WC Piguenit Flood in the Darling, 1890

The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe

In Australia, Travel, The rest by tony9 Comments

Featured Image: WC Piguenit Flood in the Darling 1890, Oil on Canvas, 1895, 123 x 199 cm

ORT_Logo  Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  1 November 2019

The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe

Don’t sugarcoat it like that, Kid. Tell her straight. (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, 1969)

It is long past time for sugarcoating. We should be sick of the obfuscation and lies of politicians, policy makers, agribusiness and other vested interests in the Murray-Darling Basin and of the dodging of responsibility by those with the power to act. It is time to act decently in the interests of the whole community. It is time to tell it straight.

Other articles on the malaise impacting Australia are Cry Me a River by Margaret Simons a 2020 update on the Murray-Darling Catastrophe, The Coal Curse Judith Brett and the Banking Royal Commission.

This is not a large dams issue in particular but it should be linked to my three large dams articles Large Dams 1: An Introduction, Large Dams 2: Aswan High Dam, Large Dams 3: Oustees India, and is the reason for my claim to expertise in this area. There are several large dams and many smaller ones involved in the Murray-Darling Basin, but these are not the main cause of the catastrophe. However, because of the current drought, new dams are mooted which will exacerbate the tragedy.

One must mention the Snowy Mountains Scheme (begun in 1949 and finished in 1974) a series of linked dams and tunnels, which was the largest engineering project ever undertaken in Australia and became a national icon. Its purpose was to divert the waters of the Snowy River into the Murray River for agriculture and to provide hydro-electricity. The latter was successful, but the diversion of water for agriculture never really lived up to expectation. One consequence of dams on the Murray River, however, was that it became in effect a series of long pools and never had its scouring pre-colonial flows and overflows. The Murray provides more water than the other rivers in the basin or river system.


The photographs included are part of my involvement in the Murray Darling Basin. They relate exclusively to my favourite areas and are not representative of the basin as a whole. Consequently, the photographs are mostly the semi-arid areas of Western New South Wales around the Darling River. I have other favourite places but not the photographs to go with them. Much of the basin is in the semi-arid zone, but the eastern strip primarily on tablelands receives much higher rainfall.

Menindee to Wilcannia Road after Rain, 2010

Menindee to Wilcannia Road after Rain, 2010

1 Details of the Murray-Darling Basin

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s largest and most iconic river system and covers over a million square kilometres of southeastern Australia. The basin on the western side of the Great Dividing Range contains Australia’s three longest rivers, the Darling (Barwon) 2740 km, the Murray 2530 km and the Murrumbidgee 1690 km. Much of the northern basin is 800-900 km wide, at its widest the basin extends 1200 km along the Murray Valley. The length of the basin is almost 1200 km from the Warrego River in Queensland, south to the headwaters of the Goulburn River in Victoria.

The basin consists of 22 major catchments or sub-basins. Most of the major rivers flow into either the Murray or the Darling.

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s major food bowl.

Map of the Murray Darling Basin (MBDA 2016)

Map of the Murray Darling Basin (MBDA 2016)

Jacques Leslie (cited below) quotes Don Blackmore the Chief Executive of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission from 1990 to 2004 who says the Murray-Darling Basin is as big as Texas and New Mexico or as big as France and Spain. A large part is semi-arid and covers 14% of Australia but contains only 6% of the nation’s run off.

At Menindee an important lakes area on the Darling River (but recently turned into agricultural diversion ponds to be filled and emptied at will), the Darling ceased to flow forty-eight times over a seventy-five year period (with no dams on the river). It is an extreme example of the aridity of the system, particularly out west. Both the Darling and the Murray River were used extensively for river transport in pioneer days. Indeed, the Murray was viewed primarily as a means for transport in 19th century South Australia.

Paddle steamers on the Darling were the main means for transporting wool in the 19th century but because of the intermittent nature of the river the boats were frequently stuck along the river, sometimes for years before sufficient water flowed to complete the trip.

The ratio of maximum to minimum annual flow demonstrates the idea. On the Amazon River it is 1.3 to 1, on the Murray 15 to 1 and on the Darling a massive 4700 to 1.

Semi-Arid Zone, 2010

Semi-Arid Zone, 2010

2 The Australian States involved in the Murray-Darling

The South Australian Murray-Darling Royal Commission handed down its findings on 29 January 2019. It was a scathing report on maladministration of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan itself and of the goodwill and probity of the other States and the Federal Government.

