Margaret Simons, Cry Me a River: The tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin (Quarterly Essay 77, 2020) – and correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78)
I came to this Quarterly Essay with dramatic images in my mind: outraged farmers making a bonfire of the newly published guide to the Murray–Darling Basin Plan in 2010; millions of dead fish near the Menindee Lakes the summer before last; die-back by the Murray and great stretches of parched river-bed in the Darling. There was also video, of water flowing down the Darling in February and finally reaching the Murray in May, for the first time in two years.
This Quarterly Essay was written before and during the fires that ended 2019 and began 2020. As Margaret Simons was finishing it there was rain over most of the Murray–Darling Basin and the renewed flow of the Darling was approaching Burke. The political environment was also shifting: in February David Littleproud was replaced as the relevant Federal minister by Keith Pitt.
The Murray–Darling river system covers more than a million square kilometres. It’s one of the largest drainage areas in the world. It’s of huge cultural significance to First Nations peoples. A huge amount of Australia’s food is produced by farmers who use water from the Murray–Darling to irrigate their crops. More than three million people rely on it for their drinking water. ‘But,’ Simons writes,
we are all in trouble. Over the latter part of the last century, it became clear that the river system was at breaking point. It could die. All that went with it – money, livelihoods, sense of nation – was at risk.
The Murray–Darling Basin Plan was developed by the Commonwealth government as ‘the first attempt to manage the Basin as a whole, and to make its use sustainable’.
The Plan is beset by what one man calls ‘politics gone feral’: the Commonwealth vs the states, state vs state (New South Wales being the stand-out non-cooperation), Barnaby Joyce, the National Party vs the Hunters and Fishers while Labor, after initially making progress, is missing in action, bureaucracy vs the people on the ground, cotton growers vs family farms, almonds vs everything else, upstream irrigators vs downstream irrigators, environmental scientists vs vested interests, accusations of theft and corruption, ‘pervasive lack of trust in governments of all complexions’, the South Australian Royal Commission giving everyone ‘a terrible pasting’. There is an alarming degree mutual incomprehension between people who live in the large cities of the south-east and those who live and work on the land.
Margaret Simons went on a road trip through all this with the aim of putting flesh on the bones of the abstract arguments. She interviewed people who were keen to have their point of view herd, and people who didn’t believe a journalist would ever represent them accurately. At one point, a companion asked her which of her interviewees would be most unhappy with the essay:
I replied that I thought everyone would be unhappy. That is the nature of the issue, of the failure of governance, dating back more than a century, that the Murray-Darling Basin represents.
I hope she’s wrong. Many voices are heard through this essay, from Badger Bates, a Barkandji elder, to Philip Glyde, one of the bureaucrats most responsible for the implementation of the Plan. Simons doesn’t pretend to the ‘he said she said’ brand of journalistic objectivity, but she leaves room for the reader’s judgements. The result isn’t a coherent argument, but the picture that emerges is that the difficulties caused by drought have been made worse, to the point of calamity, by mismanagement and poor governance, by making water into a commodity to be traded. At the same time, she makes clear the size and complexity of the challenge of bringing the river system back from the brink.
In the last couple of pages, Simons talks about climate change. She met only one denier, she said, but when she raised the subject with farmers, mostly the response was ‘a million-mile stare’. Reading the essay I could feel my own million-mile stare coming on: if the challenge of saving one river system from devastation under capitalism and electoral democracy is so overwhelming, what will it take to stave off the impending multi-faceted disaster from climate change?
And on that note, I turned to the correspondence in Quarterly Essay 78 (itself about another climate change pressure point, Australia’s coal addiction).
With the exception of an academic whose scholarly critics were given voce in the essay, and the acting chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, the correspondents confirm my sense that the essay presents a dependable account of the situation. A number of them expand on the theme of climate change. Some discuss the way Covid-19 changes the context by making it more problematic to import food, at least in the short run. A number of people who feature in the essay spell out their arguments more fully. Maybe I can finish by quoting the final paragraphs from Maryanne Slattery, who was a director of the Murray–Darling for more than decade, then senior water researcher for the Australia Institute, and now a director of an independent water consultancy:
The Plan is a relic of a time and a system that no longer exist. Change will be forced upon us, probably by a changing climate and the changes to society it brings about. Covid-19 has brought into the present many things we thought we could put off.
If we want two irrigated monocultures in the Basin, hollowed-put regions and reliance on other countries for our food, then the water reforms are a success. If we want a diverse agricultural sector, vibrant communities and to grow what we eat, we need new water policies, as well as policies for regional economic development. To achieve this we need to allow an honest and inclusive public debate and banish the binary rhetoric.
May this essay be widely read as a substantial contribution to public debate that doesn’t fall into for-the-Plan/against-the-Plan and other binaries.
Cry Me a River is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.