The Murray-Darling Basin scandal: economists have seen it coming for decades

9 July 2019

Image:  John via Flickr, CC2.0

A vast array of measures to manage the Murray Darling have come and gone, with irrigation lobby groups refusing to countenance the government buying water rights, Professor John Quiggin writes for The Conversation.

Nations behave wisely, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban observed five decades ago, “once they have exhausted all other alternatives”.

One can only hope that proves the case with water policy in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, the nation’s largest river system and agricultural heartland.

The ABC’s Four Corners program Cash Splash, aired last night, illustrates how thoroughly we are exhausting the options that don’t work to keep rivers being sucked dry by irrigators. Billions of dollars have been spent on infrastructure schemes that have failed to deliver any measurable improvement in water flows or the state of the environment.

This failure is no surprise to economists who have studied the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin for decades.

The central problem is well understood, as are the workable (and unworkable) possible responses.