In technical terms South Australia (SA) is the lowest riparian state on the system. Lower riparian simply means downstream. Upper riparian means upstream. Going from downstream up next comes Victoria, then New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland. All of these States are bigger economically than South Australia. Victoria is a powerful state and began irrigated agriculture on a large scale. Victoria also shares the largest river the Murray River with New South Wales, which acts as most of the border between the two states.

The Middle of Nowhere, 2005

The Middle of Nowhere, 2004

New South Wales is the largest state economically and has a reputation for throwing money at problems rather than solving them. Victoria has a reputation for a more problem solving approach and Queensland is more conservative than the other two.

All round the world when one talks about rivers and dams, lower riparian states usually end up being treated badly by those upriver and this is certainly South Australia’s experience.

Large scale irrigation began in Victoria in the late 19th century. Water usage in colonial times did not become a problem but with Federation in 1900 it soon became apparent that the riparian states and the new Australian Government might need to manage the waters, particularly the Murray, jointly. In 1915 the Murray Waters Agreement was signed between the new Commonwealth Government and New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, excluding Queensland (not on the Murray). Issues were raised in the intervening years, but things did not become critical until the late 20th century.

Bringing in Sheep for Shearing, Trilby Station, 2016

Bringing in Sheep for Shearing, Trilby Station, 2016

3 The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe

3.1 Background

The Murray Darling Basin catastrophe has been a long time coming, but it accelerated in the last two decades of the twentieth century and spiralled out of control in the new millennium. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about this and if you get down into the level of inter-government agreements, legislation, water licences, on-the-ground controls, stakeholders, vested interests, mismanagement, corruption and inattention then things get quite complicated.

If one steps back and looks at principles, particular mistakes and what they led to, then it isn’t difficult to gain an overview of what has happened and why it is a catastrophe. Many of underlying issues are quite simple and have been demonstrated repeatedly elsewhere in the world.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission (a government broadcaster like the BBC in the UK) has taken a strong interest in the Murray-Darling Basin and has produced major programs on TV and radio on the developing crisis. This has not endeared them to governments of the day. The key ABC programs are cited below and provide an excellent insight into the topic beyond what is possible here.

Catastrophe is a strong word, but it is also necessary. Although it is easy to demonstrate what has gone wrong and why, I can’t see any way back. I can’t see Australia addressing the problems of its most important river basin in any sensible way, in the short or medium-term. Climate change may trump any efforts at remediation in the long term.

It Rains Sometimes, 2005

It Rains Sometimes, 2004

3.2 Delineating the Problem

Pioneering was not always splendid and praiseworthy. (SA Royal Commission)

A corollary is that the development of farming in Australia and of water-use in an arid continent was not splendid and praiseworthy either. The development of our water resources has not been efficient or well-executed ever. This did not matter so much before the second half of the twentieth century, because the utilisation of water had not reached a critical point where demand exceeded supply.

Water tended to be over-allocated in the Murray-Darling system, because no-one envisaged the whole allocation provided in water licences would ever be used. However, over-development of competing interests for a finite resource, the limits of that resource being reached, and droughts in 1967, 1982 and the millennium drought (1997-2010) changed everything.

The problem with the Murray-Darling Basin in southeastern Australia — Australia’s food bowl — is that when the critical point of usage was reached, planning and sensible allocation for the future to overcome the crisis did not happen. Although many experts state that Australia had an excellent scientific and practical understanding of water issues that were supposedly world class. This expertise was not utilised.

Gundabooka National Park, near Bourke, 2016

Gundabooka National Park, near Bourke, 2016

Instead water licences that were once tied to land were no longer tied to land, but remained tied to rivers. Then a system of water licence trading within the Murray-Darling Basin was introduced that was divorced from both land and rivers. At the same time physical measurement of the water used by licence holders disappeared.

This led to some people (frequently not farmers) making money from the trading as in a stock exchange. It also led inevitably to a situation where those with the most money or those who stood to make the most profit annually got the water, which led inevitably to larger enterprises gaining an advantage.

Unfortunately, for historical and political reasons allocation of water licences differed between the four riparian States. In some of the States the licences massively over-allocated the available water.

Some water was meant to be reserved for what was called environmental flows. Under a scheme introduced by Don Blackmore (mentioned above) called the Living Murray sufficient water was meant to be held back to preserve the health of the river system, to preserve natural ecosystems of national and international significance (such as wetlands and woodlands) and to flush the salt build-up, called salinisation out of the system.

Unlike other countries, salinity in Australia is a massive problem, particularly in the semi-arid bulk of the Murray Darling Basin. Salinity can be agriculture induced, but dry land salinity is an even bigger problem. Huge mineral deposits of salt in the soil, exposed by the removal of forests and habitat destruction, is flushed into the river system by rain and by irrigation. Similarly ground water (delayed rain input), which ends up in the rivers, does not follow state boundaries. Intensive land management is required, but this is politically impossible.

