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This guide will help you understand why improving the health of the rivers in the Murray–Darling Basin is important and what will happen if their health declines. It will also help you understand why competing needs for water must be balanced to build a sustainable future for the river system and the communities who rely on it.

Reading time: 11 mins

Learn

  • Why healthy rivers are important

  • Who relies on water from the Basin rivers

  • How water shortages affect those who rely on the river system

  • Why the rivers are under pressure

  • How the Basin Plan aims to improve the health of the river system

Healthy rivers support people, plants and animals

The Murray–Darling Basin is Australia’s largest river system. Healthy rivers are important not just to the Basin, but to the whole country.

Healthy rivers support people, plants and animals.

  • Communities rely on safe, good-quality water from Basin rivers for drinking and other daily activities.
  • The Basin supports 9,200 irrigated agriculture businesses. Farmers need water to produce the crops that feed Australians and help our economy.
  • Agriculture in the Basin contributes to $24 billion to Australia’s economy.
  • Swimming, fishing, boating and other recreational water activities are only possible in clean, safe water.
  • First Nations people’s connection to Country relies on water to maintain traditional practices.
  • The plants and animals that live in the Basin’s unique ecosystems depend on water to survive.
  • The Murray–Darling Basin crosses four states and one territory, spanning 77,000 million kilometres of rivers, many of which are connected.
  • The Murray–Darling Basin is home to 2.2 million people.

Who relies on water and what happens if they don’t get enough

Water is needed for farming, communities, Indigenous cultural practices, and plants and animals.

Farming

40% of all Australian farms are in the basin.

Food grown in the Basin feeds Australia and the world. The production of food and fibre contributes significantly to Australia’s economy, with much of this produce exported to other countries.

  • The Basin supports 9,200 irrigated agriculture businesses.
  • The Basin produces $24 billion worth of food and fibre every year.
  • 40% of all Australian farms are in the Basin.

Agriculture requires access to a lot of water. If work isn’t done to improve the Basin’s health, the supply of water for irrigation will be at risk, which will threaten the many jobs, businesses and communities that the farming industry creates and supports.

When farmers don’t get water

  • Permanent crops die. Farmers with crops that need to grow for many years before they can be harvested, like wine grapes, fruit trees or nuts, will see their crops die or lose years of growth.
  • Farmers lose their harvest. Farmers with seasonal crops that are replanted annually, like peas, hay or cotton, won’t see their plants survive until harvest.

The Basin produces $24 billion worth of food and fibre every year.

Another year without water means we’ll have to sell the farm. We’ve been here for three generations, so it’s heartbreaking

Communities

More than three million people living in and around the Basin rely on water from the river system.

Clean, safe water is essential for human health. Good-quality water is important for communities in the Basin in other ways too.

  • Clean drinking water is essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights, according to the UN.
  • Businesses such as cafes and restaurants, pubs, offices, schools and universities in the Basin all use water from the river system.
  • For many, enjoying the beauty of local waterways is one of the best things about living in the Basin. People enjoy activities such as swimming, fishing and kayaking.
  • Tourists spend $8 billion in the Basin every year. They come to enjoy the beauty of the rivers, lakes and their surroundings as well as activities such as boating and fishing.

When communities don’t get water

  • People’s health is at risk. Water out of the tap might not be safe to drink, cook with or wash in. It might need to be boiled before it’s used.
  • People, businesses and organisations have to pay for water when it is trucked in. They have to ration it carefully so they don’t run out before the trucks return.
  • Businesses lose money. When the rivers and lakes start to dry up and water quality decreases, tourists stop coming. Many small businesses that rely on tourists, such as tackle-shop owners, riverboat tour operators and restaurant owners, lose money. This damages the local economy.
  • The environment people enjoy is degraded.

Over 2.2 million people call the Murray–Darling Basin home

Image of communities of the Basin

The river is the playground for our family … the river is the first and last thing we see each day

First Nations people

Around 75,000 Aboriginal people from more than 40 different First Nations live in the Murray–Darling Basin. Water plays a key role in their wellbeing and identity and in keeping aspects of Aboriginal culture alive. Water plays a key role in their wellbeing and identity and in keeping aspects of Aboriginal culture alive.

As well as being affected by the same issues as non-Indigenous people in Basin communities, people from the 40 First Nations in the area have a unique connection to Murray–Darling waterways. Water plays an important part in some Indigenous cultural traditions and helps maintain a connection with Country.

  • First Nations people have lived in what we now call the Murray–Darling Basin for over 50,000 years. Their way of life is interwoven with the rivers and tributaries that run through those regions.
  • The Basin contains many sacred and spiritually significant sites. Clean water is needed to maintain these sites.
  • Traditional activities like fishing, hunting, ceremonies and harvesting medicinal plants and herbs rely on clean water.
  • Water also helps preserve and protect important sites such as burial mounds, campsites and scarred or carved trees whose bark was used to make tools and record Indigenous history.

