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Useful And Fantastic: Donít Waste The Murray River

Val Yule calls for a more sensible use of the waters of Australia's great river, the Murray.

Remember the lesson of the great Newfoundland cod fisheries? See Rudyard Kiplingís Captains Courageous for a description of fish so plentiful that the waters seethed with them.

In 1977 Canada tried to stop the reduction of the cod stocks by declaring 320 kilometers off Newfoundland off limits to foreign factory ships. The local industry flourished, bringing prosperity to Newfoundland.

In the 1980s marine biologists warned that the future was threatened by the heavy fishing and recommended an annual target of 125,000 tonnes of cod. But the community outcry about the economic and social damage made the government set the target at 235,000 tonnes. Stocks fell below a sustainable level and in June 1992 one of the richest natural resources was closed down. 30,000 jobs were lost and Newfoundland fell into rapid economic decline.

The lesson for the health of the Murray River in Australia is clear.
Millions of us depend upon this river. We cannot repeat the mistake of Newfoundland when scientists warn us of consequences of letting it die. We are doing some silly things.

Is water wasted that is not directly used now by the people? Is it wasted if it keeps the river alive for our future use, if it floods the plains where the red gums grow, or keeps alive the swamps, which the migrating birds, and other wildlife depend upon? This is a question, which must be answered by us all now, for the sake of the future.

Four States of Australia squabble over what water there is Ė Queensland, where much of the water originates, New South Wales and Victoria which have the problem of whether to keep the trees of the flood plains alive, and South Australia, where the river used to flow into the sea, and is now struggling to keep the lakes and estuary alive, as well as the capital of Adelaide.

Water waste by irrigators and country towns is now greatly reduced by more enlightened practices, but some areas are more progressive than others. It is still not worked out which crops are best suited to different areas, especially with water-hungry cotton and rice. Other crops such as dried fruit would prosper more if they could compete with Middle Eastern imports, which have low labor costs but a high real cost in freight, which adds to carbon emissions and fuel loss.

There are some crops necessary to feed our population, which it would be wiser to grow to some extent at least, in our fertile Murray River Basin, than rely entirely on imports. Water is a scarce commodity the most of the world, and we use the water overseas for our imported food too.

A great waste of the Murray River is the private ownership of water. This means that government must pay private interests for water to use in the public interest. Originally far-seeing legislators in Victoria decreed that all water belonged to the state, which gave irrigators and others the rights to use it.

Unfortunately this right has become a right to own it. Not only irrigators but financial interests have now got a source of income that costs the Murray River and the State dearly. A title system for the use of water similar to land ownership would be disastrous for this dry country.

Farmers and States trading of rights to use water on an annual basis is one thing. To have titles to private ownership of water is reckless. Water ownership would inevitably accumulate into the hands of a few. There would be no legal way to prevent foreign ownership. Greedy people have their eyes on water ownership globally, as with growing population pressures it becomes the most valuable commodity on earth. The pressure on governments from these private interests may be great, and must be resisted.

There is such a thing as treason, and selling away our life-blood is one of them. Although distribution can be allowed through private companies, and private interests assist in infrastructure, the living water itself must remain inalienably in public ownership, and subject to public control. Free trade agreements must never have a legal chance to include water.

The stupidest waste of the Murray River is the North-South Pipeline of Victoria, built by the Victorian government to keep the Melbourne electorates happy, takes water down south for Melbourne, which otherwise would flow down the Goulburn River to the Murray River and associated irrigators.

The aboriginal inhabitants for 40,000 years lived sustainably on the banks of the river, and harvested its wildlife without extinction, keeping their population within the bounds of existing technology, droughts and floods.

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