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

TJ Ryan Foundation Research Associate, John Quiggin, writes in The Conversation (9.7.19) about alarming revelations from a Four Corners report into seeming mismanagement of irrigation funding grants as part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.’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.

‘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.

‘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.’

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

QJ Wang and Avril Horne write in The Conversation (8.7.19) that a federal program to help the Murray-Darling environment accidentally lowered water levels – but not as much as previous reports had feared.

‘Earlier this year, researchers suggested the amount of water returned to the Murray Darling Basin under a federal program has been “grossly exaggerated”, to the tune of hundreds of billions of litres.

‘The report argued that government investment in irrigation improvements might even result in a net loss of water for the environment.

‘To investigate these claims, the Murray Darling Basin Authority commissioned us to undertake an independent review to examine the best available data for every irrigation efficiency project funded across the basin.

‘We found the government investment into irrigation efficiency projects has achieved 85% of the 750 gigalitres per year target. The remaining 15% of the target may be affected by unintended side-effects.

‘This result highlights the need for continued review of risks to the basin plan, as Australia grapples with the management of an extraordinary complex natural system.’

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