“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





07 September 2018


Barnaby Joyce, disgraced former Deputy Prime Minister and deposed Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation, now "special drought envoy" to the Jesus-driven Morrison.

The Paradox of Irrigation Efficiency: new science says we've got it all wrong
by PHILIP WHITE - this was first published on Indaily on August 30 ... 
since then our new Prime Minister has urged us to pray for rain 

"You gotta remember the rainfall of Tamworth is about the annual rainfall of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia," former Senator Barnaby Joyce announced. 

"The gum trees are dying." 

Disgraced and out on his bum just months ago, the former Deputy Prime Minister and erstwhile Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources was hard at it on Radio National's Breakfast. After the destructive chaos of last week in Canberra, the former Deputy Prime Minister finds himself partly re-appointed as "drought envoy".   

Joyce wasted no time bulldozing back into very complex Murray-Darling Basin irrigation issues, suggesting water set aside to keep the river and the countryside alive should instead be diverted to drought assistance. 

"If you have a bushfire they don't knock on your door and say 'Can I borrow your bulldozer?' " Joyce told announcer Fran Kelly. "They just take it because it's a national emergency ... now this as far as I'm concerned is a national emergency ... we have billions of dollars of environmental water going past the irrigation properties that could grow the fodder to keep the cattle alive." 

Nobody doubts that these are profound issues which demand address: Australia is a very big dry old continent with a booming population that depends largely on that Murray-Darling Basin for food, fodder, fibre, milk and, er, wine. 

Next morning, Professor Richard Kingsford, the Director of Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales gave Breakfast another angle. "It's currently not legal to do that," he said of Joyce's suggestion.

"The water act would need to be changed  ... to give you some idea we've got about ten Sydney harbours of water sitting in storage most of which is owned by the irrigation industry ... so there's lots of water there. 

"Obviously we're all concerned about the drought but in fact a lot of this environmental water is actually growing pasture for cattle on flood plains." 

As this drought rubs raw the challenges we face growing the stuff we need to eat, drink and wear, most Canberra-transfixed media missed last week's confronting paper in the world's "leading journal of original scientific research", Science. Eleven scientists and economists from eight countries and seven universities had worked on this.  

The Paradox of Irrigation Efficiency shows that the attempts of many governments to increase irrigation efficiency "typically reduces the amount of water available for reallocation". 

In other words, we've got it all wrong. 

This is the sort of science that puts the theories of the Barnabies into a much more scary perspective. This science should be foremost in the national mind. 

Quentin Grafton (below), Global Water Forum Executive Editor and Professor at the Australian National University, with his ANU colleague Prof. John Williams, spoke on behalf of the paper's international authors. 

"Drought in Eastern Australia, heatwaves in Europe, water riots in India, and raging fires in California are a symptom of a planet where water, or the lack of it, is generating a crisis" they summarised in Five steps to avoid a global water tragedy.  

"Our research responds to the unfolding global water tragedy by demonstrating that increases in irrigation efficiency, in general, reduce surface run-off and groundwater recharge to the detriment of people, the environment, and our future." 

In recent years, Australia has spent billions restoring environmental flows, including a very large stack of money increasing irrigation efficiency so there's less "waste". Irrigators, responsible for about 70 per cent of the planet's freshwater extractions, tend to view any inland water that eventually reaches the ocean as "wasted". 

Prof Grafton and his colleagues have found that once given public money to improve their irrigation efficiency, farmers internationally apply more water to crops extant to increase yields or they change to more lucrative crops that require more water. 

Then they expand the total area of their irrigated regions to use the water they've saved. 

All this simply reduces groundwater replenishment and exhausts return flows of water available for reallocation for use by downstream farmers and the environment. 

 "Countries that claim to have the world’s best water practice – like Australia – need to stop wasting money by subsidising increases in irrigation efficiency that are reducing, not increasing stream flows," the summary says. 