Lake Mungo, 2010

Lake Mungo, 2010

There is a myth amongst engineers, which extends quite easily to politicians and economists, that water not used for agriculture within a river system is water wasted, which is one reason environmental flows are always at the bottom of the list.

This myth though appealing has been debunked endlessly around the world, but it still directs much thinking at policy levels. The most notorious example of a water over-use disaster is the destruction of the Aral Sea in the old Soviet Union because of cotton growing and blatant misinformation relayed back to Moscow year after year (see Large Dams 1: An Introduction).

Another disaster in progress is the Mekong River. The Chinese have built several dams on the upper Mekong River in China in recent years. These have already had profound impacts on the livelihoods of river users in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Proposed dams on the lower Mekong, if ever built, will cause the Mekong to lose all viability and become a series of ecologically arid ponds, much like the Murray River is tending towards today. India has not yet come to terms with what is going to happen when China and perhaps Nepal begin to dam the Ganges and Brahmaputra sources and limit the water flowing into India.

In the Murray-Darling Basin this myth of engineering and the over-allocation of water resources both historically and recently has led to the dismissal of environmental flows, whenever water shortage is a problem.

The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists who have been trying for years to get sensible policy on the Murray-Darling contextualise the myth above and the lack of environmental flows as:

Despite water being our most scarce resource, we treat rivers as drains. (Cited by Jacques Leslie)

Another unimaginable issue that has emerged over time is the disappearance of any actual measurement of water in the system related to that allocated by water licences. Lack of physical measurement has inevitably aided the development of graft, corruption and mismanagement.

Storm Clouds over the Lunette, Lake Mungo, 2010

Storm Clouds over the Lunette, Lake Mungo, 2010

Within thirty years, or perhaps slightly longer, the most important river basin within Australian agriculture has become a catastrophe, from which there appears to be no return.

The impact of climate change is unnecessary to explain the decline of the river system to this point, but will exacerbate the catastrophe for the foreseeable future.

The most recent example of a system in crisis was the massive fish kill at the Menindee Lakes because of blue green algae, lack of oxygen and water. A viral video by Kate McBride of her father Rob McBride pulling dead fish from the river and a huge campaign on social media raised the issue to public consciousness both within the Basin and Australia-wide before the national election in 2019. Large old Murray cod died in thousands. The overall fish kill was massive.

The issue had no impact on the election. Now the NSW government has introduced a fish remediation program but the Federal government is merely paying lip service to the problem. The fish kill is a huge issue in NSW, but catching fish from problem areas of the rivers and trying to preserve genetic lines through hatcheries and fish farms is a band-aid at best.


4 My own timeline regarding the Murray-Darling Basin

4.1 I went to a wedding at Cowl Cowl Station, on the Lachlan River near Hillston, NSW in October 1996. The groom was the manager of the station and in terms of technology it was very impressive. Cowl Cowl in the semi-arid zone was the biggest irrigator on the Lachlan River owned by an agribusiness group centred on Victorian entrepreneur Doug Shears. Huge pumps pumped water from the river. Microcomputer controlled wheels drove the lateral spray irrigation pipeline, four kilometres long, across the crops. Vines on a drip irrigation system (water conscious) were an experiment in one corner of the property.

ANU Zoology Department, Field Trip to Booligal, 1970

ANU Zoology Department, Field Trip to Booligal, 1970

I enjoyed the wedding and was impressed as an R&D person on what the technology could produce, but in my heart I knew it was wrong. Crops should not be grown on claypan. One irrigator should not dominate a river. Traditionally the water was used in smaller holdings and in more suitable environments. However, Shears was not an anomaly. The modern expansion of cotton farming was dominating more and more of the basin. Huge shallow dams to support the cotton were in unsuitable environments with high evaporation. Supposedly these dams were only filled in high water flood conditions. But, no-one was taking responsibility for land management overall.

In the last few months the ABC revealed a scandal of another agribusiness using government conservation funding to develop a similar but even bigger operation on previously non-irrigated semi-arid land near Hay on the Murrumbidgee River.

