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Published: 20 March 2020   •   Opinion pieces

This past summer brings to life what living with our increasingly variable climate means for the average Australian. Fierce winds and extreme dust storms one minute, and hail and thunderstorms the next. A deluge in Collarenebri but hardly a drop in Weemelah just 100km away.

We live on the driest inhabited continent in the world and are used to droughts and flooding rains. But what we've seen in the Murray–Darling Basin over the past 20 years defies the long–term historical record. The eight hottest years since 1910 have all occurred in the last two decades and the five hottest years have occurred in the last seven years. Sixteen of the last 20 years have seen below–average winter rainfall, and this is the most critical time for inflows in the south, particularly for irrigators.

In other words, the Basin is already feeling the effects of a changing climate, against the backdrop of our naturally highly variable weather patterns.

This impact comes to life when you look at the reduction in inflows in the River Murray which have nearly halved from their 20th century average of 9,407 gigalitres per year to just 4,820 in the past 20 years.

Combined with high temperatures, less rainfall means less soil moisture content, less run–off into wetlands and rivers, and ultimately less water for communities, industries and the environment.

The MDBA is an independent, expert authority committed to ensuring we have accurate and up-to-date information about the Basin's water resources and dependent ecosystems. It's also our role to engage and educate the broader Australian community on these issues.

Working with data from the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, the MDBA is expecting to see increases in mean temperatures between 0.6 and 1.5°C higher than the long–term average. Combined with the reduction in rainfall and longer droughts, the amount of water in the Basin's rivers will be severely impacted.

This leaves the Basin's rivers subject to more frequent disconnection and water quality hazards, which impacts ecosystem and Basin community health and stability. These long–term effects will be interspersed with extreme short–term weather events, causing direct mortality and reducing habitats and resources. The mass fish deaths in the Menindee Lakes in 2019 and the ecological devastation caused by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20 are recent examples.

The stress of climate change is contributing to the effects of drought, technological change, the ageing population and other shifts impacting Basin economies. There is plenty of adaptation going on, but I know some communities are doing it tough. So much of our health and wellbeing is tied to healthy rivers and ecosystems, particularly for First Nations peoples. We've got to work together to find ways for industry and the environment to thrive so Basin communities can be sustainable and prosperous.

Less water in our Basin rivers means all water users must stay ahead of the adaptation curve. We have commissioned the CSIRO to do more climate research on the Basin. The results will be published in the middle of this year. The CSIRO is modelling possible climate scenarios in the northern and southern basin that we could face by 2050. This research will help us all better understand what changes are required to ensure we all have a sustainable future.

Australia's climate future will make the difficult job of managing the Basin's highly variable water resources even more challenging. All water users and managers need to roll their sleeves up and fast track their adaptive management so we're well prepared for a future with less water.

As the world marks World Water Day on Sunday 22 March, it's appropriate to reflect on the global nature of these challenges. If we're to navigate the current and future climate with the health of communities, industries and the environment intact, we need to acknowledge that we're all in this together. 

ENDS

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