Murray Darling Basin Plan – Saving fish, killing people.

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By Topher Field. This article and others by Topher can be viewed at 

t’s so easy for us to get caught up all manner of causes which are luxuries that only the wealthy can afford. Environmental activism, animal rights, ‘sustainability’, renewable energy, climate change, these are the concerns of the rich, and only the rich. No one lacking food security for themselves or their family gives a damn about an endangered species. It’s food, end of story. Likewise no thirsty person has ever concerned themselves with the ethics of fur coats, and no person without shelter has ever joined a campaign against deforestation.

And only the richest of the rich are selfish and callous enough to trade the lives of the poor for the ‘health’ of a river, and yet that’s exactly what we’re doing in Australia with the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

My very first foray into the world of public opinion and commentary was a series of videos on the subject of water management in my home state of Victoria. I ended up making a series of 5 videos called ‘Topher’s Unpopular View’, spanning issues including the Desal Plant, North-South pipeline, Tasmanian pipeline part 1 and part 2, the outright lies upon which the water debate is based, and finally the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s appalling Draft Plan.

Well some things never change, and the Murray Darling Basin Plan is once again at the front of the political queue and farmers are once again in the firing line.

If you haven’t seen it, take the time to watch my mini-documentary on the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s Draft Plan. No really, stop reading, start watching. You need to know how bad the ‘science’ is behind the whole plan, and whilst the debate has changed in the years since my video, many of the points I make and all of the objections I raise remain absolutely valid to this day. Oh, and you’ll know what the picture at the top of this blog is all about once you’ve watched the video…

So, now that you’ve watched that and you know what we’re talking about here, there’s one extra point that needs to be driven home mercilessly: The Greens (and Nick Xenophon’s) determination to save fish, and birds, and wetlands, and frogs, will literally result in people dying.

What happens with the water in the Murray Darling Basin is literally a life and death issue. But right now it’s being used as a cheap political point-scoring game.

If we reduce the productivity of our farms here in the comfortable and prosperous land of Australia, we’ll feel a slight pain in the wallet as our food prices rise due to reduced supply. For families who are already in a marginal financial position, only just getting by, this will be more serious, as they will have to go without other things in order to buy food, or in the worst cases they may have to go hungry or be dependent on charities, as there simply isn’t the money for them to pay the extra.

However, (and I mean no disrespect to Australians in that situation) their plight pales into insignificance when measured against what reduced Australian food output will do to the worlds poor. By which I mean the people living on just a few dollars per day. International food prices are a big deal, and you can learn a little about the current prices and trends via the World Banks Quarterly ‘Food Price Watch’ publication.

There were spikes in global food prices in 2008, and 2012, and both of those came with a death toll. Now there’s many factors which cause a food crisis, usually involving localized drought and crop failure, but the lower the global food production, the worse the impact of a local crop failure. If food is abundant and cheap globally, it’s relatively fast, easy and cheap to get food to where it’s needed most.

So when we reduce our food output, we make the worlds most vulnerable people even more vulnerable to local weather conditions, and in the end, we kill people. Literally, we increase in the number of people dying from malnutrition and the associated diseases that come with weakened bodies and failing immune systems. We contribute to increased infant mortality as mothers simply cannot produce the milk needed to feed them (just stop and think for a split second about how heartbreaking that is for the mother!) and even for the survivors there’s a legacy of stunted growth and development, and increased vulnerability to diseases for the rest of their lives as a result of a sustained period of malnutrition.

For the Australian wealthy, (by which I mean anyone earning more than about $25,000 per person they feed) increased staple food prices mean trading off some luxuries we enjoy in order to get more of the basics. For those earning $50k or more, increased food prices may mean one less trip to the cinema, skipping a coffee, or saying ‘no thanks’ to a social outing which was going to be expensive. For Australia’s poor, increased food prices means there’s no cheese in the fridge this week, or not running the heating, or not driving the car.