Darling River Trilby Station, 2016

Darling River Trilby Station, 2016

4.2 In late 2005/2006 Rukmini Rao my activist friend in India (See Rukmini Rao Woman of the Year 2014) with whom I had been doing volunteer work on an annual basis since 2004, asked me to write a pamphlet about a dam project, which turned into a booklet or small book a year later: India’s Dam Shame 2006, 76pp. The Polavaram Project was for a large dam on the Godavari River primarily to provide irrigation for coastal Andhra Pradesh. The Polavaram Project was a scandalous example of a large dam and irrigation scheme that was put up by a state government wanting to be seen as progressive and actually doing something. The Polavaram project was to provide irrigation to a region already well-supplied with irrigation at a massive cost. It would disrupt the lives of about 1 million people in the submergence zone of the dam and along the feeder canals. The state government had promised to provide compensation for those displaced, termed oustees in India. But, it said only 177,000 people would be affected, which was nonsense. Even those to whom compensation was offered rarely received it (see Large Dams 3: Oustees India).

4.3 In the first half of 2004 Denise and I completed a 1000 kilometre bicycle ride up and down the Darling river in a circuit from Tilpa NSW to Hungerford Queensland and back as a fund-raiser for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. On this trip we became friendly with someone from the Department of Primary Industry.

The Road, 2005

The Road, 2004

I remember meeting them at Canberra Airport at the end of 2006 and was very upset when they said that water should go where the money is. They meant that Murray-Darling water should go to whoever could make the most profit. They were also quite down on graziers who had had water rights at no cost for many years (with no regard to the indigenous people whom they’d displaced) and were the conservative blue-bloods of country NSW.

Nevertheless, I was upset because I’d just spent a year writing about water and everything I’d learned in India had shown me that water was too precious a resource to be utilised without thought to wider social concerns or sustainable usage. A highest bidder mentality could only destroy the system.

At the time, I had a naïve view that the corruption, bureaucracy and administrative bungling that I’d seen in India could never happen in Australia. I did not realise that with the Murray-Darling Basin we were already in the middle of a catastrophe, which was as bad as any water mismanagement case study anywhere in the world.

Kayaking the Murrumbidgee, Canberra, 1960s

Kayaking the Murrumbidgee, Canberra, 1966

4.4 I had grown up in my teens white-water kayaking on the Murrumbidgee River. I had travelled to NSW’s semi-arid zone many times and met the people in the towns and on the stations. I love the semi-arid zone. I knew about the Snowy Mountains Scheme as a child. Australians were very proud of this massive project and it helped post-WWII immigrants to settle into Australia.

I have lived much of my life on one edge of the Murray-Darling Basin, but like most people I was inattentive and the nature of the catastrophe had crept up on me slowly. I really didn’t pay attention until it was too late.

Saltpan after Rain near Louth, 2016

Saltpan after Rain near Louth, 2016

5 The Anatomy of a Crime or the Government Position on Water Trading

The National Water Commission, an agency of the Federal Government, published a booklet Water Markets in Australia: A Short History 2011, 155 pp. (About twice the size of my Polavaram booklet.)

The booklet described the policy and administration of the Murray-Darling Basin by governments as a positive explanation of a scheme with some teething problems. To my mind the booklet describes the anatomy of a crime.

Some quotes demonstrate this:

1 Creating a working market in Australia required policy makers to put faith in the collective wisdom of water users, rather than governments, in deciding how to make the best use of the resource. The flexibility and autonomy offered by water trading has increased agricultural production, helped farmers and communities to survive severe drought, and provided the mechanism for recovering water for the environment. (Foreward)

Bill's had a gutful, Michael Pospischil, The Dying Darling, 2007

Bill’s had a gutful, Michael Pospischil, The Dying Darling, 2007

2 By the 1980s, it had become clear that many of Australia’s surface water and groundwater systems, particularly in the MDB [Murray-Darling Basin], were fully developed, if not overdeveloped. …

More flexibility was required. A mechanism was needed for new users to gain access to more water. But water licences were tied to land. There were no mechanisms for transfer. Those requiring more access to water had to purchase land to which the water licence was attached (summary of several paragraphs).

3 The 1980s & 1990s saw the first tentative steps towards water trading. In many areas ‘temporary’ seasonal allocation trading was allowed before ‘permanent’ entitlements could be bought or sold. Trading was also initially confined to geographically defined areas.

The adoption of nationally agreed water reform packages in 1994 and 2004 facilitated the expansion of water markets across connected valleys and eventually state borders in the MDB.

Tilpa Pub, 2005

Tilpa Pub, 2004

Economic Benefits

4 Overall, water trading has delivered benefits valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year and has been a major success story in water policy reform.

Social and Environmental Outcomes

5 Many of the feared potentially adverse social and environmental impacts of water trading have not materialised. Market rules and complementary policy tools (such as those to manage salinity) have helped to manage these impacts.

