Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 3 August 2020
Murray-Darling Basin Update 2020: Cry Me a River by Margaret Simons
Since I wrote my article The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe, which has attracted attention and good feedback, the problems with the Murray-Darling have become even more prominent.
The issue has risen in the public consciousness because of prosecutions of cotton growers in the northern basin, more evidence of corruption, criticism of government waste of money, many more articles on different aspects of the Murray-Darling Basin in newspapers and more stories on Australian ABC radio and ABC TV.
Publicity that water entitlements in Australia, based on 2018 figures, are 10.4% foreign-owned and that Chinese interests own 1.9% (with the USA about the same and the UK 1.4%) has recently enraged people against China on Facebook. Publicity that most water entitlements are owned by large agribusinesses, those with the deepest pockets, and those whose crops make the highest profits has never gained the same traction.
Concern about the Murray-Darling Basin, however, appears to be growing.
Margaret Simons has written an excellent Quarterly Essay called Cry Me a River in 2020, which has ignited more public debate on the Murray-Darling Basin, even under the Covid-19 crisis and lockdown.
The remainder of this article concentrates on Margaret Simons’ essay. I can’t summarise the essay here and I assume most of you haven’t read it. Nevertheless, I think you’ll find the information contained below rewarding. It may also inspire you to buy or borrow a copy of the essay. Cry Me a River is the most current, clear and detailed overview of the Murray-Darling Basin crisis currently available.
I hope you have at least read my article The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe, which is a succinct 3500 word description of the tragedy!
Quarterly Essay Background
We live in an environment where, I’d contend, there has been no clear political direction on a future for Australia in twenty-five years. The political class — particularly the conservatives — tends to obfuscate debate on crucial issues and to obscure prioritising on where the money is spent. The general media, which is in decline (and dominated by News Corp), doesn’t cover broad topics well or in-depth. The ABC, despised by conservatives, struggles on — despite ongoing funding cuts.
In this environment, Morry Schwartz and Black Inc. have introduced the Quarterly Essay (2001), the Monthly Magazine (2005) and the weekly Saturday Paper (2014) as independent commentary on deeper issues concerning Australia.
The Quarterly Essay is printed in a book-like size. Each issue comprises an essay of at least 20,000 words, which is followed by correspondence on the previous essay. Hence the correspondence to Cry Me a River is contained in The Curse of Coal by Judith Brett, Issue 78, 2020.
The quality of the writing in Quarterly Essay varies and one can argue that many essays are dominated by the ‘usual suspects’. Sometimes, one almost thinks that the correspondence is more illuminating than the essay itself, but not often.
Yet, as the Quarterly Essay describes itself: ‘It is the leading agenda-setting journal of politics and culture in Australia’, which means that it covers issues in-depth that don’t get covered elsewhere.
All three publications above, but particularly Quarterly Essay, should be read by all Australians who care about a decent future for our country. While I don’t know the exact readership numbers, the Quarterly Essay says it has 6500 subscribers, distributes 20,000+ print copies and has 18,000+ digital newsletter subscribers. Sadly, not enough Australians are interested to read it.
Cry Me a River
Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin by Margaret Simons, Quarterly Essay Issue 77, 2020.
Margaret Simons is an award winning free-lance journalist and the author of thirteen books. As preparation for the essay Margaret Simons undertook a long road trip from Queensland to South Australia through the basin. She conducted many interviews on the trip and interviewed some key people involved in managing the basin. Her essay provides a portrait of the basin and documents its woes. She shows why the tragedy has arisen over decades, but offers no solutions.
Although there are no detailed press reviews, I and all twelve Goodreads reviewers rated it very highly.
To give you an idea of the excellence of Margaret’s essay I am going to quote from a letter I wrote to Quarterly Essay, and to the published correspondence in the following issue. I am also going to discuss the correspondence in some detail, because it is insightful and adds further context to Margaret Simons essay.
My letter wasn’t published, but I need to say here that Chris Feik, Editor of the Quarterly Essay was responsive and helpful. I wasn’t disappointed. The list of correspondents published were more involved in the Murray-Darling Basin for more years than I was.
