Science says Australia has little to show from $5 billion spent on water reform in the Murray Darling Basin

The Hume Weir at Albury in 2007. Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

The more than $5 billion spent on the Murray Darling Basin has brought no meaningful water reform, according to research from the Australian National University.

The study, in the journal Water Economics and Policy, focuses on water use since the Murray Darling Basin Plan came into effect in 2012, tracking the how much water is diverted from the basin for agriculture and how well that water is used.

“There has been no discernible impact in terms of reduced water use on a per-hectare basis, or in terms of reduced water diversions,” says Professor Quentin Grafton, the director of the ANU Centre for Water Economics.

“More than $5 billion in the past 10 years has been spent on recovering water by subsidising irrigators (on and off farm) or buying water entitlements, yet there is very little to show for it.”

The Murray Darling Basin Plan was brought in by prime minister Julia Gillard in November 2012, aiming to return 2,750 gigalitres of water from agriculture back to the river system.

The plan also aimed to improve water usage through subsidies to farmers, meaning increased efficiency of agricultural.

“We found the average volume of water applied per hectare is virtually the same in 2014–2015, as it was in 2002–2003, at the onset of the Millennium Drought,” says Grafton.

Another drawback of the plan was that it failed to take into account the impact of climate change.

“Climate change was not incorporated in any meaningful way,” he says.

“Whatever reduced diversions are achieved over the 10 years of the basin plan, they may already be undermined by higher temperatures and a more variable climate.”

Professor Grafton says Australia needs to go back to the drawing board.

“Let’s rethink what we’re doing in terms of water policy,” he says. “Let’s focus on the evidence and facts rather than rhetoric and special interests.

“If we are not getting reduced diversions in any meaningful way, then that’s going to mean a whole range of negative implications for people that rely on the river, especially when the next drought comes.”

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