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A drying climate

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 18 Oct 2006

I would like to talk today about water and coming to terms with our drying environment. We need to come to terms with the fact that we live in the driest inhabited continent on earth, that we are living in a drying environment and that we have been for a while. Australia is an arid continent with old soils and highly variable climate that is becoming even more variable. Farming has always been hard, and our farmers have learnt to adapt to big variations in rainfall and temperature, year in and year out. The problem is that this variability makes it harder to identify a slower, longer term shift in climate.

Government to date-and, it seems, some in government-still continue to be in denial.

They have ignored the indicators that have been there for a while. They have stifled debate. They have failed to collect and provide the necessary information to inform farmers, decision makers and the broader community of the impacts of a drying climate and of climate change. We have had 'drought' in some areas in the country for six years in a row, and you really need to question whether this is an exception or is part of a longer term change. I believe that the indicators are there, staring everybody in the face, and that we have failed to take action. This has exacerbated the problems that we face in this crisis now.

To look at what is happening in the Murray-Darling Basin at present: we have heard from the director of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Wendy Craik, that the current season is far worse than their worst-case scenario, and it has been much worse than the worst year on record across the basin. Last week, Dr Craik gave evidence to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, which has been widely reported in the media, that storages in the basin's three main dams will hit rock bottom at the end of the irrigation season in April and May next year and that, if there is no substantial rain, water supplies of a number of towns and rural and regional cities within the basin will be in serious trouble. In fact, as I understand it, some towns may have to start carting water in the not too distant future. ABARE has been predicting that the drought will wipe $3.5 billion off our grain crop this year, and I am given to understand that some people regard that as fairly optimistic.

The River Murray System-Drought Update says:

Rainfall over the nine months December to August 2006 has been in the lowest 10% of records for large areas of the Murray-Darling Basin ... River Murray System inflows over the autumn/winter period were the lowest on record for this time of year eclipsing records set ... in 1902 and 1967.
At the end of September 2006, the total River Murray system storage was 3 550 GL or 37 per cent of capacity, which is only half the long-term average for September ... With winter and early spring being extremely dry, the chance of significant improvement this year is low ...

It says that River Murray Water:

... has been planning the 2006/07 operation of the River Murray System from May 2006 with the expectation that inflows could be at the lowest recorded levels throughout 2006/07.

... the significance to the environment of the present extended drought is that it is being compounded by the effects of regulation and water extractions.

Under such conditions, water availability next year (2007/08) would be reliant on inflows received ... and releases from the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Further, it goes on to say:

It is therefore conceivable that impacts on water availability could extend to high security water products, if the dry sequence already observed this season continues into 2007/08.

It is obvious from this information that we are facing a dire situation in the Murray-Darling Basin. When you look at the dams for the major and regional centres of our cities around Australia you can see that they are in a very poor state as well. In Brisbane, they are at 28 per cent capacity; Perth is below 30 per cent capacity; Sydney, 41 per cent and dwindling; Canberra, 49 per cent; Melbourne, 47 per cent; and Adelaide, 54 per cent.

It is interesting to note that the Water Services Association of Australia predicts that by 2030, if no conservation measures are taken and climate change and population growth continue as forecast, Australia's largest cities will be consuming 854 gigalitres more water than they use now-nearly two times more water than the city of Melbourne uses in a year. The Water Services Association also points out that 75 per cent of water used by Australians goes into agriculture and 16 per cent goes to our cities. It has also been pointed out that if Sydney were to recycle all the waste water and stormwater that goes out to sea they could supply the city for the next 18 months. So, while our cities are in some dire straits, it is our agricultural sector and regional centres that I believe we really need to worry about.

I am deeply disappointed by the approach and the denial by both federal and state governments, which is exacerbating this problem. It is unfortunate that our current minister for the environment still seems to be in denial about the impact of climate change; in fact, in the past he has undermined our leading scientists when they have dared to suggest that our river systems are overallocated, that we need to look at how we handle our adjustment systems in Australia and that climate change may be having an impact on the Murray-Darling Basin. In fact, earlier this year the minister accused CSIRO of scaremongering when they raised concerns about the impacts of climate change on the Murray-Darling river system.

Just nine months down the track and we 'suddenly' have a crisis. The response to date, which I believe has been a fairly infantile debate about keeping our iconic farmers on the land, has been a disservice to our farmers. Regional communities do have a central role in the Australian psyche, which is why we need to be looking forward and planning how best to adapt and survive with our decreasing water supplies rather than trying to keep a 'critical mass' on the land. I believe this is playing politics with people's lives.

We have seen a continuing attack on and denial of these problems, even when scientists very bravely spoke out about them. Mike Young was one of those scientists and was vilified last year for comments in which he dared to raise concerns and question the way in which we carry out adjustments in Australia. Mike Young recently said:

The Murray-Darling system is running on empty and starting to cough and splutter. The river is giving its last gasps and it is really scary, it's scary everywhere.

