Water Crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin

Water Crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin

Written by Jessica Devous

Australia is facing a water crisis yet as the country is sinking deeper into long-lasting droughts. While known for a semi-arid climate, their depleting rainfall and frequency of droughts has dried up valuable land reserves. Major lakes like the Yelta and Menindee lakes are now barren, and the Murray-Darling Basin, which is the largest river system in the heartland of Australia, is threatened to be next; damaging the economic and social structure of the country. 

Murray-Darling Basin in New South Wales, Australia.

 The Murray-Darling Basin in South Wales is part of the largest river system in Australia. The basin provides drinking water for nearly 3 million people, and 40 million rely on it for food production, both in Australian and Asian cities. Local farmers also depend on the basin for crop irrigation. Farmers near the basin are part of the agricultural pillar in Australia, as the economy is built on crop exports of cotton, beef, and nuts. They are also the second-largest exporter of coal, and have one of the highest per-capita carbon emissions. Over the years, the worsening impacts of climate change brought on by man-made fossil fuels has exacerbated the drought conditions, especially in South Wales where the Murray-Darling Basin is located. Pollution coupled with higher temperatures and depleted rainfall has ruined the land and water systems and accelerated climate change. As a result, the continent has seen its hottest year yet in 2019, resulting in wildfires that ravaged Australia earlier this year. As the country is getting warmer and drier, the lingering effects of climate change are not avoidable, and worsened by man-made fossil fuel extractions. If not contained, the Murray-Darling Basin could dry up within the next five years.

The dwindling water resources are exacerbated by the agricultural industrial complex in Australia. Australia is one of the leading exports of coal and water-intensive crops, such as almonds and cotton. By allocating more resources to water-intensive crops, they are threatening the remaining water of the Murray-Darling Basin. The remaining water supply is treated as a commodity instead of a natural resource, turning the basin into an economic structure. The resource is therefore allocated to businesses that can turn a higher profit instead of focusing on the preservation of the environment. Sold to the highest bidder in agribusiness, the remaining water is divided between surrounding wetlands; however it is not enough to sustain the wetlands and habitats that survive in them. Based on this complex structure managed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, water resources are distributed to profit-building crops, including the surge of almond farming. The surge of plant-based diets in developed countries is highly profitable, so farmers are transitioning their crops towards these industries. However, almonds are a water-intensive crop and local farmers are sacrificing their water rights to industrial farming complexes taking over the backcountry. Since 2014, almond farms have grown by 43%, covering 45,000 hectares of land and bringing in $500 million Australian dollars in 2018. This type of farming is unsustainable for the Murray-Darling Basin and is not only hurting local farmers, but will not be sustainable for the environment in the long-run.

1.1 gallons of of water are needed to grow one almond, and Australia has 45,000 hectres of land for almond farms.

Australia’s situation in Murray-Darling Basin should be a warning sign for other global river systems which could face similar challenges in upcoming years from climate change. The mismanagement of the water resource coupled with rising temperatures and droughts is affecting the livelihoods of farmers who depend on the basin for irrigation, and millions of people who rely on it for drinking water and food supply. The decisions of authorities to use the resource for economic development instead of conservation is deepening the issue. The lack of agreement on conservation policies is halting progress that could be made to combat the issue. Although Australia has seen recent flooding in the Western coastline, and some dried lakes are being refilled, it is not enough to combat the damage already done. While the effects are irreversible, this incident can be used to benefit other river systems, and prevent history from repeating itself. 

Sources: Agribusiness, Bloomberg, Earth Observatory, Farm Online

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