But for the worlds poor, a small increase in staple food prices means coming home from the market empty handed and trying to explain to your wife and children that they’ll have to keep begging if they want to eat today. It means telling your wife that she still won’t have enough nutrition for her to produce the milk that your baby is screaming for day and night.

The world is wealthier today than it has ever been at any  other point in history, and it’s so easy for those of us who are the wealthiest of the wealthy (that’s you whether you feel like it or not) to forget that there’s still hundreds of millions of people for whom ONE square meal a day is not a given. And it’s even easier to forget that the things we do to ‘save the environment’ can often have a massive impact on people we’ll never see.

Think Bio Fuels are saving the environment? Well according to the World Bank Bio Fuels were one of the driving forces behind the 2008 food crisis which caused so many needless deaths.

Think deforestation is a global crisis which must be stopped? Well actually the world is getting greener as plants grow faster than ever thanks to increased atmospheric co2 levels, and stopping logging condemns the local population to poverty, hunger, or worse… so stopping logging would cause a worse crisis than continuing.

Think we should send billions of liters of water out to sea to ‘save the Coorong’, instead of giving that water to farmers to grow food? Then you’re condemning the worlds poorest people to a life of ongoing uncertainty, hunger, and for some of them, premature death. Not to mention that you’re not actually saving the environment! The Coorong and lower lakes only ‘need water’ because we’ve built artificial barrages to keep the ocean out… turning what used to be a salt water estuary into a fresh water lake…

Jennifer Marohasy is a scientist and superb blogger on the Murray Darling Basin, Climate Change, and many other issues. She has some excellent material on the Coorong and lower lakes and she goes into detail about how we’re actually trying to keep the Coorong in an UN-natural state, and we’re wasting precious water to do it. Click the link to her blog to see for yourself.

So lets sum up here. The Murray Darling Basin Plan is based on bad or non-existent science, as my documentary shows. It will cause hunger, suffering and possibly death for the worlds poor, as WHO and World Bank data shows, and the mission of ‘Saving the Coorong’ is misguided at best, deadly at worst, when in reality we’re wasting water to keep it in an un-natural state. If we took away the barrages and returned the system to its original estuarine state it would be just fine, and wouldn’t need the water that our farmers are currently using to grow our food.

And yet here we are, rich enough to be able to afford the ‘luxury’ of saving fish, and cold-hearted enough to not care about the people we’re killing the process.

We need to kill off the Murray Darling Basin Plan before it destroys our food bowl, our farming communities, and hurts the worlds most vulnerable people.

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Trevor Harden
5 years ago

Topher, Your analysis is a tad simplistic I feel – as concerned as we must be about world wide food supply and starvation of those who cannot afford to buy it, a short term goal to maximise food production (and profit) is a problem long term if in the process the environment is being damaged irrecoverably. A dead environment down the track will not produce food (or profit). That is what is meant by sustainability.
But you have convinced me that in the interests of saving the lives of the world’s starving millions we should forgo the luxury of premium wine and turn the millions of irrigated hectares in the Murray Darling Basin used to grow wine grapes, over to food production – and work out ways to get that food to those in need at a price they can afford. After all, the periodic wine grape gluts would suggest there are more worthwhile uses for Basin water – food and fibre perhaps.
Before you knock the science, and some of it I agree is of very poor quality, it is necessary to maintain objectivity here – because that is the basis of good science.
For the first time, as a result of the partially implemented Basin Plan, there is river flow that can be managed specifically for environmental outcomes; ie not just let the environment get by on what is left over after irrigators have taken their allocations, as happened in the past. Discretionary water use management is already making positive contribution to environmental health along the length of the river and tributaries – and a healthy river environment is not, as you suggest, a luxury we can’t afford, but essential for all those who depend on the river, including primary producers. Ecosystems are complex, dynamic and interactive – you can’t ignore the needs of even the most ‘insignificant’ component if the whole is to survive. It is not rocket science.

David landini
5 years ago
Reply to  Trevor Harden

Trevor, you sound like a wealthy man.

About David Landini

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