The deaths of a million of fish in the lower Darling River system over the past few weeks should come as no surprise. Quite apart from specific warnings given to the NSW government by their own specialists in 2013, scientists have been warning of devastation since the 1990s.
Put simply, ecological evidence shows the Barwon-Darling River is not meant to dry out to disconnected pools – even during drought conditions. Water diversions have disrupted the natural balance of wetlands that support massive ecosystems.
Unless we allow flows to resume, we’re in danger of seeing one of the worst environmental catastrophes in Australia.
The Barwon-Darling River is a “dryland river”, which means it is naturally prone to periods of extensive low flow punctuated by periods of flooding.
However, the presence of certain iconic river animals within its channels tell us that a dry river bed is not normal for this system. The murray cod, dead versions of which have recently bought graziers to tears and politicians to retch, are the sentinels of permanent deep waterholes and river channels – you just don’t find them in rivers that dry out regularly.
Less conspicuous is the large river mussel, Alathyria jacksoni, an inhabitant of this system for thousands of years. Its shells are abundant in aboriginal middens along the banks. These invertebrates are unable to tolerate low flows and low oxygen, and while dead fish will float (for a while), shoals of river mussels are probably dead on the river bed.
This extensive drying event will cause regional extinction of a whole raft of riverine species and impact others, such as the rakali. We are witnessing an ecosystem in collapse.
We can see the effects of permanent drying around the world. The most famous example is the drying of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Once the world’s fourth largest inland lake, it was reduced to less than 10% of its original volume after years of water extraction for irrigation.
The visual results of this exploitation still shock: images of large fishing boats stranded in a sea of sand, abandoned fishing villages, and a vastly changed microclimate for the regions surrounding the now-dry seabed. Its draining has been described as “the world’s worst environmental disaster”.
So, what does the Aral Sea and its major tributaries and the Darling River system with its tributary rivers have in common? Quite a lot, actually. They both have limited access to the outside world: the Aral Sea basin has no outflow to the sea, and while the Darling River system connects to the River Murray at times of high flow, most of its water is held within a vast network of wetlands and floodplain channels. Both are semi-arid. More worryingly, both have more the 50% of their average inflows extracted for irrigation.
There is one striking difference between them. The Aral Sea was a permanent inland lake and its disappearance was visually obvious. The wetlands and floodplains of the Barwon-Darling are mostly ephemeral, and the extent of their drying is therefore hard to visualise.
All the main tributaries of the Darling River have floodplain wetland complexes in their lower reaches (such as the Gwydir Wetlands, Macquarie Marshes and Narran Lakes). When the rivers flow they absorb the water from upstream, filling before releasing water downstream to the next wetland complex; the wetlands acting like a series of tipping buckets. Regular river flows are essential for these sponge-like wetlands.
So, how has this hydrological harmony of regular flows and fill-and-spill wetlands changed? And how does this relate to the massive fish kills we are seeing in the lower Darling system?
How is oxygen ‘sucked out’ of our waterways?
While high flows will still make it through the Barwon-Darling, filling the floodplains and wetlands, and connecting to the River Murray, the low and medium flow events have disappeared. Instead, these are captured in the upper sections of the basin in artificial water storages and used in irrigation.
This has essentially dried the wetlands and floodplains at the ends of the tributaries. Any water not diverted for irrigation is now absorbed by the continually parched upstream wetlands, leaving the lower reaches vulnerable when drought hits.
By continually keeping the Barwon-Darling in a state of low (or no) flow, with its natural wetlands dry, we have reduced its ability to cope with extended drought.
Why a wetland might not be wet
While droughts are a natural part of this system and its river animals have adapted, they can’t adjust to continual high water caused in some areas by water diversions – and they certainly can’t survive long-term drying.
The Basin Plan has come some way in restoring some flows to the Barwon-Darling, but unless we find a way to restore more of the low and medium flows to this system we are likely witnessing Australia’s worst environmental disaster.
In signing the Paris Climate Agreement, the Australian government committed to a global goal of zero net emissions by 2050. Australia’s promised reductions to 2030, on a per person and emissions intensity basis, exceed even the targets set by the United States, Japan, Canada, South Korea and the European Union.
