Moderator sounds out Riverina water concerns

Moderator sounds out Riverina water concerns

The Moderator, the Rev. Dr Brian Brown, has told Synod Standing Committee that many people consulted during a recent visit to the Riverina wanted the church to advocate on their behalf to bring about an official change of heart in order to allow their communities to survive and thrive.

Dr Brown visited south-western New South Walesin January to hear local responses to the revised Murray Darling Basin Plan.

He told Standing Committee, meeting in Sydney last month, that in mid-December 2011 he was alerted that people in the Riverina were asking if the church was concerned about what was happening to them and if the church would be making any response to the revised plan.

After making contact with Rural Chaplain Julie Greig, Dr Brown decided to visit the region as soon as possible to listen to what people were saying and offer the pastoral support of the Synod.

From January 5 to 9 he travelled from Coleambally to Griffith and Hillston, traversing the major irrigation areas of the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Lachlan Rivers.

Dr Brown, his wife Helen and Ms Grieg visited irrigated dairy, cotton, rice and vegetable farms and an orange orchard and vineyard.

Forums were held for about two hours in the evenings at each centre, including a cross-section of local church people, farmer/irrigators, civic officials, school-teachers and traders.

The forums recalled the Uniting Church submission — based on a survey sent to 140 congregations and four presbyteries — presented to the Murray Darling Basin Authority inquiry held by the Hon. Tony Windsor.

This submission had called on all levels of government to place high priority on the social justice issues associated with the use of water in the Murray Darling Basin with special reference to:

  • a consensual process to help communities find a new way of being;
  • change based on consultation and respecting of local wisdom;
  • providing long-term certainty for water users; and
  • the whole Australian community sharing the pain of fixing the problem.

The forums saw consistently high levels of anger toward the Federal Government.

Dr Brown said the most cynical view was that the plan was purely a bid to buy green votes in the major cities.

It was repeatedly stated that the “Sydney cousins” did not understand the situation. Many said that government officials had consulted with them but the revised plan showed no evidence that they had been heard.

People attributed their high degree of anger and anxiety to the fact that they had only just come out of the great difficulties of a prolonged drought, only to be hit with what they called a government-imposed drought.

For many, resilience had been weakened by the first drought along with losses of material resources. There was strong fear that community health would suffer, with high risk factors for depression, violence, alcoholism and suicide.

“We were told over and over again how the uncertainty of the proposed water cuts was already affecting the wellbeing of local towns and communities with falls in real estate prices and enrolments at schools as indicators of declining community morale.”

Most felt that the cut in water allocations proposed in the revised plan (2,750 gigalitres) was unrealistic and unnecessary.

They thought that the wetlands did not need to be flooded as regularly as the environmental scientists decreed and over-bank flooding was wasteful compared with perhaps pumping or channelling environmental flows into the wetland areas.

The irrigators were adamant that they had made huge efficiency gains over the last few decades and were already making do with less water than they really needed.

The argument was consistently made that periods of drought and flood were natural to the area and that the rivers had dried to a series of pools a number of times since farming began, but the natural environment had always recovered when good rains finally came.

Dr Brown said there was consistent criticism of the government’s “voluntary buy back scheme” of water allocations. Many were forced by economic circumstances to sell their water entitlements and the cost of running the irrigation systems was falling on a reduced number of irrigators.

He said two things stood out:

  • the high level of fear of the loss of livelihood and community threatened by the MDBA proposal;
  • the sense of injustice felt by the members of the Murray Darling Basin irrigation communities regarding the sacrifices they were being asked to make to ensure sufficient environmental flows in the rivers.

The main social justice and pastoral issues identified by Dr Brown and Ms Greig were:

  • the fair sharing of water resources between the environment, agriculture and local communities, recognising that a healthy human environment was dependant on a healthy natural environment and that  the human communities in the basin required reasonable water resources to survive and thrive;
  • accurate detailed research to assess the impact on the environment, agriculture and local communities of proposed changes to water allocations in the basin;
  • respectful interaction between government authorities and communities that values the dignity of people and includes them and their input in the search for appropriate solutions;
  • the fostering of better understanding between urban and rural dwellers;
  • a fair sharing of the costs with the rest of the Australian community if and when local communities are required to make sacrifices as a result of reduced water allocations.

Dr Brown was also aware of scientists who considered the latest plan flawed; who thought it would lead to ongoing degradation and ongoing uncertainty for communities; who sought a genuine reform of industry that would create a healthy working Murray-Darling Basin while respecting local knowledge and the capacity of communities heavily reliant on irrigated agriculture.

A related issue was how the Synod supported its church communities in the affected areas.

Dr Brown said the burden of ministry was falling on relatively few (usually lay) people and one rural chaplain at the very time when strong congregations were needed to support their communities.

Some congregations were experiencing the same problems as the community in general, with diminishing resources in the struggle for survival. On the other hand, he had observed some vibrant congregations such as the multicultural community at Griffith and vital, growing involvement in mission, such as at Hillston.

“These situations remind us to see the positives in an otherwise difficult situation and to celebrate the working of God’s Spirit in situations of joy as well as struggle.”

Dr Brown said many people were genuinely distressed by their circumstances and that the church must, at the very least, give strong consideration to how it could be pastorally caring of them.

Standing Committee received and discussed the report. The Moderator will endeavour to consult with interested parties — Indigenous, government, environmental, scientific, farmers, church and community — so they can share concerns and in conversation address pastoral, ethical and social justice issues arising from the revised plan.

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