(2 to 5 are all from the Executive Summary)

6 There was also a fear, which persisted for some time, that ‘water barons’ would monopolise the market and drive up the price of water. (P. 40)

The booklet quotes ABC Four Corners program Sold Down the River 2003 as promoting this fear but does not counter it (P. 40). The ABC Four Corners program Cash Splash in July 2019 exposes a potential scandal of government money supporting expansion of a ‘water baron’ style enterprise, providing further concrete evidence of such ‘fears’.

Inappropriate Shallow Cotton Dam Near Bourke, 2005

Inappropriate Shallow Cotton Dam Near Bourke, 2004

The booklet also details ‘so called’ government reforms from 1988 to 2011.

7 Water markets are reliant on information about individuals’ water extraction and use. It is therefore essential that extractions are measured and that effective monitoring and compliance systems are in place. Where such systems break down, there are likely to be strong incentives for individuals to simply take what water they can get when they need it. (P. 123)

The booklet says: Fortuitously, many Australian systems already had individual water metering systems in place before the advent of trading. What it fails to say that these systems no longer exist in any integrated form.

The booklet concludes on the current status of water reforms:

8 While Commonwealth-driven reform is still in its early stages, the water market is continuing to deepen and broaden, and its functioning is generally improving. Water trading is also playing a broader role in allocating water within and between the rural, urban and environmental sectors.

Although the system is functioning quite effectively, some rules still reflect local and state interests and the market is not functioning in a fully efficient manner. (P. 95)

While I don’t dispute much of the practical information contained in the booklet, the analysis and conclusions seemed to me to be couched in wacky economist speak that is completely divorced from reality.

I think that the booklet outlines a crime in long term economic, social and environmental outcomes, which is unmitigated by the short-term profits generated for some farmers, mostly large agribusinesses. The national interest is subsumed by short-term profits for a few.

Emus near Pooncarie, 2010

Emus near Pooncarie, 2010

6 Conclusion

Hay Plain, 2010

Hay Plain, 2010

The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in the USA at the time of the UN Climate Summit in September but refused to attend preferring to be feted by Donald Trump. He later gave a speech to the UN defending Australia’s (in)actions on climate change. Returning to Australia he said that Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN was not right because it would only scare young people. He was earlier very dismissive of school children’s protests on climate change.

This type of behaviour of obfuscation, lies and arrogant dismissal of any opposing viewpoint enables inaction; and it aims to pull the wool over the eyes of the general public. Unfortunately, it is what we see increasingly from our political class.

Politicians have also been railing against protests by Extinction Rebellion around Australia, saying that they should follow due process and not block traffic or make ordinary citizens late for work. Only protests that disrupt have ever had an effect in Australia. It is time to call those in power to account.

Australia’s treatment of the Murray-Darling Basin is similar to its inaction on climate change. It is time to tell it straight. The catastrophe is real. Yet, it is still not enough to effect change on Australia’s most important river basin. How bad will things have to get before anything is done.

David Attenborough says one thousand kilometres of the Great Barrier Reef are suffering coral bleaching. Climate change has yet to bite as deeply as it soon will. The Murray-Darling Basin is already a catastrophe and no-one in power seems to care.

I am an optimistic person, but it is hard to be optimistic in these circumstances.

Key Words: Murray-Darling Basin, catastrophe, tragedy, Murray River, Darling River, Lachlan River, Murrumbidgee River, Snowy Mountains Scheme, water, agriculture, dam, Don Blackmore, Jacques Leslie, Deep Water, Ticky Fullerton, Watershed, Sarah Moles, Michael Pospischil, The Dying Darling, paddle steamer, colonial, Federation, States, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, State Government, Federal Government, Murray-Darling Basin Plan, water allocation, water licence, water trading, water markets, physical measurement, arid, semi-arid, fish kill, Menindee Lakes, Australian Broadcasting Commission, ABC, Living Murray, Aral Sea, Mekong River, India, salinisation, salinity, dry land salinity, ground water, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, over-allocated, climate change, drought, mismanagement, corruption, SA Royal Commission, Kate McBride, Rob McBride, Cowl Cowl Station, Doug Shears, National Water Commission, Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough

Further Information

Some Books

There are many books which explore the issues above. I think four are worthy of mention.

Ticky Fullerton, Watershed, 2001

Ticky Fullerton, Watershed, 2001

1 Ticky Fullerton Watershed: Deciding our water future 2001.

Ticky Fullerton at that time was an ABC Four Corners jurnalist. Her book was particularly pertinent at the start of the millenium and is a comprehensive coverage of water issues across Australia, including the Murray-Darling Basin. The book is particularly well-written and fair in its assessment of the issues. It should be a must read for all Australians.