When First Nations sites don’t get water

When there isn’t enough water flowing through important areas, First Nations people lose their connection with Country in many ways.

  • Passing down history, teachings and traditions to younger generations becomes difficult when sacred sites are degraded.
  • Hunting and fishing in and around the river, which is traditionally a source of food, becomes difficult or impossible.

Water is sacred, deep and necessary for survival. It is protected by Lore, which provides a system of sustainable management ensuring healthy people

The environment

Although it spans a vast area, the Basin is a single, interconnected system. When parts are starved of water and begin to die, this has serious consequences not just for the environment, plants and animals, but also for the communities and industries that rely on healthy water.

The Basin contains a variety of unique and delicate ecosystems with plants and animals that aren't found anywhere else in the world. This includes 120 waterbird species, more than 50 native fish species, and 16 internationally recognised and protected wetlands.

Each ecosystem is important to the health of the Basin as a whole.

  • Forests help to keep the whole river system healthy. Tree roots hold the banks of the river together, stopping erosion and allowing the river to flow and function as it should.
  • Wetlands help with water quality. When water from rivers overflows, wetland plants absorb excess nitrogen and phosphorous, preventing these chemicals from poisoning fish and damaging crops.

Reed Beds Swamp

When the environment doesn’t get enough water

Without water, plants and animals in many ecosystems will die.

  • Fish deaths become more likely. Less water means algal blooms and blackwater events are more likely. Less water also means the concentration of salt and toxic chemicals increases.
  • Wetlands die without water. Areas that are unique to Australia, including those that are internationally recognised for their diversity and uniqueness, dry out.
  • Bird and fish can’t breed as their breeding habitats dry out.

When the environment suffers, people suffer too.

  • Too much salt in the water can make water too salty for drinking or watering crops, and can poison the land.
  • When toxic chemicals enter the river system because of acid sulfate soils the water isn’t safe for drinking, irrigation or recreation.
  • Algal blooms can be toxic to people as well as plants and animals.

Rivers die from the bottom up. If the Southern Basin is unhealthy, you know there’ll soon be problems up north

Section 3 of 3

The rivers of the Murray–Darling Basin are under pressure

Changes in the way land and water are used mean that the rivers, lakes and dams in the Basin are under a lot of pressure.

More water is being taken from the river system than ever before. The system has to sustain towns, farms and communities, as well as meeting the cultural and spiritual needs of First Nations people, for whom water is deeply embedded into many traditions and spiritual practices.

At the same time, climate change, drought and other extreme weather events have decreased the amount of water naturally entering the system.

Mountain Creek Namadgi

Water in the Basin has to do a lot of work

As it flows through the Murray–Darling Basin, water does many different jobs. It sustains plants and animals, communities, and industries like agriculture and tourism.

  • Water from the rivers of the Basin has transformed dry land into productive farmlands that contribute $24 billion to the Australian economy every year.
  • The rivers, lakes and dams in the Basin provide water for living and drinking to the 2.2 million people living in the Basin, as well as more than a million people in Adelaide.
  • The Basin's rivers support unique Australian habitats including 16 internationally recognised and protected wetlands. These environments are critical to the survival of more than 120 waterbird species and more than 50 native fish species.

When there isn’t enough water, the health of the whole system suffers. When water levels fall, water quality also gets worse. Salt and acid come into the water from the soil, making rivers and lakes unhealthy for plants and animals, and water dangerous for drinking, swimming and farming.

Why the Basin Plan was created

The Millennium drought, combined with increasing water needs, resulted in major damage to the Murray–Darling system. The Basin Plan was developed as a response to this.

The aim of the Basin Plan is to ensure that water is shared between all users, including the environment, in a sustainable way.

During the Millennium drought, parts of the Basin dried up and the mouth of the Murray closed, meaning water didn't flow out to sea. The whole Basin system felt the impact of the drought, which devastated communities, industries and the environment.

  • The water supply to Adelaide was threatened.
  • Water was severely restricted to almost 4,000 irrigators in South Australia, impacting businesses and agriculture.
  • 33 wetlands did not receive water, risking long term damage to their ecosystems.
  • As the lower lakes dried up, acidic soils were exposed, damaging the quality of the water that was left in the river.

The Basin Plan sets out rules to make sure enough water remains in the river system to protect its health, especially in times of drought. Limits were set on the amount of water that can be taken from the river, and the government began buying back water from irrigators in order to put more water towards the environment.

We must find a way to balance how we share water between people and the environment, otherwise the river will be no use to anybody

How the MDBA is improving the health of the rivers

The Basin Plan is the river system’s safeguard. It prevents too much water being taken from the plants and animals that need it and is designed to improve the Basin’s long-term health.

Basin governments work together to implement the Plan so that the rivers of the Basin are managed carefully for future generations.