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The management of water in Australia is in a state of crisis. The most obvious point of reference is the Murray/Darling Basin.

The Rudd government is fuelling the crisis through caution and a mistaken belief that a partnership between private enterprise and government is possible over the management of water. It is not.

Water is a rapidly dwindling national resource. Sectional interests such as the mining and cotton industries are not going to consider the national interest nor the rights and entitlements of the rest of the population when making decisions relating to the commercial use of ‘their’ water.

Common sense dictates that water cannot be separated from the land that it flows through or beneath which it is captive.

Trading in water is an accountants, lawyers and politicians response to seeking equity in water use, originally for the creation of a market and now to providing an environmental fix.

Trading in water is antithetical to nature.

Nature needs to be given a chance to heal and to be restored if agriculture is to have any hope of sustainability.

Water trading cuts against that and in any case, set against a dwindling supply of water, who owns the licences that represent real water?

Cubbie Station, the real value of which, in the absence of the original flows of water that ‘sustained’ it’s operation, is between $90m – $120m, should be put into public ownership, the earthworks denying environmental flows removed and the property leased for grazing and other non-irrigation purposes.

Cubbie is a failed experiment, just as the massive clearing of land for wheat by the Chase Corporation around Esperance, WA, in the 1950’s and 1960’s was a failed experiment. The damage from inappropriate irrigation schemes need to be urgently reversed and repaired.

Agricultural and Mining greed and mismanagement must be curbed and regulated.

Australia needs a national regulatory authority with teeth, answering to the Federal Parliament, to manage, regulate and allocate water.

What choice does the Government have but to accept this responsibility?

Continually attributing Australia’s dire water circumstances to drought permits our political leaders to conveniently deflect blame and avoid taking responsibility: after all, it’s easy to be forgiven for being unable to make it rain. But that approach implies that the answers don’t lie within our own hands, so politicians can step forward to take credit for the good yet readily abnegate responsibility for the bad.

However, Mother Nature isn’t responsible for damming and diverting water from our river systems. Mother Nature hasn’t over-allocated water licences and over-extracted groundwater. And Mother Nature can’t be blamed for exporting Australia’s water via the virtual water trade.

Politicians on all sides seem to be either ignorant of the current and future effects of climate change on water availability in this country or in denial.

A series of official reports – from the 2005 report ZClimate Change: Risk and Vulnerability to the 2007 report Climate change in Australia: Technical Report 2007 through to the 2008 Report – Adapting Farming To Climate Change and then the Garnaut Review – fairly accurately described what we are now witnessing in relation to water.

As far back as 2003 the Howard Government’s report Climate Change – An Australian Guide to the Science and Potential Impacts noted:

“…Climate variability is a major factor in the Australian economy, particularly through the flow-on effects of ENSO-related major droughts on agriculture. Farmers will be increasingly vulnerable if interannual droughts occur more frequently or are more intense in the future. Less secure water supplies would accentuate competition between users and threaten allocations for environmental flows and future economic growth. Adelaide and Perth are the main cities with water supplies that are the most vulnerable to climate change. Rising salinity in the Murray River is already of increasing concern for Adelaide. Any increase in flood frequency would adversely affect housing and other aspects of the built environment, such as industry and communication networks in low lying areas.

In some areas, water resources are already stressed and highly vulnerable with intense competition for water supply. This is especially so with respect to salinisation and competition for water between agriculture, power generation, urban areas and environmental flows. Increased evaporation and possible decreases of rainfall in many areas would adversely affect water supply, agriculture and the survival of key species. Water quality may also be affected due to increased soil erosion following drought, lower flows and higher water temperatures, leading to more eutophication and algal blooms.

Evidence suggests that the observed warming trend in Australia has already contributed to an increased severity of drought through higher potential evaporation and water demand.

While there are many pressing problems regarding water supply, climate change is likely to add to them, making solutions more difficult. An integrated approach is needed to optimise results…..’

Fast forward to 2009 and we are now seeing or hearing about water woes afflicting the Lachlan, Darling and Murray rivers, the Coorong and lower lakes crisis, Melbourne’s dwindling water storages, water shortages in Perth, State Governments at each others’ throats, people fiddling with their meters and stealing water, drinking water infrastructure being privatised in New South Wales and beyond, and the selling off of water entitlements to national and international corporations.

How has it come to this?

Lack of leadership, first and foremost.

No integrated long-term national water management plan. No examination and implementation of sustainable farming practices to ensure that we grow what we should, how when and where we should. The supra-party continuum between government and vested interests. The defeatism of householders and small farmers who capitulate to the philosophy of “give and take” when the benefactors of their surrender have neither sought nor ever accepted the notion of compromise.

Senator Joyce and the National Party exemplify politicians failing their electorates – in their case, the people of rural and regional Australia – in that respect. It seems ironic that while they’re busy denying the climate change science, Cubbie Station – their very own ‘water-hungry’ political backer – is trying to jump ship.

“What we are doing is, as a company, our debts have climbed over the last few years with drought, and we have made a decision – a company decision to recapitalise the balance sheet. And the decision we have taken is to market the properties to achieve that.”

It’s reminiscent of Wall Street banksters talking up the economy to give themselves time to offload their bad assets before the crash.

What we are seeing begs the question: Is the Rudd Government going to be the Government that oversees the ultimate water collapse in and of this country, or is it going to try and control outcomes by declaring a water state of emergency, by assuming real control of national water management and by setting up one external government body – acting openly without fear or favour and accountable to the people – to monitor, control and manage Australia’s water sustainably?