Unfortunately, the other side of this issue, the politicians, irrigators, agribusinesses and others who have a vested interest in not having Australians well-informed on water issues are rarely fair in what they say. (Refer to Media Watch and the uproar over the recent Four Corners Program Cash Splash on their demands for better accuracy from the ABC, partly justified but never reciprocated.)

2 Jacques Leslie Deep Water: The epic struggle over dams, displaced people, and the environment 2005. Leslie’s book covers three case studies based on people in India Africa and Australia:

2.1 Medha Patkar and her struggle on behalf of poor people against the masssive Sardar Sarovar project on the Narmada River in India. As part of this, Patkar was partly instrumental promoting her views on the World Commission on Dams in 2000.

2.2 Professor Thayer Scudder the world’s leading expert on dam resettlement. (See Large Dams 3: Oustees India for details on what usually happens to those thrown out of their ancestral home by displacement.)

Jacques Leslie, DeepWater, 2005

Jacques Leslie, DeepWater, 2005

Scudder felt he failed the people on the Kariba dam in Zambia the first large dam financed by the World Bank completed in 1959. He was more hopeful of a more current dam in Lesotho, but here and in Laos later the World Bank abrogated the guidelines it agreed to in the World Commission on Dams. These and other things are why in one of my artworks that were large dam related I posed the question: Is the World Bank Guilty of Crimes Against Humanity?

2.3 On the Murray-Darling in Australia Leslie focuses on the idea of a Healthy Working River. He begins by focusing on one of many environmental concerns of several of international significance in the basin the Chowilla Floodplain. He says:

The Chowilla red gums are part of a vast death event …

Along a six hundred mile reach of the Murray, trees are dying. The floodplain is turning into a graveyard of red gums, whose brittle, gray, hollow, and leafless trunks seem to serve as their own tombstones.

This is as powerful as anything written by Arundhati Roy in India. As with his other case studies, Leslie focuses on an individual Don Blackmore the charismatic Chief of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission for twenty years. Blackmore could only get half of the environmental flows he was after at the end of his career, even what he was after wasn’t nearly enough, but he was pragmatic to the last.

Leslie’s book is rather depressing but beautifully written and worth reading certainly as an outsider’s view of the Murray-Darling in 2005 and of the ecological damage already caused.

The Dying Darling, 2007

The Dying Darling, 2007

3 Sarah Moles and Michael Pospischil The Dying Darling 2007.

This is a lovely small press book that Denise and I purchased in Mildura. The husband and wife team travelled extensively up and down the Darling system in 2006 with Sarah mainly responsible for interviews of locals and Michael for the wonderful charcoal drawings of people and landscapes.

None of these books is polemical or extremist in any way shape or form. The massive fish die-off at Menindee in 2019 and the emergency action by the NSW government to possibly preserve species by capturing fish and spending millions on a captive breeding program has finally woken up the community to the disaster, but not generated any sensible action.

4 Chris Hammer The River 2011

Australia’s major river system is collapsing. Parts of it are dying; parts of it are already dead. Australia’s most significant river no longer reaches the sea. I look out into the dim autumn light and wonder again how it has come to this.

I have not yet read Chris Hammer’s book. It is my struggle not to get too depressed about or too engaged with the issue. My usual visit to Goodreads showed that most reviewers rated the book highly. It seems a more in depth continuation of Moles and Popisch. Professional reviews while not extensive were also complimentary. I have read Hammer’s novel Scrublands. He is an excellent writer too.

Information from the Media

I often get broken links on my site particularly when news stories get taken down, this is perhaps inevitable on the Internet. Fortunately, the Wayback Machine archive is the simple and automatic step to remedy this. Nevertheless, the ephemeral nature of news means that some is difficult to find well after the event.

I often listen to ABC Radio National while driving and remember several occasions in 2018 when an interviewer asked a politician or bureaucrat about measuring water and appeared gobsmacked when they found that there was no measurement of water in the system related to water licences. But I can’t locate these radio pieces.

There certainly used to be water measurement years ago. When an irrigator wanted water a government official would open a locked sluice gate for the number of hours required. Microcomputers were then introduced and the farmer could open the sluice gate from his home desktop computer, which increased efficiency by 20%, but the water was still measured. Now there seems to be no measurement of crucial water allocation. Information on specific amounts of water extracted from the rivers and of replacements of water into the system by the Federal Government buying water licences is simply not available. Estimates vary widely but cannot be substantiated by fact.

