History of Major Droughts

In the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) since the late nineteenth century, droughts have been drivers of institutional change in the way water is shared and managed. The severe drought of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a powerful spur for federation in 1901, particularly for South Australia at the end of the River Murray system. Eventually it resulted in the River Murray Waters Agreement, ratified by the three southern state governments (New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia) and the national government, through identical parallel legislation in 1914/1915.

The drought of the early 1980s provided the stimulus for the MDB Agreement, which reflected increasing concern about the need for a whole- of-catchment perspective to take account of development pressures (Helman 2009). These were highlighted by the 1995 Water Audit, which revealed that because of the growth of extractions, upstream drought conditions at the Murray Mouth had increased in frequency from 5 to 63 percent of years.

The drought of the early 2000s was the most intense recorded, and it led to the national government takeover of MDB policy through its Water Act in 2007/ 2008. Research conducted during this period predicted that unregulated development pressures combined with climate change would result in further drastic reductions in flows. Climate predictions are for greater rainfall variability within a long-term drying trend. The need for coordinated holistic management to minimize and share increasing costs is now widely accepted. The main source of disagreement is about the underlying priorities that should shape the management framework (Connell 2007, 2011).

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