06 May, 2011

High Praise For Murray Darling Water Management

A leading world authority on water has lavished praise on Australia's water management during the Millenium Drought which has now broken so spectacularly.

Harvard Professor John Briscoe is a former Senior Water Advisor at the World Bank and was called in as an advisor to the Murray Darling Basin Authority in the preparation of the controversial Murray Darling Basin Plan. He has now made an invited submission to the Senate's Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

In commenting on Australia's inland water management during the drought he states "Over the last 10 years Australia did something which no other country could conceivably have managed – in a large irrigated agricultural economy (the Murray Darling Basin) a 70% reduction in water availability had very little aggregate economic impact. Before the buts and the buts and the buts, this extraordinary achievement is, in my view, the single most important water fact of the 21st century, because it shows that it is possible (with ingenuity and investment) to adapt to rapid climate change and associated water scarcity". He goes on to say "how dramatically this perspective is different from the political and public perception, which is largely that “we have done a terrible job”. High praise indeed.

Professor Briscoe goes on to quote Malcolm Turnbull saying “our water management has been extraordinarily ill informed in years past” and the Murray Darling Basin Plan saying “over the past few decades….the focus has swung to looking at economics …and the role of the environment has been overlooked.” He finds these two comments to be "(a) extraordinarily widespread and (b) extraordinarily erroneous." He adds "What is obvious to me is that the overwhelming factor behind the dismal situation in the MD Basin was the dramatic reduction in rainfall and even larger reduction in river flows. It is equally clear to me that the institutional response (of the Murray Darling Basin Commission,the basin states, and farmers) was extraordinarily innovative and – within the bounds set by nature – effective. Not only for the economy but, as shown by the National Water Commission,for ameliorating the environmental damage of the terrible drought."

In his submission Professor Briscoe analysis the impact of the Commonwealth Government using international environmental treaties to gain power over the States and how this had prevented the Water Act gaining a proper balance between environmental and socio-economic factors.

He concludes his submission with the following statement:
"My conclusion is stark. I believe that the Water Act of 2007 was founded on a political
deception and that that original sin is responsible for most of the detour on which Australian
water management now finds itself. I am well aware that unpredictability is an enemy and that there are large environmental, social and economic costs of uncertainty. But I also believe that
Australian cannot find its way in water management if this Act is the guide. I would urge the
Government to start again, to re-define principles, to engage all who have a stake in this vital
issue, and to produce, as rapidly as possible, a new Act which can serve Australia for generations to come. And which can put Australia back in a world leadership position in modern water management."

We would do well to take careful note and act on these objective comments from a knowledgeable analyst untainted by Australian domestic politics.
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