ABC Programs for Reference

The ABC seems to have been running a community interest assessment of the water crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin for years. And they have copped quite a degree of flack from government and agricultural lobby groups for doing this. Excellent programs on this are:


Gundabooka National Park, Creek, 2016

Gundabooka National Park, Creek, 2016

ABC TV on the Murray-Darling

ABC Four Corners Programs on the Murray-Darling

Cash Splash 8 July 2019 (45 min)

Pumped 24 July 2017 (45 min)

Backlash 7 Mar 2011 (45 min)

The Backlash video is no longer available on the ABC website. However, transcripts are available for all these programs.

Negative comments on Four Corners Cash Splash 2019

Kangaroo Footprints & Bones, 2005

Kangaroo Footprints & Bones, 2004

There was an organised campaign of negative comments on the ABC Four Corners program Cash Splash, immediately before and after the program was aired by agricultural lobby groups on radio and in the Murdoch News Corp paper The Australian complaining that Cash Splash was wrong and biased.

The Australian article was based on an open letter from academics put forward by Melbourne University. The academics did tend to be a group that had been involved in mainstream government programs or received funding within the Murray-Darling Basin. Nevertheless, the letter is measured and I suspect that the scientists criticisms of Cash Splash are valid. Their concern is that populist criticism could jeopardise the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I don’t share this view.

Rather than reference all these the issue was covered reasonably fairly on the ABC program Media Watch (6 min).

ABC Radio National on the Murray-Darling

Background Briefing

Best Laid Plans: The Murray-Darling Basin in Crisis (Part 1) 29 April 2018 (40 min)

Best Laid Plans: The Murray-Darling Basin in Crisis (Part 2) 6 May 2018 (40 min)

Rear Vision

(a program that looks back on the history behind any contemporary issue)

Menindee Fish Kill: politics & Water Murray Darling Basin 3 February 2019 (Podcast 29 min)

Publications for Reference

South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission

Government of South Australia Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission Report 29 January 2019 (pp 756)

The South Australian Royal Commission is not an easy document to read at 756 pages it lacks summaries and is not written with the layman in mind. Nevertheless, it is occasionally concise and pertinent.

ABC news report on Royal Commission, 31 January 2019

Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists

Wentworth Group Review of Murray-Darling Basin 2017 (PDF)

This is a good reference document.

Australia Institute

The Australia Institute has been conducting ongoing research on the Murray-Darling Basin. Access to some of this is given in short articles.

It has also archived other articles 100 Cases of Maladministration in one year.

Other Issues

The McBrides and the Menindee Fish Kill

Unnavigable Rapid, Red Rock Gorge in Flood, Murrumbidgee River Canberra, 1960s

Unnavigable Rapid, Red Rock Gorge in Flood, Murrumbidgee River Canberra, 1960s

Kate McBride & Rob McBride’s Tolarno Station website provides a good introduction to them and their campaign.

ABC Australian Story Cry Me a River is primarily about Kate McBride on the Darling River.

There is also a transcript on the web site.

India Project

Polavaram Dam Project, Telangana/Andhra Pradesh India

India’s Dam Shame: Why Polavaram Dam must not be built by Tony Stewart and Rukmini Rao, Gramya 2006.

Download: India’s Dam Shame

Mekong River

Deutsche Welle on the Mekong 2019

National Geographic on the Mekong 2018

The Lowy Institute Dams & Damage on the Mekong 2018

Mekong River Problems: Dams & other issues 2014.

Greta’s Speech

Greta Thunberg speech to world leader’s at the UN.

Like the McBride’s moment of massive media coverage on the Murray-Darling Basin, Greta Thunberg’s Speech is a moment where the world takes notice through the media to an issue that hitherto had trouble making traction. One hopes that both may prove a turning point for change.

Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion Global and Australian websites. I am only including these because the Federal and State governments’ reactions to their protests remind me of similar reactions to Vietnam War protests and to the suffragettes. When protest and complaints no matter what the numbers are ignored, the next step has to be peaceful civil disobedience.

David Attenborough

Our Planet series was released by the BBC and Netflix in 2019. It is a continuation by producers of previous series, but for the first time is an overtly political exposé of the harm done by humans to our planet. The crisis of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is barely acknowledged by government and is certainly not funded to the degree necessary.

Lake Cawndilla, Menindee Lakes, Kinchega National Park 2001

Lake Cawndilla, Menindee Lakes, Kinchega National Park, 2001

Other ABC

Landline Water Special

ABC Round Table talk on Murray-Darling Basin 3 February 2019 (29 min)

The following website is primarily an ABC sales site, but it provides links to a number of archived stories on the Murray-Darling Basin.

