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Trading away sustainable water is a blow to rural Australia

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Lee Rhiannon 20 Jan 2014

This article was published in The Guardian on 20 January 2014.

Water trading cannot deal with the enormity of the problems confronting the Murray-Darling Basin. The current heatwave moving across inland Australia, the severe impacts of climate change and the years of over allocation of water for unsustainable agricultural practices add up to a massive burden that needs a planned sustainable response, not a market trading policy, which is why the Coalition's planned water sell off for the Murray-Darling Basin is a blow to rural Australia. This move will mean that a few irrigators will benefit to the detriment of rural communities and the environment.

Senator Birmingham, parliamentary secretary for the environment, is being deceptive by maintaining that this trading will not be at the expense of the environment or impact on the government’s commitment to thewater plan. When you start selling off water, you're winding back the small achievements that have been made in terms of restoring health to the Murray-Darling basin. Regardless of where you take the water from, removing it from the system will be particularly detrimental to South Australia.

Where the water will be sourced from for these first sell offs will determine its value, and so give direction to the market. It has been reported that the Environmental Water Holder has suggested that water trading will commence in the Lachlan and Macquarie valleys in western NSW. The famous Macquarie marshes were one of the first casualties of the ignorant environmental stance of the Coalition. Last year, the Abbott government used their numbers in the house of representatives to remove protection for Murray-Darling ecological communities

Environment minister Greg Hunt, in deciding to accept the advice of theNational Irrigators Council over the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, not only cemented the anti-science attitude of this government but has broken with the convention of scientific impartiality followed by all previous environment ministers. In removing this key protection for the Murray-Darling, the government has failed to recognise that the health of river and floodplain ecosystems is the foundation on which the viability and long term well-being of towns and local economies rests.

This damaging policy will come at the expense of regional communities, and is driven by the Coalition’s unwillingness to concentrate revenue raising on agri-businesses and big companies. Its earlier decision to slow the rate of water buybacks further compounds this damaging policy. Buying back water has been an effective way to recover water for the environment. 

During the election campaign, Barnaby Joyce committed the government to capping water buybacks at 1,500 gigalitres, when the science is saying we need 4,000 back into the system. The Coalition policy lets the big irrigators and up river states off the hook. It has turned the clock back on the equitable use of Murray-Darling Basin water resources and maintaining the health and resilience of the river and its ecosystems. For all the bluster from Coalition MPs, farming communities will lose out.

The Murray-Darling basin generates 39% of the national income that comes from agricultural production. Food production, farm viability and rural enterprises need healthy wetlands, floodplains and rivers to deliver real benefits to rural communities and local economies.

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