"But the key here is water accounting," Grafton said, insisting that all five recommendations should be implemented, in a podcast with Professor Sarah Wheeler of the Centre for Global Food and Resources at the University of Adelaide.  

"That's not about balancing numbers on a spread sheet ... it's about knowing what's happening to inflows: precipitation, stream flows ... extractions by irrigators and others. And we have to know what happens to water when it's used by irrigators: subsoil and subsurface recharge surface run off... and then we need to know where those flows go ... some critical parts to that we don't know in the Murray-Darling Basin!" 

Hopeful that the South Australian government's embattled Royal Commission will assist in discovering some of these details, Grafton says the Australian government has spent AU$3.5 - 4 billion so far on off-farm and on-farm irrigation efficiency improvements, amongst other vast expenditures, and wisely suggests we stop spending until we know what's going on.   

"We need to account for the change in irrigation efficiencies associated with the subsidies we've spent to acquire water entitlements," he says. "We don't have that. We don't know that information ... we've got to have an independent comprehensive audit of the Murray-Darling Basin ... it seems very straightforward to me that you would want to have that if you've spent billions of dollars ... you'd want to spend a little bit of time and a little bit of effort actually working out what's happened." 

Whichever side one takes, this entire argument has as a cornerstone the presumption that all this water is used on feeding humans directly or feeding the animals we humans eat, shear or milk. In such troubled and threatening times nobody dare ask how much water, a vital gastronimic item in itself, should go to the production of ethanol, an addictive depressant which adds billions to our national health, crime and traffic accident costs. 

We call it wine, which, with a few fine print back label warnings, we often sell for the price of bottled water. Goonbag. Alley juice. It's like buying the water in two, four, five or ten litre plastic bladders with some sugar and 12-15% ethanol included for free. 

While we can't possibly consume all the wine we grow and refine, government encourages entire communities to depend on us exporting this stuff, each litre of which uses about 1200 litres of water in growth and manufacture. Recent grape prices show a glimmer of relief, but many growers go for years with barely a cent of profit. 

Until last week's political ructions, South Australian Liberal Riverland Senator Anne Ruston was Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources. "I spent two years as his (Senator Joyce's) Assistant Minister," she told ABC Adelaide this morning, defending her disgraced, now resurrecting former boss. 

South Australian Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development Tim Whetstone, Barnaby Joyce and Senator Ruston in the glory days

"Having seen him operate in rural and regional areas, his understanding, his empathy with the farmers, his ability to sit down in the front bar of the pub and just spin a yarn ... people want to talk to Barnaby,"  she said.

It might not surprise us that arid land irrigators and broken, drought-baked farmers like a bit of chat and a beer in the pub, especially with a Deputy Prime Minister who shovels out government money and writes revealingly of his own philandering, booziness and blokiness. They'd likely prefer spending their time there with him, or maybe reading his book, than on struggling with reports like this scary paper in Science

They obviously vote for folks like Joyce and Senator Ruston, who seems mystified at the new Prime Minister removing her ag and irrigation responsibilities to make her Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific, a fairly large ocean which contains a helluva lot of that water many regard as wasted. 

"It doesn't matter what portfolio I'm in, the River Murray will always be my number one priority," she reassured. 

Backing her up, Joyce tweeted "I am so excited about helping further with the drought. This is so important. Let’s combine all that knowledge for a better outcome." 

No doubt the rivers will also remain a priority of Prof Grafton and his colleagues, whose knowledge the Senators should surely "combine". 

Prof Kingsford said "Joyce should have been aware that his simplistic approach, apart from the environmental issues, raises legal equity and economic issues ... he talks about eucalypts dying up near Tamworth. There've been river red gums dying in their thousands on our river systems because they're not getting enough water. 

"Let's not forget the millenium drought lasted for six or seven years. We're nowhere near that sort of drought yet."

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan: Five-year assessment Draft report was released on 30 August 2018, the day the above piece was first published

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