Posted in Canberra



    1. Hi Peggy

      I was trying to respond to you in an upbeat way but I can’t. The best I can offer is that criticism of the Murray Darling Basin Plan and general mismanagement appear to be reaching a tipping point. Similarly this may flow on to climate change and other problems in the national interest that those in power seem to be dodging responsibility on.

      However, no-one appears to have been looking after Australia’s national interest or what is in the best interests of Australians for a very long time. We seem to have been waiting endlessly for better times. I don’t think this can be entirely slotted home to politicians. Australians also need to take responsibility for their own destiny. And those who would like to seem to be in the minority.


  1. Very well documented Tony albeit depressing.

    Every time Tip and I travel by rail from Sydney Central to Mount Victoria, Blue Mountains I marvel at the engineering and vision that made that rail link possible.

    Done at a time when the country didn’t have the chasm of political differences and corrupt practices it does today.

    It’s a challenge for the tragedy, that it is, to be brought into the minds of every Australian.

    As the greater majority of the population is based around the coastline it might well be a case of out of sight out of mind for most.

    1. Mike

      Sadly, your comment about the coastal populations sounds right to me. And I can’t say that I haven’t been guilty of the same thing myself.

  2. I agree with the text of the article.The Govt -State or Federal are asleep at the wheel,(although the MDBA , in reality has no power to make the States do anything regarding water management-Basin Plan). The Darling is a mirror of the Murray’s impending collapse via unfettered development(mainly Almonds) over the last decade,with the Murrumbidgee to follow. Anyone driving from Balranald to Darlington Point would be horrified at the Dams built,the change in use from Grazing to annuals and quite considerable Permanent plantings as well.I question your comments on compliance ?. The Southern basin has been compliant for many years,not so in the North(NSW& QLD).

  3. Author

    Thanks Howard very pertinent comments. I agree with everything you say. Horrific!

    Regarding your last comment. I avoided comparing States on compliance for obvious reasons. It was beyond the scope of what I was writing and getting into nitty gritty issues would detract from the main theme. In general terms however lower riparian states are always more likely to be compliant than upper riparian states.

  4. Tony, reading about the tragedy of the eco system reminds me of our own tragedy on the Godavari. The Telangana government has now built pump systems to draw more water into the state. People are now being evicted to build canals. Thanks Denise for reposting this.

  5. I am being educated. This is a well written article – the map included Helped me with the Geographical scope of the situation. It is clear that we are not electing “leaders” with the countires’ best interests at heart. We need a anew breed of politician – they need the balls to confront the developers/exploiters. The economic system that holds rein is a huge part of the problem. Yet from the pandemic, we have a glimpse in cases where governments can crack the whip based on emergency. In Canada, it is apparent that governments do not se our water resources as more valuable than our fossil fuels. And yet the ice fields that feed the rivers that flow east from the Rocky Mountains across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – these ice fields are rapidly receding. The “mighty’ south Saskatchewan River is getting to look more and more like a large creek. Meanwhile, in the Yukon, one ice fielda that that fed two rivers receded far enough that one of them Finally ceased Completely to flow Over a 48 hour time frame. It must have been a major shock to the communities and fauna downstream from there.
    Climate change causes glacial river in Yukon to change …

    https://www.cbc.ca › news › technology › climate-change-yukon-river-pir…
    Apr 27, 2017 – Climate change causes glacial river in Yukon to change direction … water has changed course and now flows south toward the Kaskawulsh River, … She’s a long-time magazine and newspaper editor and podcast host with …

    Climate activists here are in a fight to prevent a trans-mountain pipeline from being built from the prairies through the Rocky Mountains to British Columbia’s pristine Pacific coast. And a Prime Minister who is supposed to be on board with the Paris climate agreement targets seems to be placating big oil STILL despite the desperate handwriting on the global wall. The Premier of Alberta has passed a law to make peaceful protests of the pipeline unlawful and will fine protesters daily – the law has yet to be tested and though most think it is unconstitutional, that is how far right wing Canadian politicians are willing to Go to stack the deck. Good luck with you peaceful civil disobedience down under. And our leaders and the lobbyists they are being influenced by, they are still in the “let them eat cake” mode. It will certainly get more tense here before the government policy gets off the fence becomes unmitigatedly green, BuT they are pissing away everyone’s future while they dither.

    Roger in Winnipeg

    1. Author

      Interesting that this is happening in Canada that has far more water than we do! Thanks for sharing.

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