There are some communities that will be desperate due to a lack of water.

We have overallocated the water in many of our river systems during periods of better than average rainfall, particularly during the 1980s. We are now locked in to unsustainable levels of extraction. Mike Young, from the Wentworth Group and CSIRO, said earlier this week:

... fear of a political backlash has created a permanent over-allocation of water to regional Australia.

Added to this in many areas is the failure to control, meter and limit our extraction of groundwater, treating it as an endless supply rather than a limited supply interconnected with our surface waters.

By continuing to talk about drought and denying the possibility that we are facing a combination-and I stress 'combination'-of a dry cycle on top of a longer term climatic shift, we are sending the wrong signals to the bush; I believe we are effectively hanging our cockies out to dry.

We are focusing on short-term responses while maintaining drought relief in exceptional circumstances payments, without a longer term plan. I stress that I am not saying that we should not be making them; I am saying that, in the absence of a longer term plan to address our decreasing rainfall and our water crisis, we are condemning our farmers to desperate situations, and we are condemning our environment to a desperate situation.

This is where we come to talk about structural readjustment. Very often structural readjustment is seen as the elephant in the room that you do not mention. Yet we have had many waves of structural readjustment in this country which have been successful. Often we see structural readjustment in situations where we have declining industries and declining economies associated with those industries. But we should be getting ahead of the game, to the point where we can make some positive changes. We should be looking at the positives we can gain through structural readjustment.

In this country we need to have a debate about where we should water and what we should grow. It is important in this sixth year of drought to consider where it is appropriate to use large amounts of water and whether it is appropriate that we continue into the future to feed water-hungry crops, such as the rice, cotton and some broadacre agriculture that we continue to irrigate. We have to stop and ask ourselves whether these crops are appropriate to our environment. Are they really delivering on their incredible costs beyond the cost of water use-that is, the costs to the taxpayer and the costs to the environment?

I believe that we need to look at the real costs of water to these industries and to take into account the real costs they have for our environment. We need to make difficult and forward-looking decisions about how to justly and equitably share our natural resources. Fundamental to this is how we conserve them in a fashion whereby they can be used sustainably in the long term. We need to balance the growing need for clean water for our cities against their need for food and clean air. We need to be sensible about the level of agricultural exports that we can sustain.

We should not be reliant on agricultural exports to balance our trade deficit. If we are living beyond our means in a way that runs the system into the ground, surely this is not sustainable or sensible long-term planning. The long-term consequences are bound to wipe out any short-term gains.
I have been interested to hear Professor Peter Cullen's comments in the media over the last week. He is commenting on the current situation. He said:

Well, I think Australia is going into a very dry period, and we're going to have to readjust the way we use water and the way we manage our land.

Some parts of our farming land get reasonably regular rainfall, and they're in very serious drought, and there is a good case to help those people.
But other parts of our farming land have been marginal for a long time, and appear to be getting much more marginal.
What we seem to be doing, by drip-feeding these people with drought relief, is keeping them there, maximising the misery and maximising the land degradation.
His comments on how we should help these people seem to me quite sensible. He went on:

Well, I think we've got to help some of them off the land, and those who do want to stay, if we can reduce some of the pressures on the landscape, by assisting them with payments for ecosystem services, for which they will provide the land management functions we need, we can take pressure off that landscape and allow that to regenerate.

... just drip-feeding money to maintain the status quo doesn't let agriculture readjust to the new realities of the climate that we're now seeing.

I think Professor Cullen is right. If we fail to heed the warnings, if we fail to do some long-term planning now, we will not be dealing with the crisis we are suffering.

This current water crisis will just continue to roll on and on. We have missed some very vital opportunities in the past to start addressing this issue. If we fail now, we are failing our farmers and our community and we are condemning our environment to what we are seeing in those dreadful images from the Murray River.
Our ecosystems are suffering. There has not been sufficient long-term planning for ecosystem protection. While people often quote the 1,500 gigalitres that are needed for environmental flows in the Murray River, people forget that that was a compromise position in the first place. At the moment, 500 gigalitres are allocated for environmental flows. People said 1,500 were needed but that was a compromise to begin with. We cannot even provide that 500 gigalitres. We may be near 310 gigalitres but that has not been delivered. So we are facing very significant water issues in this country and we are failing totally to deal with them.

State and federal governments bicker, lay blame at the feet of each other and do not acknowledge the impact that climate change is having on our water supplies. This may be our very last opportunity to get it right and to help the environment, help our water sources and help the people on the land who so desperately need it and not give them any further false information or sense that things may get better when they are only going to get worse under the scenario of climate change.

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