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The management of the Murray-Darling Basin is coming under increasing fire due to climate change

Photograph : Rob Gregory

The extreme heat wave that has hit Australia since December 2018  caused the death of a million fish in the Murray-Darling basin at the beginning of the year. The increase in the water temperature, combined with the fall in river water levels, triggered the proliferation of an algae that deprived the fish of oxygen. According to the conclusions of the Royal Commission on the Murray-Darling Basin, another factor involved in this ecological disaster was the poor management of water resources.

Scientists are blowing the whistle

Photograph : Dean Lewis

For scientists, the situation of the Murray-Darling Basin was already dire and the outlook poor: The Australian Academy of Sciences showed that the temperature in the basin had increased by about 1°C since 1910 and that the trend was rising in the northern part, to reach a new increase of from 1 to 2°C during the next three years.

Wetlands are affected by these long droughts and by the increasing scarcity of water. There is not enough water flowing in the basin and scientists are blaming excessive withdrawals of water for irrigation rather than for the environment.

The Murray-Darling Basin management plan comes under criticisism

The survey carried out by the Royal Commission on the Murray-Darling Basin  and published at the end of January confirmed these criticisms and strongly accused the Basin Management Authority of “poor administration, “gross negligence” and “illegal actions”. In particular, the Authority had failed to take into account scientific predictions relating to climate change and the variability of the subsequent river flows to determine the volumes of withdrawals. The investigation demands a total revision of the Basin Management Plan, which was not to have been re-examined until 2026. The stakes are high in this basin covering more than a million square kilometres, a very important agricultural region and a large population. The report declared that “The rainfall regimes are undergoing change and these changes are increasing pressure on the health of the basin’s environment, its communities and its economy”.

The authority responsible for the Murray-Darling Basin reacted by undertaking to improve its scientific works on climate change and the impacts of the latter on the hydrographic system. It intends to call on the scientific community, the knowledge of indigenous peoples, and other stakeholders, to build a more sustainable plan. In Australia, the governance of water is more than ever faced by the impacts of climate change.

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