I emailed my letter to Margaret Simons, commented on water trading and asked her a couple of questions regarding her ‘curious neutrality‘ over Professor Mike Young:
Congratulations on Cry Me A River it is the only written work I’ve read on the Murray-Darling Basin that explicates the whole Murray-Darling tragedy clearly and succinctly. My only slight suggestion would have been that a couple more paragraphs were required to explain the water trading system.
I think my essay did include some scepticism about the role of water markets, but you are right I did not pronounce on it. … I am not as sure as you are that water trading is a disaster, though it is clear, and I think I said this, that the market has problems.
We can agree to differ on this. Margaret Simons did not respond to my queries on Mike Young
What Correspondents Said About Cry Me a River
In my letter to Quarterly Essay, I said:
In Cry Me a River: the Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin Margaret Simons, a superb journalist, researcher and writer, justifies her title by outlining and explaining in detail exactly why the Murray-Darling is in such a mess succinctly over 109 pages (the task requires that length). Simons succeeds where many others have failed. She manages to include virtually everything one needs to know to understand the disaster. She mentions most of the key players and doesn’t pull any punches where criticism is required. She also deftly inserts doubts between the lines, when certain personalities attempt to explain the unexplainable.
She is empathetic and brings pathos into her interview with farmer Scott Armstrong who is the everyman character in the saga. Scott Armstrong is immensely proud of his farm and his community near St George in southern Queensland.
Armstrong is an exemplar of the incredible human problem experienced by farmers within the Basin. He was formerly intensely involved in irrigation and water politics but has withdrawn into his own community.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan gives no recognition to climate change. Yet, climate change is the elephant in the room, which will turn a tragedy into catastrophe. Margaret Simons only alludes to this, because at this stage the tragedy has been brought about without needing to invoke climate change.
Maryanne Slattery said:
Margaret Simons’ essay is an evocative account of a moment. From the title it is clear that she did not find, and does not foresee, a happy ending. …
Simons’ view is personal, compassionate, unsentimental and moving. It is clear-eyed and tough — she sees the spin and self-interest, the obsession with process that serves only to delay. And it is harsh where harshness is the only proper response. …She says one of her aims in the essay is “to rescue the Basin’s narratives from the abstract.” She has achieved this. Her essay is the opposite of the dessicated language of the water managers.
Fascinated that Simons had got it so right… She documents superbly the depth of feeling and misunderstanding in the Basin, and how politicians have attempted to frustrate progress.
Simons has rightly identified a terrible array of obstacles that together constitute an almost insurmountable hurdle to successful implementation of the Plan. On top of this, she argues that “the politics have become close to unmanageable.” It is hard to disagree. However, despite this, a way forward must be found.
Simons’ story of her road trip… sharply illuminates the schism between the high-level governance of the Basin and the intimate details and messy complexities of actual places.
Stefano de Pieri:
Finally: a comprehensive explanation of how the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is unfolding. Margaret Simons’ essay is a handy manual for all those who care about the future of this country. She has given the reader a ball of string with which to enter the Murray-Darling labyrinth. But while “manual” suggests a dry, technical piece of writing, Simons also captures the raw, everyday reality of the people who live in the Basin or are affected by the Plan.
Simons offers many valuable insights into the byzantine relationships at the heart of Australia’s water politics. … She explains well how the ritualised consultations have failed to bridge the deep discord, tensions and disconnections between national policies and local concerns…
Margaret Simons’ essay is a lucid snapshot of where the Basin stands today. Through her many interviews, astute observations and evocative descriptions, she has captured the complexities of Australian politics, geography and culture with non-judgemental empathy. The vastness of the Basin means it is easy for communities to become insular. Her essay helps us connect with others living within the catchment.
Analysis of Correspondence on Cry Me a River
Who are these Correspondents and What Do They Say?
Maryanne Slattery was a director of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) for over a decade before becoming a senior water researcher at the Australia Institute (a non-conservative think tank critical of government). She is now a director of a water consultancy.
She is extremely critical of the MDBA and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I agree with her views closely. Despite this, her letter is the most clearly thought out and well-written of the correspondence.
