June 2013, Vol. 25, No.6

Water Volumes

Water Policy Reform: Lessons in Sustainability from the Murray–Darling Basin

John Quiggin, Thilak Mallawaarachchi, and Sarah Chambers, Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton, Mass., and Cheltenham, England, 2012, 238 pp., $110, hardback, ISBN: 8781-78100-0311.

This book presents a scientific account of the pressing problems of water sustainability faced in a water-threatened region. It is a compendium of 10 essays by experts in the water field. It will be of interest to those concerned with the impact of climate change and the management of environmental resources. 

The Murray–Darling River Basin is a huge regional entity — larger than Spain and France combined — with environmental assets spread across 1 million km2. During an age of uncertain supply, nearly every constituency in south central Australia wants Murray–Darling water. For too many years, water policy in the basin was conditioned by recklessness and romanticism. Currently, the battle between advocates of biodiversity in the region and rural irrigated/cattle production and agriculture has been particularly contentious. A new stress on the basin has been the growth of cities, which increasingly are turning to the Murray River for their water supply. Because large parts of the river often are running dry, the authors recommend that further spending on irrigation infrastructure be placed on hold. Even with the recent rains, water experts remain wary of any new irrigation scheme in the region. 

As Lin Crase of Latrobe University (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) points out in the book, adjusting water allocations for all groups in the region should be undertaken in a manner “informed by relevant scientific understanding and using empirical comparisons.” For too many decades, communities in the river basin have relied on an irrigation infrastructure that has been mostly free and without monitoring or cost-effective rules and regulations. Furthermore, as Mike Young of the University of Adelaide (South Australia) Environment Institute points out, water in Australia in the future will be tightly controlled. In Australia, he notes, “water markets appear to be here to stay.” 

With so many public conflicts about water use in the region, it is hardly surprising that the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, released in 2011, failed to receive significant public support. For the moment, the authors note in their conclusion, “the presence of uncertainty constrains the determination of definite watering plans to restore environmental quality.” 

John R. Wennersten is a consultant on urban rivers for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and author of Global Thirst: Water and Society in the 21st Century.