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Published: 20 May 2021   •   Speeches and transcripts

Good afternoon and thank you Mia (MC) for your kind introduction.

I would like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we are meeting today and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

I'm extremely pleased and grateful to be here and presenting in person.

I look around this room and I realise I've met with many of you on my travels. Thank you for hosting me and showing me around your neck of the woods.

Before I hand over to Andrew Reynolds to talk about the MDBA's priorities, I'd like to share my perspective since taking this post 9 months ago.

Significantly, we now have an Indigenous Authority member. Nari Nari man, Rene Woods joined our board in December last year.  As a result, we are seeing improved collaborations and discussions from a First Nations point of view across our agency, and other government departments.

Also, we've had great success in regionalising our workforce. We now have nearly 100 of our 267 people in offices out in the Basin. Here in Mildura we have over 20 people. We are recruiting local people and that enhances our ability to engage and create constructive relationships that build trust.  

We are also launching new community forums to improve our access to local perspectives on water management and share science that matters in communities.

Andrew will expand on this work shortly.

I've spent the past three days in the Sunraysia.

Like in other communities, I've heard a wide range of views and ideas about how the Basin should be managed and what the priorities should be.

During my trip to central and northern New South Wales before this autumn rain – I was struck deeply by the uncertainty many people were feeling about the future, off the back of the hottest and driest three years on record. 

People were doing it tough.

With water now flowing in all the rivers and getting all the way to the Menindee Lakes – connecting the north and south – I think it's fair to say there's a great sense of relief from the top of the Basin to the bottom.

It would be too much to say, however, that it's unbridled optimism. While the grass may be a little greener, maybe a bit muddier, it temporarily masks a growing and genuine concern about the future and water security.

What will the next season hold, and the one after that? And what does that mean for my family and my community?

Because we are in a whole and connected system, we also need to ask what does this mean for the overall health of our Basin – which is an economic and environmental powerhouse?

The notion of national interest is key to the Murray-Darling Basin's identity and unified vision of itself. That's why your association is so important.

The value inherent in each individual community reflects the challenge of a massive reform like the Basin Plan.

And every conversation I've had this year has been, in part, a conversation about climate change.

Conversations with the Northern Basin communities on the Barwon Darling, the First Nations people seeking cultural water for wellbeing, conversations with scientists about the hard facts and with tourism operators about local economies.

What we've been experiencing now goes beyond Australia's normal climate variability. More frequent and severe droughts and extreme weather events.

These changes have broad-reaching and serious ramifications for our nation and the Murray-Darling Basin.

I do not view climate change as a political issue.

Rather, it is a practical problem that demands practical action and policy so we can confront the challenge head-on.

Climate change acts as a threat-multiplier. 

More frequent droughts and natural disasters increase pressure on resources, communities, institutions and infrastructure.

In the past 20 years there have been 6 to 7 droughts.

In this way, climate change can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and have a destabilising effect, even in stable and wealthy nations like ours. And the Murray–Darling Basin is the single most important resource underpinning our water and food security.

We know the climate of the Basin is changing, and rainfall patterns are shifting. 

Average inflows to the River Murray in the past 20 years were just 51 per cent of what they were over the preceding 100 years.

The CSIRO's most probable climate scenario indicates that we could see average annual streamflow decrease by 20 to 30 per cent, due to the 10 per cent reduction in rainfall and higher evaporation and plant transpiration.

I know the Murray Darling Association vision includes making sure we have climate-ready communities and is working on a strategy to help communities get there. We as the Authority agree that helping communities prepare and plan is fundamental for future success.

This climate reality is confronting and frightening – and raises questions about current water management arrangements – in particular, the Basin Plan.

This world leading reform is a legislated commitment between state basin governments and the Commonwealth to get the health of the Basin back onto a sustainable footing.

Basin states are actively implementing the Plan. Our job is to monitor, report and advise on Basin health.

Over its first eight years, the Basin Plan has been tested – but we know it's working.

The difference between the millennial drought and the latest three-year drought? The Basin Plan.

As our 2020 Basin Plan Evaluation found, it cushioned the Basin from the worst drought on record.

Since being in place, despite lower rainfall and declining water availability, the value of irrigated agriculture in the Basin has increased – our farmers are innovating, adapting and successfully doing more with less water.

Although, at the same time, we have seen irrigation-dependent communities negatively impacted by both water reform, and broader social and economic changes. The significance to these communities cannot be understated.

Governments are working together to protect first flushes – the rainfall that kick starts our rivers after long dry periods, ensuring vital connectivity.

Connectivity is important – and needs more emphasis.

There is more coordination and collaboration to ensure when environmental water is used, it garners maximum benefit.

The Basin Plan is the right framework to take us into the future, and to help us respond to the risks that climate change poses for the Basin.

  • Water allocation frameworks already actively consider climate change – less water, smaller allocation.
  • Water for the environment is used to prime the system after droughts

But we can't rest on our laurels. There's more work to do.

Responding to the challenge of climate change in the Basin will demand action and commitment from everyone involved in water use, delivery, management, and policy. It's a shared responsibility.

It will require collaboration between people of opposing beliefs.

It will require, looking over the fence and actively choosing to decide to focus on what unites us – not what divides us. 

The MDBA doesn't have all the answers to the climate challenges that lay ahead.

The good news is we know there are some great examples of climate adaptation happening across the Basin, Australia and the world.

Our job is to amplify and supercharge climate adaptation efforts – and fill the research gaps to help Basin communities make decisions about the future.

At our recent Basin Climate Resilience Summit – which David Thurley and Emma Bradbury from the Murray–Darling Association both attended – we bought together a diverse and active group of stakeholders so ideas, knowledge and lessons could be shared more broadly.

This summit was hugely positive – lots of new connections were made, there were a-ha moments.

This is the first step in a long journey of collaboration between organisations. This summit is also helping to inform our climate change work program, which will be released in coming months.

As an agency, we are also supporting practical and targeted science that will improve outcomes for the Basin and its communities.

The $20 million investment in the Australian Government's Murray-Darling Water and Environment Program is working with a range of scientists and researchers from CSIRO, La Trobe University and other organisations to boost water management science.

There are 4 themes the research will focus on over the next 4 years - climate adaptation, hydrology, environmental outcomes and social, economic and cultural outcomes.

The program will deliver practical information for water managers including analysis of existing science for water managers and practical on-ground application of the science.

In closing, local government leaders like you are incredibly important.

You help your community navigate change, provide options and position them well for the future.

With a challenging reform like the Basin Plan we need a collaborative relationship with local government, and we need leadership right across the Basin. 

We are encouraged to see the Murray Darling Association working to help leaders in the Basin prosper. 

Thank you for having me today.


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