Mike Young holds a research chair in Water and Environmental Policy at the University of Adelaide and was the founding director of its Environmental Institute. Before this he spent thirty years with CSIRO.
I was critical of Mike Young as portrayed by Margaret Simons in her essay, accusing her of a ‘curious neutrality’ towards him. I said in my letter:
Professor Mike Young is a nationally and internationally renowned water expert. … He has tried to do good things in helping develop the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, with Malcolm Turnbull as water minister in 2007. He is one of the architects of water trading. I am reluctant to criticise academics with distinguished research careers. Nevertheless, they do occasionally need pulling up.
In Simons’ coverage, Mike Young says that today the system underlying the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is close to world’s best practice (despite, he says backtracking, that the design is flawed and the execution lacking). Mike you can’t claim world’s best practice for abject failure, even if you say it wasn’t implemented properly.
I imagine that there were bureaucratic analysts in Moscow who said that USSR cotton growing in Uzbekistan between the ancient Oxus and Jaxartes rivers was a symbol of progressive Russian agriculture, while the Aral Sea disappeared. I am sure that they knew the statistics were not quite right and that there were some flaws in the design and execution. I am not joking here because I believe that the Murray-Darling Basin is becoming a catastrophe equivalent to the demise of the Aral Sea.
As an architect of the system of water trading Mike has some explaining to do.
Margaret Simons does at the end provide another seemingly feasible plan that Professor Mike Young has outlined which takes into account climate change and could improve many problems. But, given the present mess it is pie-in-the-sky stuff, which also could not be implemented.
Nevertheless, Mike’s letter is also well-written and has several useful things to add to Simons essay. It is a genuine attempt to add to our understanding of the Murray-Darling Basin problems.
In particular, he says:
In the UK, water managers spend a lot of time working out how much water has to be left in each river to ensure the entire system remains healthy — all the way from its source to the sea. Innovatively, they call this water a “hands-off flow”, and it is allocated first. No one is allowed to touch this water.
To me it is ‘bloody amazing’ that in Australia a dry continent, now subjected to climate change, no one has ever even thought of doing this. But then, Mike why did you design a water trading system that didn’t take this into account? And, why do you still speak of ‘world’s best practice’?
I am still slightly suspicious of Mike Young’s intent.
Stuart Bunn is Director of the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University and the acting chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
Stuart’s letter is a classic of what Maryanne Slattery says of the bureaucrats Phillip Glyde and Jody Swirepek: ‘they express frustration and dismay, and give an expression of powerlessness and fatigue’. She is extremely critical of this approach. Because of his position Stuart Bunn is less obvious, but he does emphasise the problems. Then, he goes on to say that Simons devotes little attention to the good work being done. He then, as bureaucrats do, says: ‘sustainable water management is fiendishly coomplex.’ It isn’t! And then, he goes on to say we’ve made good progress and need to stick to the Plan to continue the reform. ‘The Murray-Darling doesn’t have to be a tragedy.’ But, he doesn’t offer anything new. At least, he doesn’t mention that there have to be winners and losers.
His approach meshes well with what Slattery says of politicians: ‘Public commentary is classified as “pro-Basin Plan” or “anti-Basin Plan”.’ … ‘A binary debate suits the government.’
She means that strident polarisation and a need to protect the Plan, lest anarchy be unleashed, assists the government in not doing anything practical, except occasionally throwing our money at their problem.
Gabrielle Chan was a mainstream journalist for more than thirty years. In 1996 she moved to a sheep and wheat farm in south-west NSW. She is the author of Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is fed up.
Chan has noticed the problems for food security in the Basin that are exacerbated by the water trading system.
She makes the pithy comment:
With water trading privileging the highest economic return, we have given priority to profit over value — a questionable assumption in the face of human sustenance and the health of the natural world.
Chan also believes we have to continue on from where we are now. Like the next writer Beeson she presents an analysis of the current status of the Basin with five statements that analyse and offer a way forward from the current situation and prioritises two reforms. Unlike Beeson, I think her analysis is practical and her two examples of reform also, but given the current environment I don’t think that they are implementable. Too much good will and political reversal are implied for these reforms to be feasible.
