Dead in the water: a very angry book about our greatest environmental catastrophe … the death of the Murray–Darling Basin

Richard Beasley, Crows Nest, NSW, Allen and Unwin, 2021, 296 pages.

Many from outside of Australia may be puzzled as to why anyone would write ‘a very angry book’ about water reform in, of all places, Australia? A country that senior Australian public servants, scientists, consultants and politicians have widely and frequently proclaimed to be the ‘world’s best’ on their many business trips to Paris, London, Washington, Delhi and Beijing.

As we know from history, and even more recently in the time of Covid-19, a lie told and repeated often enough, and especially by those people in authority, is believed by many despite contrary facts. It is in this ‘post-truth water world’ that Richard Beasley, a Senior Counsel and author of five other books, delivers a truthful rendering of the facts about Australian water reform.

Before turning to the book, we need to review how the myth of Australia as the world’s best began. This reputation appears to be founded, in part, on some very well-crafted ‘water words’, called the 2004 National Water Initiative (NWI) in the middle of a decade-long drought that ended in 2010. The NWI was an intergovernmental agreement that required its government signatories to deliver on a series of commitments. It was a worthy initiative and would have been a huge step forward if it had been delivered in full. Among the commitments by Australian governments in the NWI was an agreement, within 10 years, to ensure a sustainable level of water extractions.

By 2007, and with a worsening drought, it was clear to everyone that the NWI objective of sustainable extractions of water would not be delivered. As a game changer, Prime Minister John Howard announced in January 2007 that his government would spend A$10,000 million (or A$10 billion) over 10 years to deliver a ‘National Plan for Water Security’. In his 2007 speech announcing the National Plan, he stated: ‘All parties must recognise that the old way of managing the Murray–Darling Basin has reached its use-by date. The tyranny of incrementalism and the lowest common denominator must end.’ Sadly, his vison, has still not been realized.

R. Quentin Grafton
Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

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