“Darling. (Yes darling.) Nothing darling. Just darling, darling.” Crossing the mighty Darling River always reminds me of this little ditty deployed, back in the day, by punk rocker Ian Dury. This time, though, we’re just outside Louth, a hundred clicks west-south-west of Bourke, and as our ancient Land Cruiser lumbers across the old box-girder bridge it’s another voice that murmurs “as he died to make things holy, let us die to make things cheap”. Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker seeps from the sound-system like coal tar from a wound.
“Stop the truck,” I insist. I need a picture, for the mighty Darling is mighty no longer. It’s a dotted line, traversed by bare khaki dirt in several places. Less a chain of ponds, this poor dishevelled deity, than a chain of puddles.
I’d woken that morning rubbing my feet on the delicious soft roughness of plain cotton sheets, 30 bucks from Kmart. I mean, who knew Kmart could do anything without polyester and fluoro, right? Beside me, the tiny grandson gurgled happily in his new, pelican-pattern all-cotton Wondersuit, just $14 from Bonds.
But in a flash, on the bridge, I see the links. I applaud Kmart’s new venture into a kind of plainness approaching taste. It’s almost Quakerish, almost noble in its simplicity. Bonds is excelling itself in the design department and even Target makes a feature of “Pure Australian cotton”. That’s all great. But the cheapness is illusory. Because this right here is the cost. We’re buying this cotton with our river, our grandchildren’s future.
Which, I also see, is Cohen’s bitter satirical point. As he died to make things holy, let us die to make things cheap. A prophet makes the ultimate sacrifice hoping to bring humans to sacredness – to where they’re no longer driven to sacrifice other creatures but can instead sacrifice self, especially ego, for the wrathful gods. But humans, ever perverse, misuse this freedom, sacrificing entire ecosystems to the small idols of pleasure. Cheap nice things.
Perhaps it’s all obvious. The interconnectedness of everything is the environment movement’s core tenet. But still we mostly fail to join the dots. We deplore the river’s destruction without understanding our own part in it. We observe the war between farmers and greens without seeing that we are, every one of us, its footsoldiers. We feel the temptation of universal cheap goods as a right – a social justice issue – not a privilege. For poor worn mother Earth, this is a problem.
It’s almost 12 months since that astonishing ABC Four Corners report, Pumped. It alleged that, despite five years of the $13 billion Murray-Darling water-buyback plan that was meant to “fix” the river, “billions of litres of water purchased by Australian taxpayers to save Australia’s inland rivers are instead being harvested by some irrigators to boost cotton-growing operations”.
The program alleged widespread water-theft and meter-tampering. Cables unplugged, batteries removed, impellers disabled. Massive earthworks, tens of kilometres long, diverted water illegally. At least one senior civil servant was accused of colluding with irrigators and at least one farmer, said the ABC, “took at least 1 billion litres of water more than was permitted”. In fact, it reported, both legally and illegally, more water was being removed under the plan than before.
At first federal water minister Barnaby Joyce tried to ignore the scandal. Such was the public outrage, however, and the mountain of evidence, that he eventually ordered an interstate compliance review from the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
This review, completed in November, revealed that monitoring is staggeringly under-resourced. (NSW, with the most water licences and highest outtake, also has lowest vigilance, with one compliance officer for every 355 gigalitres of diverted water, compared with one per 56 gigalitres in SA). “Pumping must not occur without a meter,” noted the report. We wish.
It seems so basic. To measure flow and out-take is so fundamental to any kind of enforcement that most of us no doubt presumed metering was in place. We thought the plan – being so extraordinarily expensive – was a genuine exercise in river-rehab. We thought we could trust them with it. So not.
“COTTON’S TRIFECTA,” shouts the banner headline on a recent cover of The Land newspaper; “Yield, quality and price up as growers roll through picking.” Without a trace of irony the story declares: “While many other rural pursuits struggle with the drought, cotton is bathing in a glow, especially with prices tipping close to $600 a bale. The Macquarie Valley has seen a ‘phenomenal’ harvest.”
Well, terrific. Lovely to have the money, the jobs, the cheap quality cotton. But this success is based on all kinds of theft. There’s the illegal kind alleged by Four Corners and working its way through the courts, the kind that lax or no monitoring encourages. And then there’s the legal kind – the heist that is sanctioned by government, which has allocated so much of a precious resource to such a crop.
It’s not like these cotton farmers miraculously escape drought that cripples others. Indeed, even when taking water by the rules, they actively deepen the drought for others; for other farmers and for down-river communities like Wilcannia, where fish are dead and dry on the mud, and for other states. At the Murray mouth Coorong wetlands, migratory shore-birds are at their lowest recorded level and a centimetres-thick blanket of algae covers much of the surface. There’s also the river itself. How can forcing water-hungry crops from the driest continent really be a source of pride?
Surely we know by now to work with nature, rather than beating her into submission? Yes, jobs matter. But massive solar plants would use nature’s gifts to feed the future, rather than destroying them.
Perhaps, like New Zealand, we’ll have to give rivers the legal rights of a person. What’s that? You want cheap clothes? Oh darling, cry me river.