Geoff Beeson is an independent researcher and an honorary professor at Deakin University. He is the author of A Water Story: Learning from the Past, Planning for the Future.
Beeson doesn’t consider himself a water management insider, despite his in-depth researches on water. His views while perhaps similar to Mike Young’s are not the same. He believes the Basin Plan is too important to fail. He offers three ‘fundamental and interrelated factors’ needed to make progress, which he outlines. He doesn’t convince me that any of them are practical or implementable.
Lauren Rickards co-leads the RMIT Climate Change Transformation research program and is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Rickards in the early years of the millenium drought was an in-house consultant to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission (now the MBDA). She provides a strong portrait of the upper floors (management) and lower floors (practical implementers).
She sees the problem partly as ‘the narrow, capitalist notion of “unused” resources as waste.’ I covered this topic for rivers as an engineering mind set: ‘that waters not used are “wasted”‘ in my book India’s Dam Shame on a dam project in India
Rickards is also highly critical of water trading and finds the current policy bickering over the Basin takes no account of climate change, or what the long-term national interest for water use might be.
Jason Alexandra worked on Murray-Darling Basin policy for over thirty years, including five as a senior executive at the Basin authority. He now runs an irrigation farm (orchards) and writes on water issues.
Alexandra bemoans the inaction for decades, the mess and the inaction on climate change. He doesn’t hold much hope for the future.
A few of pithy comments are:
Simons offers many valuable insights into the byzantine relationships at the heart of Australia’s water politics.
The Basin illustrates what Nugget Coombs described as a reverse lottery, where a few people win a little bit and everybody loses a lot.
One of the Basin’s tragedies is that we have squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity for critical reforms.
R Humphrey Howie is a fourth-generation fruit grower from Renmark, south Australia. He is a presiding member of the Renmark Irrigation Trust, which delivers water to 600 irrigator members. He is also chairman of the Renmark Environmental Watering Committee.
He mentions the drastic loss of red gums and the destruction of habitat, but also focuses on the modest successes in the Renmark area in the second year of environmental watering. He only concentrates on the Renmark area, but at least shows that small gains are possible even in the midst of pessimism for the Basin overall.
I am leaving out the following letters. 1 Barney Foran is pushing his own ‘scientific barrow’ which is partly impenetrable and does not deal much with Simons essay. 2 Peter Gell has a specific issue of whether Lake Alexandrina was previously fresh or salt and doesn’t deal with anything else. 3 Stefano de Pieri is a restaurateur and TV chef on the Murray River. He has an acclaimed restaurant in Mildura and is a long-term resident. He also has had a long engagement with politics. I was looking forward to reading his viewpoint, but his focus is on the failure of the ALP to show leadership on the Murray-Darling Basin.
Margaret Simons Response
Margaret Simons pulls together the correspondence outlined above and highlights the problems and potential ways forward. She is more positive than in the essay on potential paths forward but doesn’t see anything happening quickly.
Only one current bureaucrat — the acting chair of the MDBA — wrote in, but his views are reminiscent of the two current bureaucrats (Phillip Glyde and Jody Swirepek) Margaret Simons quotes in her essay. They are all critical of the current mess, but apparently toe-the-line that the tragedy is still fixable. Professor Mike Young is also still engaged with the MBDA ethos. And, Geoff Beeson believes that the Basin Plan has to progress, as hopes Gabrielle Chan. None of them, however, offer any achievable solutions. Nor do they address the political impasse.
Maryanne Slattery, Lauren Rickards and Jason Alexandra who spent some or most of their careers with the Murray-Darling Basin Commission or Authority are now outsiders and can say what they think. They, Margaret Simons and I do not, in Slattery’s words, ‘foresee a happy ending’ any time soon.
Margaret Simons sees water trading as a problem, but not as a key critical issue. I don’t think that repealing the current water trading system will immediately solve the catastrophe, but I do see it as one of the first necessary steps, i.e. necessary but not sufficient.
