Social Action Office


A briefing note for campaigners


The Murray-Darling River system is one of the most valuable natural resources in Australia: two out of every five Australian farms are located within the basin, and 75% of the country’s irrigation. These farms turn out more than 40% of the nation’s gross agricultural production – about $9 billion worth. In addition, the basin provides water for some 3 million people.

But the waters of the MDB are in trouble. Here’s some of the evidence:


This campaign focus is based on the obligation we have, as Catholics, to act out of a sense of respect for the integrity of creation. To willingly allow or contribute to the extinction of a species is such an act of disrespect. To act in such a way that a river system such as the Murray-Darling is so over-exploited that it cannot any longer flow out to the sea, or that its flora and fauna are threatened with extinction, is also an act of disrespect for the integrity of creation.

“No flow” on the increase: The amount of Murray water flowing into the sea is now around one-fifth of what it was at Federation in 1901. In times gone by, the Murray would fail to flow into the sea once in 20 years. Now it fails to reach the sea, on average, every second year.

Disappearing trees and fish: 75% of the tree-cover in the Basin has been cleared. Fish populations are down more than 80% on original populations in some parts of the river. The 26 native fish species of the MDB are threatened by changes in river flow, barriers to movement (such as weirs and dams), decline in water quality etc. In such circumstances it is extremely difficult for many native species to survive.

Increasing salinity: Urbanisation, irrigation and clearing of vegetation have resulted in bringing the basin’s naturally occurring salt closer to the surface. Almost all rivers in the MDB are affected. In Queensland, for example, the Condamine and Balonne rivers will soon be too salty to use for drinking water 40% of the time. Dryland salinity is also extensive. More than half a million hectares of agricultural land is currently affected.

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission said in 2002 that the river’s “current level of health is less than what is required for ecological sustainability”. In other words, the great Murray River is dying.

Rescue Operation: But efforts are underway to mount a rescue operation. Among many other initiatives is the “First Step” commitment, made by the Murray-Darling Ministerial Council in 2003 and confirmed in June 2004 by the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG). This involves a move to set aside 500 gigalitres (GL) of water a year to increase environmental flows (1 GL= 500 Olympic Swimming Pools) in the Murray. The water would be bought back from existing irrigators over 5 years at a cost of $500m.

500 GL sounds like a lot of water, but scientific reports released in 2003 indicate that this amount is only a fraction of what is needed to stop the decline in the river. For this to happen, 1500GL is a minimum. This would have an impact of less than 2% a year on present water users.

Campaign Focus

SAO is asking all candidates in the Federal Election to support the increase of the “First Step” environmental flows to the Murray from 500 to 1500 GL per year.


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