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Australia is the canary, and the coalmine, for the world when it comes to water stress

As extreme climate events happen around the world, Australian communities are running out of water

“The skies are brass and the plains are bare,

Death and ruin are everywhere—

And all that is left of the last year’s flood

Is a sickly stream on the grey-black mud;

The salt-springs bubble and the quagmires quiver,

And this is the dirge of the Darling River.”

— Henry Lawson (1891)

The northern hemisphere faced a polar vortex, while Australia during December and January was the hottest on record. People and the environment are suffering at both ends of the planet because of the extreme events.

Australia’s heatwave has exposed cracks in our unsustainable water, land-use and climate policies.

Fish kills in the Darling River, followed by more in other waterways, are being blamed on drought. More than one million fish died following multiple events in December and January.

The public has been aghast. The catalyst for outrage has been viral videos of hundreds of Murray cod floating dead and being displayed by angry locals. Murray cod is an icon of Australian waterways and one of the world’s largest species of freshwater fish. The biggest Murray cod – allegedly 114kg – was caught in 1902, during the federation drought in a tributary of the Darling, near Walgett.

But extreme conditions and fish kills are natural here in the “land of drought and flooding rains”, right?

The Darling is the longest river on the driest inhabited continent – prone to harsh and variable conditions. Lawson’s 1891 poem, which followed one year after the largest flood, is used often to depict the naturally occurring extreme conditions of our rivers. Indeed, European explorers who set off to chart flows to the “great inland sea” were surprised instead to discover a drought-stricken river – the Darling. Though the water was too salty to drink, it abounded with pelicans, swans, ducks and leaping fish.

Heatwaves and drought have always occurred here but unsustainable levels of water extraction and climate change are much more recent. Vast quantities of water are now extracted and used, during drought and flood, to irrigate crops including rice and cotton.

The amount of water used for irrigated agriculture varies, but ranged from about 50% of all flows in the Murray during the 1980s and 90s, to more than 76% during the Millennium Drought. Standards for healthy rivers are debated, but extraction of more than 20% of flows typically results in adverse changes to biodiversity and the benefits people derive from clean water.

Worldwide the demand for fresh water is expected to increase by 55% by 2050.

Australia is experiencing this water stress now. We are thus a canary, and the coalmine, for the rest of the world.

Bottled water is now being trucked to Walgett where the largest Murray cod on record was swimming during the Federation Drought. The major rivers that join near Walgett are dry. Aboriginal elders say both rivers have not run dry in their lifetime.

Large irrigated farms and harvesting of flood waters have been implicated in increasing water stress. About 150km north of Walgett lies Cubbie Station, and at 230,000 acres it is apparently the largest irrigated farm in the southern hemisphere. Cubbie Station doesn’t pump water from rivers that flow through Walgett, nor has it reported harvesting water since April 2017.

Given that less than 2% of all water pumped from the Murray-Darling goes to household consumption it’s hard not to sympathise with those who argue that corporate irrigators have something to do with water stress.

The flood waters harvested in recent years by irrigators could have been saved through water storage and wetlands to maintain dry-land agriculture and ecosystems during the current heatwave.

Unlike the fish, people and small farms spread throughout the Murray-Darling – a few lobbyists and several hundred rice and cotton irrigators, occupying less than 1% of the land, profit from using about 40% of all water extracted.

There is plenty of water to go around for people and the environment, but not enough to simultaneously sustain the current irrigation entitlements.

Banning cotton and rice and degrading farmers will not solve the problem.

What will solve it is reducing total water entitlements for irrigation and increasing flows for rivers and wetlands.

Environmental flows have expanded in many regions, but the Darling and northern-basin still seem to be a wild west of water extraction. Minimum environmental flow standards have either not been in place or have been insufficient to sustain dry-land rivers. Minimum flow standards and policies around land use and run-off must be sufficiently robust to prevent further large-scale blue-green algae events, which are the proximate causes of the current hypoxia and fish kills.

The best available science reviewed by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists has recommend an increase in environmental flows, to a minimum of 3,200 GL per year to maintain healthy freshwater ecosystems.

So, what can the world learn from our experience on the driest inhabited continent?

Agriculture and water policies must be sufficiently robust to keep rivers flowing and communities supplied with clean water despite extreme conditions. With climate change, some lands that were once suitable for irrigated farming will not be viable in the future.

The shift to sustainable water and land-use practices requires visionary long-term planning and generous funding for regional communities. Given the rising population density, housing and business costs in Melbourne and Sydney, maybe it’s time to revisit the Whitlam-era ideas of luring people and business outside the major cities?

Subsidies that perpetuate the – hydro-illogical – cycle of unsustainable irrigation around the world should stop being funded. Instead, funding for communities must be targeted at helping farmers adapt and growing industries that will be viable during water scarcity, climate change and extreme conditions. Regional communities and freshwater ecosystems are much more than irrigation ditches and will thrive if presented with new opportunities.

If global carbon emissions remain high, the 48.3C record temperature in Bourke, situated near the Darling River, a few weeks ago should be expected to become 50C or 51C by 2090. Temperatures in Death Valley are sometimes that hot, but then again no one is growing cotton or cod there.

This does not have to be the dirge of the Darling, regional communities or farming. But it is time for change.

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