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Denial in the Murray-Darling


Philip White thinks the drinks business needs a sober digestion of the Wentworth Group’s devastating analysis of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

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Denial. People who deny the climate is changing because we made a mess. People who deny the Great Barrier Reef’s in deep shit. People who deny that coal is dirty black rotten dead stuff. And people who deny the Murray-Darling Basin’s still a dirty great big catastrophe in equally dire straits.

We’re gonna die of dire denial. While the fleapit’s pumped with totemic polemic, our prescience is dying of nescience.

I could rap this.

Only a month or so back, science professor Richard Kingsford of the NSW Centre for Ecosystem Science released a report in which his team had trawled three decades of scientific bird-counting research to show that Murray-Darling Basin waterbird populations have plunged 70 per cent in that time: a direct result of reduced water flow.

Nobody said much. Maybe there was a baa from the Deputy Prime Minister, the coal fiend chook-lovin’ Barnaby Joyce. And now we have Five actions necessary to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan ‘in full and on time’  – another devastating report, this time from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

Former National Wine Centre boss, and Barnaby’s off-sider, the Riverland rose irrigator Senator Anne Ruston, made an early break toward the microphones. I couldn’t work out how she’d managed to digest this sombre and brilliant document in such a brief timeframe but she sure shot down one or two of its sentences. Feathers everywhere.

Apart from that summary execution there’s not been much from anybody in the wine business, or indeed the beverages business, which would do well to cross this vast inland reality barrier with some honest intelligence.

How much longer will we tolerate such an unsatisfactory rarity being a critical gastronomic essential?

The report is a calm, crisp, elegant document, as you’d expect of these great brains. Without actually naming the operatives, it addresses issues this writer has reported constantly over the last 40 years of watching people – men, mainly – working out ways of turning water into ethanol and selling it as a lucrative beverage without going to jail.

“The National Water Initiative in 2004 was one of the most significant agreements in our nation’s history,” the document starts, “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore the health of Australia’s river systems in a way that promotes economic prosperity while using less water …

“Thirteen years after … and five years since the Basin Plan came into force, there has been progress … Two thirds of the 3200 GL has been recovered, and just over half of the $13 billion spent.

“Whilst individual irrigators have benefited from the buyback of water, less than one per cent of the $13 billion has been made available to assist communities adapt to a future with less water.

“Without substantial changes, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will fail. Thirteen billion dollars of taxpayers money will be spent, communities will be hurt, industries will face ongoing uncertainty, and the river systems will continue to degrade.”

Rather than blast away after the manner of Senator Ruston, those who use the Murray-Darling to make drinks from its water might get themselves organised with some impressive science of their own. Like research: your actual visionary pre-emptive planning. Get all this summarised. Then they could more admirably respond to the Wentworth eminences’ call for better intelligence.

Then we can talk.

But we’re going to have to tolerate a sort of naive but determined honesty in this pursuit. An atypical honesty.

Divide beverages made in the Basin into fat ones and sugar ones.

The fat drinks are white mainly and come from irrigated cows.

The sugar ones involve fruit. They’re coloured and fall into two categories: sustenance and intoxication.

White fat drinks. Somebody’s gotta work out how many tonnes of fat Australia actually requires.

There are already figures available relating the fat we carry to the public health and fitness bill it incurs. Work all this out realistically. If we really need this fat, then what’s the most efficient and enjoyable way of getting it into us? Maybe we don’t need to irrigate cattle just so we can stay obese drinking the stuff that comes out of their teats. Why haven’t we weaned?

What’s the way of growing the best fat that uses the least amount of water? I’d like to know.

Coloured sugar drinks without intoxicants? Juices and whatnot? Just like that stack of fat we measured, somebody should get an idea of how much sugar we realistically require and what sort it should be. Maybe we should grow it in cane or something in the tropics where your actual rain is not such a precious scarcity and you don’t need pipes?

Of course there’s the matter of sustenance here: the goodness in the bevvy: minerals, vitamins, terpenes, fibre: what exactly are they, and what sized stack of them do we have to make? What’s the most conservative manner of procuring this stuff? Who’s gonna monitor the public health bill to make sure this all works?

Coloured sugar drinks with intoxicants? Here we go. What somebody, maybe Senator Ruston, could do, is investigate exactly how much intoxicant Australia needs to keep everybody working without the human repair costs going too ballistic or society hitting the shellgrit like it did when London discovered gin in William Hogarth’s day.

Like, you gotta keep ’em working, and you gotta be able to raise an army, but you want also to keep them all humming and buying roses without coming up the street after you with pitchforks.

So exactly how much alcohol do we tip into each man, woman and child? How far can the community bladder stretch?

Stand back. How much water did we take out of our Basin, our breadbasket, to manufacture this ethanol? Are there more efficient ways of producing it? Like turn to the tropics again? Give the Basin a break?

Would cannabinoids be safer, cheaper, and use less water?

Oh yes, before I go we should probably address the community’s rehydration requirements. Like water: how much should we drink? Can’t we get that from the desal plant? How much longer will we tolerate such an unsatisfactory rarity being a critical gastronomic essential? Can’t we powder it?

PS: While this report is of course a scientific document, it does admit praise for the foresight of Prime Minister John Howard, in pithy contrast to the very short shrift if affords Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s promise of carp herpes.

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