But are we on the right track to achieve our 2030 target of 26-28% below 2005 levels? With one of the highest population growth rates in the developed world, this represents at least a 50% reduction in emissions per person over the next dozen years.
Consider the impact of one sector, the built environment. The construction, operation and maintenance of buildings accounts for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. As Australia’s population grows, to an estimated 31 million in 2030, even more buildings will be needed.
In 2017, around 18,000 dwelling units were approved for construction every month. Melbourne is predicted to need another 720,000 homes by 2031; Sydney, 664,000 new homes within 20 years. Australia will have 10 million residential units by 2020, compared to 6 million in 1990. Ordinary citizens might be too preoccupied with home ownership at any cost to worry about the level of emissions from the built environment and urban development.
What’s being done to reduce these emissions?
The National Construction Code of Australia sets minimal obligatory requirements for energy efficiency. Software developed by the National Housing Rating Scheme (NatHERS) assesses compliance.
This combination of obligatory and voluntary performance rating measures makes up the practical totality of our strategy for reducing built environment emissions. Still in its experimentation stage, it is far from adequate.
An effective strategy to cut emissions must encompass the whole lifecycle of planning, designing, constructing, operating and even decommissioning and disposal of buildings. A holistic vision of sustainable building calls for building strategies that are less resource-intensive and pollution-producing. The sustainability of the urban landscape is more than the sum of the sustainability of its component buildings; transport, amenities, social fabric and culture, among other factors, have to be taken into account.
Australia’s emission reduction strategy fails to incorporate the whole range of sustainability factors that impact emissions from the built environment.
There are also much-reported criticisms of existing mandatory and voluntary measures. A large volume of research details the failure of voluntary measures to accurately evaluate energy performance and the granting of misleading ratings based on tokenistic gestures.
On top of that, the strategy of using front runners to push boundaries and win over the majority has been proven ineffective, at best. We see compelling evidence in the low level of voluntary measures permeating the Australian building industry. Some major voluntary rating tools have penetration rates of less than 0.5% across the Australian building industry.
That said, voluntary and obligatory tools are not so much a weak link in our emission reduction strategy as the only link. And therein lies the fundamental problem.
So what do the experts suggest?
We conducted a study involving a cohort of 26 experts drawn from the sustainability profession. We posed the question of what must be done to generate a working strategy to improve Australia’s chances of keeping the carbon-neutral promise by 2050 was posed. Here is what the experts said:
Sustainability transition in Australia is failing because:
government lacks commitment to develop effective regulations, audit performance, resolve vested interests (developers), clarify its own vision and, above all, sell that sustainability vision to the community
sustainability advocates are stuck in isolated silos of fragmented markets (commercial and residential) and hampered by multiple jurisdictions with varied sustainability regimes
most importantly, end users just do not care – nobody has bothered to communicate the Paris Accord promise to Joe and Mary Citizen, let alone explain why it matters to them.
Tweaking the rating tools further would be a good thing. Getting more than a token few buildings rated would be better. But the show-and-tell display of a pageant of beautiful, green-rated headquarters buildings from our socially responsible corporations is not going to save us. Beyond the CBD islands of our major cities lies a sea of suburban sprawl that continues to chew up ever more energy and resources.
It costs between 8% and 30% more than the usual costs of a building to reduce emissions. Someone needs to explain to the struggling home owner why the Paris climate promise is worth it. Given the next election won’t be for a few months, our political parties still have time to formulate their pitch on who exactly is expected to pay.
Fish deaths in the Darling River have once more raised the public profile of incessant political controversies about the Murray Darling Basin. These divisive debates reveal the deeply contested nature of reforms to water policy in the Basin.
It feels like Australia has been here before – algae blooms are not uncommon in these rivers. In 1992, the Darling suffered the world’s largest toxic algal bloom, over 1,000 kilometres long. This crisis became an iconic catalyst, and helped prompt the state and federal governments agreeing to water reforms in 1994.
