The destruction of a great river system

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If there were ever a case for a planned economy, it’s unfolding in Australia, the planet’s driest inhabited continent. Agriculture is in crisis in the Murray-Darling basin, one of the world’s largest river systems. A third of the country’s food is produced along the banks of the Murray River and its tributaries, chief among them the Darling.

The 20-plus rivers are the life flow of a vast arid plain in the country’s southeast, one seventh of Australia’s landmass. The Murray once emptied into the Southern (or Indian) Ocean. Now miles of its lower reaches lie below sea level, drying up and slowly stagnating into a toxic, acidic sludge that burns the skin.

Global warming has reduced rainfall, so that even where farming is possible, it is with shrinking supplies of stored water. Towns will be abandoned and thousands of jobs have already been lost. Australia has been the world’s second-largest exporter of wheat and a significant rice exporter. But this trade has nose-dived because of the water crisis.

The mismanagement of water in this country is one factor in the recent huge global increases in staple food prices. Wheat prices have increased by nearly 40 percent this year and rice costs have more than trebled in just three months, leading to food riots across Africa and Asia. In the U.S., warehouse grocers Costco and Sam’s Club are limiting rice sales, and in Egypt the government is handing out food ration cards.

In a global marketplace, the destruction of the Murray-Darling system reverberates in the bazaars of North Africa and the shopping malls of Main Street, USA.

Unnatural disaster. The crisis affecting the basin is the result of government policies propping up agribusiness. Despite clear scientific evidence of environmental risks as far back as the 1920s, the basin’s waters were diverted to grow water-intensive rice and cotton in the desert.

Construction of a network of dams and other stream barriers made this possible. No provision was made to limit evaporation. Unregulated wells took the groundwater as well, while leakage from irrigation channels raised the water table, bringing salt to the surface.

This summer, in a huge arc stretching from the east to the west coast, the monsoon caused vast floods, filling empty dams and creating temporary inland seas. But diversion of stream flows, both legal and illegal, means that not one drop of this rain will reach the lower stretches of the river system.

In early April winds from a violent storm battered the southern city of Melbourne, leaving 450,000 houses without power. No rain came with the storm. The drying of the south of Australia, flooding in the north, greater weather violence: exactly as predicted by climate change modelling. This is what global warming looks like.

One proposal to stop the acidification of the lower Murray is to lower the barriers at the river mouth and flood the lower lakes with clean seawater. But this would kill the freshwater ecosystems all the way back to where the river is dammed above sea level, nearly 200 miles upstream. Adelaide, Australia’s fourth-largest city, would lose its water supply. It’s a half-baked, desperate idea.

The ecological answer is plain. The dams that have turned the Murray and the Darling into a series of pools right up to their sources should be opened, flushing the rivers with fresh water. Other problems, like decreased rainfall and the effects of increasingly massive bushfires on water supply, might mean the rivers still flow feebly. But they would reach the sea.

This, however, would badly disrupt the tourist industry, which relies on the deep water pooled behind the dams. Displaced workers and small businesses would need help to relocate. Yet, the point is, on a dead river there is no economy — period.

More of the same. Australia’s recently elected Labor Party government says it will create “sustainable” farming in the basin. Parts of its plan are sensible; for example, turning thousands of open canals into covered pipes, preventing evaporation.

But policymakers skip some important questions. What type of agriculture can be reliably managed in the parched southeastern inland? What does the water crisis tell us about what methods should be used? And why should taxpayers foot the bill for solving the crisis? Rehabilitation of the rivers, however crucial, should not turn into yet another corporate welfare scheme!

Climate change means that the total environmental effects of agriculture need to be taken into account. The Murray-Darling region was once covered with millions of drought-tolerant trees, which kept the salt deep in the ground and removed untold tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air. The removal of the forests (often by burning), distances to markets and ports, construction and maintenance of dams and canals, energy use for irrigation: all of these factors have contributed significantly to global warming.

No easy way out. At its heart this water crisis is a failure of capitalism to understand, respect, and interact sensibly with nature. The dry-land river system is in its current predicament because short-term gain prevailed over ecological consequence.

It is not necessary to argue that the CEOs intended to kill one of Earth’s great, complex ecosystems. It’s just that capitalism’s intrinsic methods of operation — chaotic, unplanned, competitive, profit-driven, and individualistic — are polar opposites of those required for environmental stewardship.

That’s why a collective, socialist approach to living on our planet is necessary. Humanity has the technical means to provide every person on the globe with safe drinking water, good nutrition and a decent place to sleep. But that does not mean the concrete problems disappear the moment capitalism is tossed over. There has been a lot of damage to our only home.

What’s clear is that the problems will never disappear unless capitalism is tossed over. Our civilisations and our planet are in grave jeopardy unless we act now, collectively and decisively. Any solution that ignores this is no solution at all.

If you disagree with that, consider this: the terrible tragedy that has hit Myanmar has further depleted planetary rice stocks. People in other countries will go hungry because the markets have just hiked prices by 10 percent.

But, in a planned world economy, food would go where it’s needed. Shortfalls caused by disasters could be made good, in part, by plentiful supplies from Australia — grown sustainably in the water-rich tropical north.  

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