Margaret Slattery and Gabrielle Chan seem closer to my view on water trading. They certainly do see it as a key problem. They are also concerned with food security, which I didn’t have the space to cover. We all realise that the bulk of water going to short term profits and two crops only is madness and not in the national interest in the long term.
Perhaps the Basin’s most sacred cow is the water market. … I argue that… water will flow to the “highest value use” — has failed us. Value was never defined, never debated. Water does not move to its highest value use for the community, the economy or even the country. It moves to whomever is prepared to pay the most: how many dollars can be made from a litre of water? If a dairy farmer or rice grower, for example, cannot make the same dollars per megalitre as an almond or cotton grower, they are condemned as less efficient, of less value. “Highest value use” is therefore better described as “greatest ability to pay.”
There is no space in this system of “world’s best practice” to value regional communities, “low value” irrigators, Aboriginal people or the environment. …
She goes on to say that; “highest value use” relies on a functioning global food network. Then, she says that Covid-19 and climate change may change this dynamic. Gabrielle Chan says much the same thing in her pithy statement quoted above.
Food and Climate Change with Covid-19 thrown in
In Margaret Simons essay and in my article, neither of us had room to cover these topics, which are huge. The Murray-Darling catastrophe to date has occurred without needing to add in climate change.
Mick Keelty appointed a thankless task as Interim Inspector-General of the Murray-Darling Basin handed down his report Impact of Lower Inflows on State Shares under the Murray-Darling Agreement in March 2020, after Margaret Simons Essay. Mick Keelty performed his task much better than expected. The major finding was that there was no extra water as many irrigators had expected. Indeed, the amount of water flowing into the Murray (the biggest component of the system compared to the Darling) had effectively halved in the past twenty years. Perhaps the first publicly acknowledged impact of climate change on the Murray-Darling Basin.
The impact of climate change and Covid-19 will make the world unstable. The government currently ignores food security as an issue but it may suddenly become a hot topic, not only for the outside world but in Australia itself. The bushfires and in particular the Covid-19 crisis has shown that Australia is completely unprepared for responding to natural disasters.
Australia faces many critical issues at the moment but the Murray-Darling Basin debacle has been a slowly proceeding train wreck for decades. No serious commentator or analyst can see a ‘happy ending’ for the Murray-Darling tragedy.
What hope does this give us for the other pressing problems that we’ve done nothing about for decades.
Climate change, reversing our dependence on carbon emissions, developing a sensible energy policy, confronting habitat and environmental destruction, coping with sea level rise and storm surges in our coastal communities, dealing with the problem that we are totally dependent on mining exports particularly, iron ore, coal and liquified natural gas, and developing a policy on food security covers some of the territory.
Judith Brett’s essay The Coal Curse: resources, climate and Australia’s future deals with the last two.
With Covid-19 we are slowly and painfully beginning to realise, even if we’ve delayed treating climate change seriously for more than thirty years, that the world has changed forever and we are barely beginning to cope with the consequences. The fallout from Covid-19 and the continuing unavoidable consequences of climate change, that we’ve barely experienced as yet, are our future.
The consequences are going to be bleak, but there is always potential for sensible ongoing reforms and radical change concerning how we continue to exist on planet Earth. Growth economics and neo-liberalism are problems not solutions. We need to go beyond them to find real solutions to how we survive the next thirty years.
Key Words: Murray-Darling Basin, 2020, catastrophe, tragedy, MDBA, Murray River, Darling River, water, agriculture, States, Federal Government, Murray-Darling Basin Plan, water trading, water markets, Margaret Simons, Cry Me a River, Quarterly Essay, Maryanne Slattery, Mike Young, Stuart Bunn, Gabrielle Chan, Geoff Beeson, Lauren Rickards, Jason Alexandra, Stefano de Pieri, R Humphrey Howie, Mick Keelty, MDBA, Judith Brett, The Coal Curse, food security, climate change, Covid-19, hands-off flow
The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe
My article on The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe
India’s Dam Shame
My book as a PDF: India’s Dam Shame : Why Polavaram Dam must not be built by Tony Stewart and V Rukmini Rao, Gramya, 2006.