(Oct 28, 2015) After a relatively short drought, which could worsen next year, Murray-Darling Basin irrigation farming is in crisis.
The problem is not nature, the problem is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan which has over-allocated water to the environment at the expense of farmers and food security.
More about the Basin drought…
When politicians consult community leaders in the run up to a Federal election, they always want to know the electorate’s mood on unemployment, health and food prices.
Large parts of Australia are in a serious drought. Particularly affected are western Queensland and northern NSW.
Currently, the Bureau of Meteorology is predicting the second strongest el Nino since 1905 and the strongest since 1997, meaning that most of Eastern Australia could be facing another year of severe drought. The picture will be clearer by November. The exception may be central NSW, which has had considerable winter and spring rains.
However, there is another man-made drought disaster underway in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The huge loss of over 30 per cent of the Basin’s irrigation water to environmental flows means that reservoirs – which once held water to ensure water in dry times for permanent plantings like dairy farms, fruit trees and grape vines – are getting to the point where they will be unable to supply enough water in the coming drought year.
Once, based on a 50-50 share of the water between the environment and human/agriculture/industry use, there would have been plenty of water to supply farmers in the current dry spell.
But under the Federal Water Act 2007 and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan 2012, reservoirs prioritise the environment, not agriculture. There is not enough space allocated to irrigation farming to ensure water to farmers 95-97 years out of 100, as was previously the case.
This security of water supply was vital to permanent plantings. An apple tree needs two-thirds of its regular water supply just to say alive and it needs 100 per cent supply to produce a crop. If it dies due to lack of water, it takes 6-7 years to grow a new tree to produce a crop, and to then earn any income for the farmer.
Further, the price of water that is still available on the open water market is now cost prohibitive. Farmers have been paying $200-230 per megalitre of water. Having to pay an extra $50,000 to $100,000 this year to keep a farm producing food is also sending farmers broke.
Next season, with even less water available, the price of water is set to go even higher.
Last century, Australians made a huge investment in building massive reservoirs like the Hume and Dartmouth dams, into constructing thousands of kilometers of irrigation channels and many locks and weirs on the Murray River. The whole purpose was to drought-proof the Basin, that is, to particularly guarantee high security water to permanent planting in 95-97 years in 100.
Now, two years into a drought, the supply of water for farmers mimics the old days before the dam, locks, weirs and irrigation channels were built.
So, as water supplies tighten and the price of water soars, a drop in food production will affect the price of available food.
This is now happening in the Basin just five years after the worst drought in a century and three years after the Murray Darling Basin plan was written into law.
Against a background of long-term stagnation or declining production in many sectors, today Australia is facing severe drought and a man-made drought in the Murray-Darling Basin. These factors along with higher food exports could result in lower domestic food supplies compared to demand.
The result could be a significant rise in food prices.
In which case, the Turnbull government could be facing a backlash from the Australian electorate at the next federal election