The Murray Darling Basin Plan is one of those issues that almost defies remedy. The Federal Government and each state, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and to a lesser extent, the Australian Capital Territory all have a voice and role to play in how water is used and allocated.
The basin itself, covers a larger part of inland New South Wales and northern Victoria while it all flows through to South Australia. Within the basin however, there are dozens of other perennial and non-perennial tributaries and floodplains that add to the mix.
But while the whole complex covers a large part of Australia, its management is divided along state boundary line. This is where it brings forward the parallel with Afghanistan.
This remote country in South Asia has around eight major basins, with perhaps 35 significant watersheds all feeding off the Hindu Kush that cuts through the country. Afghanistan itself is divided up into some 34 provinces, each with their own tribally aligned provincial government under a much weaker Federal Government than we have in Australia.
I had the privilege to work there for a number of years between 2003 and 2010, primarily in development and for part of the time, as the senior UN advisor to the Minister for Rural Rehabilitation and Development.
The country was plagued with donor led development that frequently offered targeted support to one province, more often for broader political purposes, purposes that did not extend beyond the provincial borders into the next province. This oddly shaped development leads to a dysfunction in the homogeneity of the country’s development.
The watersheds, nor the larger basins however did not follow those provincial borders and so, a road to market being developed for instance by one agency to placate a local governor might have followed a river, only did so until it reached the provincial boundary. This also influenced how the river watershed was developed. Irrigation was a major contributor to village life with small canal and karez that were centuries old delivering water to farms along the way. The early farmers paid little or no consideration to the needs of farmers downstream unless forced to do so through tribal wars.
To overcome this, in conjunction with the minister, we were aiming for development to what we considered a sensible plan, to move away from the artificial division of provincial boundaries and see all work carried out within the geographical boundaries of the watershed or basin so that development would be consistent over the whole development region.
Australia is also faced with this artificial boundary development. Victoria is acting in the interest of the people in its state, NSW doing the same for its people, Queensland the same as is South Australia.
As such, the Murray Darling Basin Plan has developed as a hotch-potch of state interests rather than the consolidated interest of the whole with state ministers each taking action that serves perhaps more their electoral interests overshadowed by a federal ministry with theirs. As a loss, the functioning of a properly managed basin control system that operates outside of political interests and within constraints that serve the best economic and environmental interest of the whole basin population is missing.
So what is the solution? Do we need to have the states subsume their individual rights into a completely independent authority, that can produce a plan that relies on the best science, the best economic and best environmental interest for the nation rather than special interests, state or otherwise. Effectively, a Murray Darling Basin Plan that comes without political interference?