Neil Andrew AO has filled some key parliamentary roles since he became a Nuffield Scholar in 1975, but in many ways his current position as chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has brought him back to where his passion for stewardship of land and water began.
“I am fortunate to have been able to spend my life largely focused on the river, on the life it supports and on the fundamental role it plays in the social and economic life of our communities. Both as a citrus farmer on the River Murray near Waikerie in South Australia and as the federal member of parliament proudly representing the region in Canberra,” Neil explains.
“The centrality of the river in the lives of so many farmers across the Murray–Darling Basin underpins the need for us to all work together for the future sustainability of the Basin and its people.
“That’s not always easy—views about the future of our nation’s most important water resource can differ greatly from one end of the river system to the other.
“But the very thing that gave the Murray–Darling Basin Plan its impetus and brought everyone to the table is its great strength—the common desire, no matter where you are based, to secure the future for all 2.6 million people who live and work in the Basin and the industries that generate jobs and export dollars for Australia.
“Farmers know better than most just how much more is achieved through the cooperation and sharing of new ideas. A similar precious consensus has been achieved between state and commonwealth governments to recognise the needs of the environment on par with those of farmers. This needs to be respected.
“It is worth stressing that the hard-fought negotiations and agreements that delivered the Plan demand innovation and collaboration between all sectors. They insist that the Plan recognises new thinking and new information. It really does stretch everyone—farmers, environmental water managers, local people—to treat our water resources with care.
“Just as the Basin Plan asks farmers to do more with less water—about 20 per cent less—by providing $8 billion for infrastructure upgrades to improve water use efficiency, so the Plan requires that we manage water earmarked for the environment as efficiently and effectively as possible.
“The ability to flex and adapt to best practice as part of its full and proper implementation is reflected in an amendment to the Basin Plan due to be decided by the Australian Parliament in the next few weeks.
“The amendment would reduce the amount of water that needs to be recovered in the southern Basin, by allowing innovations in the way water is managed and delivered, based on projects led by the South Australian, Victorian and New South Wales governments. The MDBA is confident that the projects have the capacity to meet the Plan’s environmental targets, while keeping 605GL of water in productive use.
“The projects involve directing water onto the floodplains more often by increasing flows beyond the current river capacity or by piping water to high value areas. It’s about reconfiguring and changing the way the Menindee Lakes are managed to reduce evaporation and increase the reliability of low flows down the Darling River. The amendment will also facilitate changes to river operating rules to more effectively integrate environmental water delivery with river operations to enhance environmental outcomes. These, and other measures, amount to smarter and more collaborative ways of managing our water resources for everyone’s benefit.
“Community input will be essential as the state governments firm-up the development of these works and measures. The MDBA’s role is to provide an independent assessment of the environmental effectiveness of projects during their implementation, which the Basin Plan requires by 2024.
“It is important to stress that on the other side of the Basin Plan’s 605GL decrease in water recovery is the commitment to increase by up to 450GL the amount of water available for the environment. To deliver this water back into the rivers by 2024, all governments need to commit to further modernise water infrastructure on- and off-farm in ways that have neutral or positive social and economic outcomes.
“They are equally important components of the Plan and need to be delivered as intended. The MDBA is, as always, a fiercely independent statutory authority and one that I am proud to chair. We remain steadfastly committed to delivering a Basin Plan that secures a strong future for the Basin’s farming sector and the environment that it depends upon.”
Interview held April 2018