The Murray-Darling Basin scandal: economists have seen it coming for decades


John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

Nations behave wisely, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban observed five decades ago, “once they have exhausted all other alternatives”.

One can only hope that proves the case with water policy in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, the nation’s largest river system and agricultural heartland.




Read more:
Billions spent on Murray-Darling water infrastructure: here’s the result


The ABC’s Four Corners program Cash Splash, aired last night, illustrates how thoroughly we are exhausting the options that don’t work to keep rivers being sucked dry by irrigators. Billions of dollars have been spent on infrastructure schemes that have failed to deliver any measurable improvement in water flows or the state of the environment.

The Murray–Darling Basin is Australia’s largest and most complex river system. With 77,000 km of rivers, it is the food bowl of the nation.
Murray–Darling Basin Authority

This failure is no surprise to economists who have studied the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin for decades.

The central problem is well understood, as are the workable (and unworkable) possible responses.

The basin covers four states: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. All state governments have allocated permits to extract water for human uses (irrigated agriculture and urban water). The allocations grew rapidly in the second half of the 20th century, exceeding the sustainable capacity of the natural environment.

One sign of the failure became dramatically obvious in 1991, with an outbreak of toxic blue-green algae over 1,200 km of the Darling River. Algal blooms are fed by nitrogen and other nutrients in fertiliser runoff and sewerage. They continue to occur.

This event underlined the need to leave enough water in rivers for “environmental flows” to keep the system healthy.

Acting with what now seems like impressive promptness, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council (made up of the water resources ministers from the basin states, the Australian Capital Territory and the federal government) imposed a cap on water extractions in 1995. It limited extractions to the volume of water capable of being taken out by the infrastructure (pumps, dams, channels, management rules) that existed in 1993-94.

The cap was supposed to be a temporary measure. It wasn’t intended to solve the problem, just stop it getting any worse in the short run.

The long-term solution was to be a system of trade in water rights, introduced by the Council of Australian Governments in 1994. Combined with the right price signals from environmental purchases, this system was meant to allocate water to its most productive uses while reducing extractions to sustainable levels.

A quarter-century on, the cap is only now being phased out, and a vast array of measures have come and gone, including the National Water Initiative, the Water Act of 2007, Water for the Future and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Buying block

The failure of these initiatives rests on one simple fact: the refusal of irrigation lobby groups to countenance the government buying water rights on the open market to increase environmental flows. Their opposition has been immovable, despite many individual irrigators being keen to sell their water rights and use the money to invest in alternative cropping activities or retire.

On the other hand, there are a lucky (often politically well-connected) few who have done very well from “strategic” purchases of water. Investigative journalist Michael West has noted the National Party’s Barnaby Joyce has been publicly hostile towards buybacks of water entitlements but authorised, as federal water resources minister, three major “strategic purchases”.

Instead of water purchases, politicians like Joyce have put their faith in subsidies to infrastructure, to improve the efficiency of water use.

The idea has a lot of intuitive appeal. If less water can be used, it should be possible to increase flows in the river system without reducing agricultural output. With rare exceptions, this appealing vision has dominated the thinking of politicians and much of the public.

The reality is sadly different. The failure of infrastructure-based water recovery was both predictable and predicted.




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Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


I pointed out the main difficulties in a piece for ABC Online in 2012. The article didn’t contain any remarkable insights. It simply stated views shared by every independent economist who has worked on the issue.

The illusion of efficiency

Among the many problems with infrastructure schemes, two have stood out.

First, the measured cost of saving water through infrastructure schemes is two to three times as much as that of buying water on the open market.

Second, and more importantly, much of the supposed water savings are illusory. Much of the water “wasted” in irrigation systems is not lost to the environment. Most of the water leakage and seepage from irrigation channels eventually returns to rivers through groundwater systems. So “saving” this water through infrastructure efficiency doesn’t actually add anything more to environmental flows.

My 2012 analysis assumed a scientifically based effort to secure water savings at the lowest possible cost to the public. As the Four Corners report has shown, that assumption was massively over-optimistic. In reality, the scheme has been characterised by lax monitoring, cronyism and rorting.




Read more:
5 ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan


After the expenditure of billions in public money, the system may be worse off than before. As a result, environmental disasters keep on happening.

Along with recurring algal outbreaks, we are witnessing disasters such as the massive fish kills like that in western New South Wales in January. The massive fish kills have been attributed to little or no flow in the Darling River combined with plunges from high temperatures, starving the water of oxygen.

