Blaming the Rain: Who Is Responsible for the Murray-Darling River Crisis?

Liberty Lawson wades into the political circus surrounding the Darling River fish kill, and asks why we are so focussed on short-term culpability, rather than the deeper issues of which the Menindee fish are merely a symptom.

The Darling River, images via Shutterstock. ID: 1049962949
The Darling River, images via Shutterstock. ID: 1049962949

As the biggest river system in Australia, the Murray-Darling, much like the Great Barrier Reef, has long been a political battleground as much as an ecological resource. The collision of state and federal politics, industry stakeholders and ecological significance in these regions has meant that urgent ecological issues are vulnerable to being wielded as political tools by governments seeking short-term leverage.

Over the past week, Menindee, a small southwestern NSW town on the Darling River has been the epicentre of a media fire-storm following the sudden mass death of over a million fish. Ultimately, there are a host of complex and compounding influences, ranging from historical mismanagement and overdevelopment, to the drought currently being endured by the region, and yet, instead of a public re-evaluation of unsustainable practices and a commitment to long-term collaboration between states, Australians are witnessing a political witch-hunt demanding an easy answer.

Hypoxic waters and algal blooms

The most common cause of mass fish die-offs is low oxygen saturation in the water. Menindee, which has been experiencing a drought for the past eighteen months, reached a blistering 46.2 degrees last week, and the warm weather fuelled toxic blooms of blue-green algae which suck oxygen from the water. As the temperature dropped to a low of 16 degrees just days later, the algae began dying off, decomposing and further depleting oxygen levels as well as releasing toxins into the waterways.

Droughts and dams

The drought has essentially halted water flow for over a year, and while stringent conditions for water usage have been enforced, regulation in itself can further contribute to the problem of low oxygen. Dams and artificial water stores are often deficient in oxygen, and when they are suddenly released into natural waterways after a short rainfall, the sudden drop in dissolved oxygen can suffocate fish.

Despite the lack of rain further north, many are calling the river’s over-all state a “man-made disaster” and a symptom of mismanagement. The CSIRO said increased river regulation and restricted flows over past decades had seen the number of algal blooms increase in the Murray-Darling Basin, and Professor Richard Kingsford, the director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the UNSW, said the kill was a disaster that had been many years in the making because too much water had been diverted from the system for agriculture. “Droughts would have contributed to the blue green algae outbreak,” he said. “But the river droughts are happening more often and they’re more intense as a result of the irrigation industry in the Darling diverting water from the river over the last ten to twenty years”, a period spanning management of state and federal governments and both major parties.

Industry and compliance

Management of irrigation is only effective alongside industry and local compliance. The region has a long history of unstable development, and today, stringent management plans have been introduced. However, Caren Martin, Chair of South Australian Murray Irrigators says that while South Australia regularly abides by commitments, every year, NSW and QLD governments argue their way out. The cotton industry has also been singled out as contributing significantly to the water shortage. Cotton Australia responded that their industry was suffering as much as anyone else, with crop production down by fifty percent this season – a number which has still been fiercely criticised.

Additionally, processes such as “flood harvesting” mean that far more water could be available than is currently accounted for in the Basin Plan. Professor Kingsford says that “runaway developments on the floodplains of the Darling River Basin, mainly to grow cotton, where irrigators are able to capture and store flows” are ultimately undermining the investments and goals of the Basin Plan, because “we don’t have a good idea of how much water is being diverted […] Some audits show up to fifty percent of water isn’t metered in NSW”.

Mismanagement of the Basin Plan  

According to the Australia Institute, and many others, including Menindee locals, this “preventable environmental catastrophe” is merely a symptom of the “failing” $13 billion Murray Darling River Basin Plan. Maryanne Slattery, senior water researcher at the Institute, said that cod over 80 years old have survived several droughts and algal blooms in the past. Local residents like Graeme McCrabb agreed that “there’s not anyone on the Darling who would say it’s in a better shape than before it started [in 2012]”.

“The Darling River is going into cardiac arrest and both the [federal and NSW] governments are asleep at the wheel of the ambulance,” said South Australian Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick, who voiced the opinions of many locals when he accused the state and federal governments of failing to meet the “basic needs” of local people and livestock by holding water in nearby dams instead of letting it flow down the river systems, and pandering to the NSW cotton industry instead of prioritising the residents and wildlife of Menindee Lakes.

Holding our ecosystems hostage

Scale compounds the problem, meaning that direct solutions like artificially aerating the river are logistical impossibilities, and besides, short-term local maintenance misses the larger and more systemic point. As with coral bleaching, fish kills are only indicative of deeper and more widespread issues, of unstable agricultural practices, greed, negligence and prioritisation of short-term development over long-term sustainability.

Politicians caught in the crossfire, like NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair, have hooked onto the idea that the fish kill is technically a ‘natural event’, and settled on the self-gratifying stance that the only answer will be rain. Meanwhile, the Greens are calling for a Royal Commission into the mismanagement of the area.

Largely left out of the debate, the Menindee locals are still left in drought, with hundreds of tonnes of dead fish fringing their empty waterways. With no end to the drought in sight and more heatwaves on the horizon, experts are predicting more fish kills to come. It seems unlikely that any specific “cause” will be revealed, so what exactly is going to change, even if a scapegoat is found? It seems clear that this is no way to manage such a precious ecosystem, and with the Darling’s future only looking hotter and drier, the political circus about its short-term management can only serve as a distraction for the harder, far more complex threats that the country, and the planet, is facing.


Liberty Lawson is the Content Editor and Knowledge Translation Officer at the Sydney Environment Institute. She is the creative director of Holographia, an interdisciplinary journal which explores and celebrates the intersection of art, science and philosophy, and she is currently completing an interdisciplinary PhD at the University of Sydney.