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Published: 13 April 2020   •   Media statements

The 60 Minutes story aired Sunday 12 April 2020 which claims that Australia’s food security is threatened because of current water management is false, alarmist and reckless. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority was not approached by 60 Minutes to provide comment to ensure balanced and factual reporting of the issues.

The facts on Australia’s food security are crystal clear and Australians should take advice from the experts. As confirmed by the National Farmers’ Federation, NSW Farmers and the Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, Australian farmers produce enough food to feed three times our population and our food supply chains are secure.

There is no problem with our food security and it’s mischievous and misleading for vested interest groups to use COVID-19 to push their biased and incorrect positions. This is a time when Australians should be banding together for the common good, not being needlessly divisive.

The MDBA knows how hard it has been for irrigation farmers and their communities first with drought, then bushfires, and now COVID 19 challenging everyone. These challenges have all come on top of much needed but painful water management reform within the Basin over the past 10 years.

Farmers haven’t grown much rice or other irrigated crops in the past two years because the Murray-Darling Basin has experienced two to three years of extreme drought. Rice is grown when water is cheap and plentiful. This is similar to the Millennium drought 12 years ago when very little rice was grown.

All remaining water in the system is owned by someone or is needed to keep the river running – to now give it to some farmers takes it away from others who have paid to use that water in these dry times. It potentially pits farmer against farmer.

Basin governments have a fair plan for sharing water in dry times and all governments and responsible irrigators are sticking to it. Australians have no cause for concern.

Water resource management is about sharing a scarce and nationally significant resource fairly and balancing the needs of all values – economic, community, environmental and cultural. Water is and must continue to be managed in the national interest for the benefit of future generations. Any attempts to alter the balance undermines years of bi-partisan water reform championed by all governments and puts at risk the sustainability of the Basin now and into the future.

What’s driving water shortages in the Murray–Darling Basin

The ongoing and widespread drought is what’s driving water shortages and high water prices across the Basin. During 2019, Australia experienced the warmest year on record, and the driest year in over 100 years. Despite recent rains, storages in the north are still at extremely low levels. Large dams in the south have declined since 2016 receiving little winter or spring inflows during that time. Water storages are sitting at just 27 percent and we need widespread and consistent rain to turn these numbers around.

Because of the drought, irrigators with lower security and less reliable licence types haven’t received a water allocation from the state governments for the past two to three years. That’s hard on any business and their supporting community. Typically, irrigators with these less reliable licences grow cheaper annual and opportunistic crops like rice when water is available.

Water market and allocations

When water is scarce, like during times of drought, it becomes more expensive.  

The Commonwealth does not have a role in creating water licences or allocating water to licence holders – this rests with state and territory governments. State governments allocate water within each water catchment, depending on how much water is available. In the River Murray system, the MDBA’s role is to calculate how much water belongs to each of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia before the states calculate water availability for licence holders in each catchment.

It is worth noting that the competition watchdog is undertaking an inquiry into the markets for tradable water rights in the Basin and will be reporting back later this year. As outlined in their terms of reference the ACCC is looking at a range of matters relevant to the operation and effect of our water market.

Importance of healthy rivers and water reform

Irrigators get the bulk of the water available for allocation in the Murray-Darling Basin which is vital because they feed and clothe the nation, but providing water for towns and communities, running the river and maintaining river health for current and future generations is also important. Healthy rivers underpin secure food production. To sustain Basin communities now and into the future, our rivers and ecosystems need water and our rivers need to run to the sea.

In a show of bipartisan leadership, all Basin governments started a reform journey 10 years ago to restore the balance and future-proof the Basin – the largest reform of its kind in the world. River systems across the Murray-Darling Basin are stressed following decades of over extraction, drought and more recently the impacts of bushfires. Water for the environment plays a critical role in keeping these rivers functioning so they can provide vital services for communities throughout the Basin.

Phillip Glyde
Chief Executive Murray–Darling Basin Authority


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