point six billion being put into ‘Water Smart Australia’ which Lin Crase from Latrobe University states that from “an economists standpoint” is not a very ‘smart’ decision by the government as most of this money goes towards water saving infrastructure (Crase 2007).  Crase also comments that the government is more likely to spend money on election campaigns than water saving devices. But as Federal Water Minister Penny Wong states; “There is no easy option when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin. There are only hard choices,” (Wiseman 2008) which has to be made to save the basin.

Climate change is the main culprit in the Murray-Darling Basins diminishing health. To reject the reality of climate change and its influences on Australia’s water supply is too choose to do nothing. And if we do choose to do nothing than not only will the two million people living in the MDB suffer but Australia as a whole will be severely impacted. Although the Murray Darling Basin is affected by a combination of natural and anthropogenic events, climate change is the main influence over the whole river system and is increasing heavily.

As Professor Meyer states we need to “adapt and adjust downwards our expectations of how much water will be available” and start focusing on preventing our source of life in Australia from disappearing.

Reference List:

Abbott, T 2010, Full text of Tony Abbotts address to Sydney institute, accessed 9 September 2010,

Australian Government – Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency 2010, Murray-Darling Basin, accessed 9 September 2010,

Bennett, J 2005, managing the Environmental Health of the River Murray: an economic perspective, accessed 16 August 2010,

Crase, L 2007, Pipes and Drains, Rabbits and Hats, Politicians and Promises, accessed 23 August 2010,

Karoly, D 2008, Climate change science misinformation, ABC, 4 August 2008, acessed 10 September 2010,

Meyer, W 2009, Drier Murray-Darling Basin? Get used to it, accessed 23 July 2010,

South Eastern Climate Initiative (SEACI) n.d., Answering questions about climate in South Eastern Australia, accessed 6 September 2010,

Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists 2010, Sustainable Diversions in the Murray-Darling Basin – An analysis of options for achieving a sustainable diversion in the Murray-Darling Basin, accessed 1 September 2010,

Wiseman, J 2008, Signs of climate change in the Murray-Darling Basin, The Australian, 14 January 2008, accessed 9 September 2010,


Rhiannon Oates is a first year Bachelor of Environmental Management student at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga campus.

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