Friday, November 30, 2012

Basin Plan is Historic But Let’s Not Lose the Whole Story

by Professor Lin Crase, Professor of Applied Economics at La Trobe University, The Conversation:

English: A panorama of the junction of the Mur...
A panorama of the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers at Wentworth, New South Wales. The Darling River is on the left of the photo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reaching agreement on a Murray-Darling Basin Plan is undoubtedly a significant political accomplishment.

The water resources of the Murray-Darling have been the basis of disagreement between states, industries and communities for the best part of a century, and having a national plan is seen by many as a step forward.

The fact that the Opposition has now agreed to support the Plan assures its acceptance by Parliament, even if implementation remains a challenge for future governments and the states.

But before we become too exuberant about the political achievements embodied in a basin plan, it might be helpful to draw lessons from the entire episode. This is especially important as Environment Minister Tony Burke presents Australia’s water planning processes as a panacea to other nations dealing with water scarcity.

The Basin Plan was the latest attempt to rein in the proclivity of governments to treat water resources like a magic pudding. While water resources are renewable, they are also finite.

In addition, off-the-cuff decisions to allocate water perceived as “going to waste” is a sure recipe for creating problems for future generations. I can personally recall statements by former water bureaucrats describing water exiting the Murray Mouth as “waste”.

In an effort to avoid repeating mistakes of the past, we should treat cautiously recent proclamations by NSW Governor, Marie Bashir and mining entrepreneur, Gina Rinehart, on turning around river flows.

History suggests that a poor appreciation of the benefits conferred by water in different places and the role it plays in supporting a range of environmental processes can prove costly.

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