Hundreds of thousands of dead fish in waterways around Menindee, far-west New South Wales, in January 2019.
Graeme McCrabb/AAP

As the riverine environment keeps deteriorating, there’s no sign of any positive change in policy.

Eventually, though, we must hope Abba Eban will be proved right. Having exhausted all the options that don’t work, we will have to turn to those that do.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Indonesia has sent Australia’s recycling home – it’s time to clean up our act



Indonesia is not the only country to turn back contaminated waste.
FULLY HANDOKO/EPA/AAP

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

Indonesia has returned a container load of recyclables back to Australia, because the material did not meet stringent import requirements.

It is the latest Southeast Asian country to refuse Australia’s recycling waste. In January 2018, China stopped buying our recyclables until contamination was reduced significantly.

To achieve this, Australia needed to reduce contamination in commercial and household recycling, and improve our sorting facilities so they can identify and remove the types of materials causing concern.




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Here’s what happens to our plastic recycling when it goes offshore


This should have been a wake-up call that we need to improve our recycling industry and take urgent steps to reduce our reliance on overseas destinations for our recyclables. But did we? Clearly, the answer is no.

Dealing with difficult waste

In July the Philippines turned away 69 containers (about 1,500 tonnes), of materials incorrectly labelled as plastic and containing unacceptable contaminants. Malaysia has also threatened to send recyclables back to the originating country if the loads contain contaminants.

Looking at photos of the material rejected by Indonesia, it is clearly a typical load of baled recyclables that could have come from any sorting facility in Australia. It contains recyclables, but also contamination like used nappies, clothing, food scraps, paper and cardboard in the plastic recycling, metals and plastic in the paper recycling and some containers that once had motor oil or detergents in them.

While I personally suspect it’s slightly over the top to call this “hazardous” material, as some news reports have – the same loads are shipped to some facilities in Australia – it is a moot point. Indonesia can set whatever rules they deem necessary to protect the health of their communities and environment.

Indonesia is not the only country to turn back contaminated waste.
FULLY HANDOKO/EPA/AAP

This continues after strong warnings that unless we provide clean recyclables, we will not have access to these overseas markets.

So what is contamination?

Recycling is basically divided into “streams”. Mostly these streams contain one or two types of materials. For example, we have a cardboard stream, plastic stream or in some instances commingled stream which contains plastic, aluminium, steel and glass containers.

“Contamination” refers to materials that are not wanted in that stream because they interfere with the proper treatment of a given load. Plastic in a load of cardboard and paper is contamination; so are clothes in a plastic load. It does not necessarily need to be toxic chemicals or other things that come to mind when we think of “contamination”.

However, containers used for detergents, disinfectants, and the broad range of household chemicals do contain residues. While some of these fluids and powders do get removed (often while materials are being baled), some residues remain and this can also cause issues for those wishing to use the recyclables as their raw materials.




Read more:
Recycling: why you can’t just throw anything in the collection bin


So it is no wonder Australian businesses are reluctant to use what we currently sort and send out as their raw materials. If the recyclables materials contain contaminants at a high level, then the business who could have used them would have to expend resources to clean up the loads. Apart from that cost, they then have to dispose of the unwanted materials to landfill.

Additionally, due to some uncertainty in the quality of the recyclables, manufacturers are concerned whether their products will be of the required standard and if not, will that affect the customer base. Remember, when recycled paper was first on the market there was some concern about inferior “whitness” and this affected sales. (Ironically, now most business use recycled paper this situation is somewhat reversed.)

How can we fix it?

Ultimately, the issue is not how we can get other countries to accept our waste. Australia needs to improve our capacity and willingness to use recycled materials ourselves.

We have seen progress recently with Australian companies using recycled materials in new and innovative ways. Plastics used in road construction or in building materials is just one example.

But unless our recycling is better sorted, it won’t be used by domestic companies. Even products made with recycled material need to be clean, safe and reliable.




Read more:
Why you’re almost certainly wasting time rinsing your recycling


So what can we do about it? Of course, the obvious first step is to invest more into recycling facilities so they can sort more efficiently. However, we all need to take responsibility for what we put into the recycling at home or work. Many contaminants can easily be avoided with a little more care, so familiarise yourself with what can be recycled by your home council.

Finally, recycling is not a panacea. We need to seriously reduce the amount of waste we create, as individuals and a society. Without this, the problem will only continue to grow.




Read more:
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’


The Conversation


Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.