This World Water Day on March 22 is a good time to reflect on the tremendous strides governments, industries and communities have taken in rebalancing the water resources of the Murray Darling Basin to secure a productive and healthy future.
This year’s theme is Nature for Water, a theme that could have been written to expound the approach Australia has taken on the road to securing a sustainable future for the Murray Darling Basin.
It reiterates a central tenet of the Basin Plan: that we’re delivering a sustainable future for the environment and industries; not choosing the environment or industries.
Our challenge is to share this finite resource for the long-term health of the environment as well as irrigation industries.
The theme is about looking at nature-based solutions to solve the many water challenges faced across the world—looking to make the most of ways we can use infrastructure to achieve ‘green’ outcomes such as reconnecting rivers to floodplains and restoring wetlands as a way to improve the environment, human health and livelihoods.
The Basin Plan is a large and long-term reform and represents a profound shift in how we think about the rivers, how we operate them and how we share their water.
It puts the environment’s needs on a par with those of irrigators and other water users.
The Basin has 16 Ramsar listed wetlands, 367 bird species call the Basin home, along with 85 species of mammals and 46 species of native fish, some endangered or threatened.
Rebalancing our use of precious water resource will help sustain these diverse ecosystems.
The River Murray has historically been managed to support irrigation enterprises.
The river rules and infrastructure have grown up over time to enable the storage of water and its delivery to irrigators when called upon.
Through the Basin Plan we’re now changing that framework so that the environment’s needs will be hardwired into our management of this finite resource.
Those entitlement holders who manage water for the environment now have the same rights as other water entitlement holders and can order water when the environment is most in need just like an irrigator does to support their crop.
There are many ways of delivering for both the environment and industries.
For example, good environmental benefits can be delivered by extending periods of higher flows—so River red gums have a sustained drink; or by safeguarding the first flows after a dry period to reconnect tributaries to rivers.
The man-made structures that regulate the River Murray, locks, weirs and dams, have been adapted to better support environmental outcomes.
For example all weirs along the river have been fitted with fish ladders to enable fish migration.
However, the key point of this World Water Day is that communities and industries stand to benefit just as much as the environment does from a more integrated approach to ensuring ecosystem health.
Indeed communities and industry depend on the maintenance of a healthy and resilient environment. The Basin Plan sets us on this path.
The millennium drought gave us a taste of what is before us if we are not able to return the river system to health.
It threatened the viability of communities, irrigators and the environment and goaded governments into action.
We must remember that the Basin Plan arose from an urgent need to protect the future of the Basin system, and the communities that depend upon it.
It was agreed by hard-won consensus among all Basin governments and the Commonwealth.
Successive governments, both state and Commonwealth, have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to the Plan.
This kind of enduring consensus is almost unheard of, and we fear that should it be broken now, it would never be recaptured - much to the detriment of the Basin and its communities.
Implementing the Plan is not easy and not without challenges.
However, it remains our nation's best pathway for securing the future of this vital shared resource.
- Neil Andrew is Murray Darling Basin Authority chairman