Hopefully, our current crisis may be an opportunity to shine a strong light on the complexities of governing the Basin, and initiate the meaningful reforms needed to restore public trust.
How is oxygen ‘sucked out’ of our waterways?
Forewarned is forearmed
The rivers of the basin are unique and precious. Australia needs high quality and independent science to understand them and guide their management. Unfortunately in 2012 state and federal governments cut three important programs that provided vital research on the Basin’s rivers:
- the Sustainable Rivers Audit (an independent scientific audit of river health)
- a dedicated climate science program
- the acclaimed Native Fish Program, which combined applied research with community engagement.
So while yesterday’s announcement of A$5 million funding to a new native fish recovery program is welcome, good science alone is not enough. Good policy processes and robust institutions are needed to apply this information. We cannot continue to ignore expert warnings.
A crisis of trust
Since a 2017 Four Corners program exposed disturbing allegations of water theft and corruption, the media has revealed a host of further probity issues.
These and a plethora of formal inquiries into MDB governance indicates a crisis of trust, legitimacy and public confidence – in short, a loss of authority.
The 2018 federal Senate inquiry documents a litany of concerns, while disturbing evidence given at a South Australian Royal Commission raised substantive doubts about failures to heed the best scientific advice in the development of the Basin Plan.
More Commonwealth oversight is not enough
Without doubt pressure is mounting for more reforms. The Senate’s Rural and Regional Affairs Committee and the Productivity Commission have recommended splitting the Murray Darling Basin Authority into two entities – the MDB Corporation and a MDB Regulator – in order to clearly separate the Commonwealth’s regulatory oversight from other roles.
These proposals deserve critical scrutiny. Structural reorganisation can provide an illusion of government action, but can have long-term effects on the efficacy and justice of water governance.
The Murray Darling has a unique place in Australia’s history, environment, economy and culture. Agreements about its governance have their origins in debates leading up to Federation in 1901. Any renegotiation needs to respect the Constitution and the different legal powers of the states and the Commonwealth.
So reform to institutional arrangements need bespoke design. These are the legitimate remit of our discursive democracy. Nonetheless, the OECD’s 12 water governance principles usefully provide guidance about the need for clarity of roles, transparency, effectiveness, efficiency and broad stakeholder engagement.
Current calls for reorganisation focus on clarifying the Commonwealth’s regulatory role, but this is fairly narrow. Reforms are needed at all scales.
The governance challenges in the MDB require modernisation and redesign of arrangements across regional, state and Commonwealth agencies. This includes structuring “constructive tensions” that ensure transparency and accountability. Just like the police don’t control the courts, we need to more clearly define and separate roles in the water sector.
Embracing radical transparency
We need all water agencies to adopt a formal charter of transparency and openness. All state and Commonwealth agencies should open their books to scrutiny, rather than hiding information behind claims of “commercial in confidence” or opaque “freedom of information” processes.
Greater transparency measures should also be a condition of all water licences. It’s entirely feasible to create modern monitoring regimes, using state-of-the art digital metering coupled with annual water-use declarations. These would be similar to tax returns enforced with random audits and satellite verification of areas irrigated. If made publicly available, all interested parties could audit water extractions.
But doubts don’t exclusively focus on irrigators’ compliance. We also need to address the states and their willingness and capability to enforce regulations. Policies of radical transparency could be supported with openly available water data. With digital meters and automated gauging of river flows, we could create a computer platform where anybody could develop river models using real data, in near real-time.
Harnessing the power of citizen involvement, trust and openly sharing information has been a hallmark of Australia’s landcare and natural resource management. This is where we should look for the next generation of governance in the Basin.
Open books means communities, industries, research and educational institutions can all help monitor our institutions and ensure rivers are managed in the public’s interest.
Finally, droughts should not come as surprise. They are a recurrent feature of the Basin. With climate change, more frequent and intense droughts are predicted. As a nation we can do better than lurching from crisis to crisis each time drought returns.
We need careful deliberation about the institutions that will rebuild public confidence and restore trust in the governing of the Murray Darling. It’s time to develop a 21st century system that is cooperative, transparent and just.