Synod endorses action on Basin Plan
The Synod of New South Wales and the ACT on September 25 endorsed the action taken by the rural team of the Synod’s Board of Mission in response to the Murray Darling Basin Inquiry.
The team — consisting of Ross Neville, Consultant for Rural Evangelism and Mission, and rural chaplains Kel Hodge and Julie Greig — made submissions with recommendations concerning food sovereignty, local consultation and justice.
The Murray Darling Basin is considered the most significant agricultural area in Australia, spanning most of New South Wales, Victoria, and the ACT, and parts of Queensland and South Australia.
The basin has been under enormous stress as a result of past water-allocation decisions, prolonged drought, natural climate variability and emerging climate change.
As part of a process for resolving those problems, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority was given the task of producing a plan to ensure the water resources of the basin could be managed in an integrated and sustainable way.
In October 2010, the Authority released a document, officially titled the Guide to the Proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the first part of a three-stage process.
The plan aimed to restore flows to key environmental assets in the Murray-Darling Basin.
It set new limits for irrigators and other water users and established where more water was needed if the system was to survive.
Mr Neville told the 2011 Synod meeting of the community anger and angst about the plan.
He said there were 2.1 million people in the basin and another 1.2 million who used the basin’s water.
Proposed water cuts of 30 per cent would affect towns and irrigators including Canberra, Griffith, Leeton, Narrabri and Moree — particularly since the plan targeted rice and cotton growing areas.
There were public meetings and protest meetings. The extent and implications began to be realised and the size of the impact began to create fear and anxiety, he said.
Mr Neville said the plan did not recognise the impact of the recommendations on communities and rural shires.
Uniting Church presbyteries of Murray Darling and the Riverina saw the potential social impact as very significant and the impact on towns and congregations as potentially enormous.
They saw there could be significant injustice and social division.
Mr Neville said the church was well placed to speak for the interests of creation, food producers and communities.
The church’s rural team was given the opportunity to make submissions to two government inquiries into the plan: a Senate Standing Committee Inquiry and an inquiry conducted by the Parliamentary Committee for Regional Australia.
The latter inquiry, headed by Tony Windsor, was to help find a balance between healthy rivers, strong communities, and continued food production.
Mr Neville said in its first submission the group indicated it was gathering more extensive feedback through a survey.
Mr Neville, Mr Hodge and Ms Greig were then invited to appear before the Windsor Inquiry.
They circulated a discussion paper to over 150 locations and sent copies of a theologically-focused discussion paper to 120 presbyteries, groups and congregations.
The Windsor Inquiry then received a later submission based on some of the 100 responses.
The Uniting Church group made several recommendations:
Change needs to be made with real consultation and include local wisdom. Community consultation should occur to determine all sustainable diversion levels.
It is not possible to divorce communities from water use in the basin.
There needs to be a consensual process to help communities find new ways of being.
Change needs consensus and consultation if it is to produce the most effective outcomes.
Community assistance will be needed for consultation for planning and building new future possibilities. The plan must incorporate viable opportunities for communities to exist in new ways, using local knowledge of strengths specific to their own areas.
There has to be long-term certainty for those using the water, including irrigators and communities.
The levels of uncertainty must be urgently addressed because of the level of injustice that is occurring across the basin.
The whole Australian community, and not just those living in the basin area, needs to share “the pain” of fixing the problem.
The response to the water reform needed in the basin needs to be an Australia wide reform. Education on water use and its link with food production is needed across Australia.
Australia needs a long-term food policy
The government also needs to establish a long-term food sovereignty policy.