Case study

Regional sustainability efforts in the Murray-Darling Basin


Murray River treeThe Murray-Darling river basin, the catchment area for the Murray-Darling River, covers an area of over one million square kilometres and is of crucial importance not only to the region itself but to the entire nation. The basin accounts for around $4.8 billion of Australia’s agricultural output and is a major source of water for Adelaide and northern Spencer Gulf cities in addition to settlements along the rivers and in the watersheds that feed them. Stresses on the system resulting from overuse and misuse of water from the river and salinity problems arising from intensive agricultural irrigation along its banks have become increasingly difficult to ignore and have led to the establishment of government initiatives aimed at monitoring its health and sustainability. There is understandably an urgent need for government to assist in the remediation of the river system and to regulate land and water use throughout the entire catchment area but for government initiatives to succeed in both the short and long term more attention needs to be paid to securing local community input and participation.

The problems facing the river have social and cultural causes and demand social and cultural solutions. In order for the necessary changes to take place, however, new ways of thinking and new metaphors about the river and how to live with it need to be explored. Further, a historical understanding must be developed so that the current state of the Murray can be seen as part of a continuing social problem dating back to settlement rather than a recent environmental problem. (The work of network member Jennifer McKay on Encountering the South Australian landscape: early European misconceptions and our present water problems is particularly relevant in this regard.)

This paper looks at the recent activities of a selection of federal and regional groups concerned with the Murray, noting that, despite signs of government disinterest in divesting power in the decision-making process to community members and organisations, local communities have taken on an active role in the preservation and sustainability of the river system. The main examples are:

  • A confederation of Indigenous nations throughout the region (MLDRIN), which has been engaged in a community consultative process administered by the government’s Murray-Darling Basin Initiative. Ways to incorporate and implement the responses of those nations’ representatives need to be examined as part of the larger process of reconciliation.
  • An education program for primary school children, Special Forever, which has been extremely successful in both engaging communities and raising literacy levels by connecting children’s stories and activities to the local environment.
  • Grassroots initiatives, schools, local government confederacies and larger non-government organisations such as the Murray-Darling Association Inc and Save the Murray have undertaken numerous small and medium-scale projects and endeavoured to communicate their activities to the wider public through newsletters, the internet and local radio. These media play a vital role in raising community awareness of the problems and support for ways to address them.

Murray-Darling Basin Initiative

The Murray-Darling Basin Initiative (MDBI) of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission was established to implement the directives of the 1992 Murray-Darling Basin Agreement, drawn up to replace the earlier River Murray Waters Agreement of 1915 which coordinated the uses of the river by the three states along its course. The naming of the new commission and its initiatives reflects the stated need for coordination across states and regions and an understanding that the river(s) comprise part of a massive and complex system. The initiative is claimed to be ‘the largest integrated catchment management program in the world’ (from MDBI overview).

The primary task of the MDBI as stated in the first clause of the agreement is to: ‘promote and co-ordinate effective planning and management for the equitable, efficient and sustainable use of the water, land and other environmental resources of the Murray-Darling basin’. Socio-cultural aspects of equity and sustainability are conspicuously absent from this statement, yet at a number of points in the history and current documentation of the initiative it has been stressed that the problems facing the river system ultimately require a socio-cultural solution.

Education was seen as a particularly important part of the process by the precursor to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission and its initiative, the River Murray Parliamentary Committee. Recognition of this may have provided the political will behind the initial establishment of environmental education programs in conjunction with the MDBI. These set out to ensure that people, and especially children, in communities along the Murray-Darling understand the importance of changes implemented by the initiative.

Initiatives of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC)

Murray River cliffThe major official body set up to gather responses from the community is the Community Advisory Committee (CAC). The CAC, first established by the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council in 1986, has 26 members: a representative from each of the 21 catchment areas in the basin; and a member from each of four special interest groups: the Local Government Association, the National Farmers Federation, Australian Landcare Council and the Australian Conservation Foundation. The twenty-sixth member of the committee is an ‘Indigenous representative’.

Since its establishment the main task of the committee has been to facilitate communication between the ministerial council, working groups involved in the initiative and the wider community. The committee’s place in the overall governance structure of the initiative, however, suggests a low level of integration with the project. Furthermore, the ability of what has been for the most part a scientific and technocratic assessment of the problems facing the river basin and its communities to uncover the social aspects of changes to the river has so far been limited.

Another initiative administered through the CAC aimed at facilitating and documenting dialogue between community and government bodies, ‘The Living Murray’, reported for example that changes to the type of irrigation along the river

may have flow on impacts to local communities in terms of employment, regional income and broader social well being. With enhanced environmental flows and improved water quality, many communities are likely to benefit through improved drinking water, lower costs to commercial industry, and expanded tourism and recreational opportunities.

An assessment of the complex of issues contained in notions of ‘broader social wellbeing’ is not provided. Nor is acknowledgement of the socio-cultural ramifications, whether positive or negative, of the potential boosts to commercial industries and tourism. Later, the report confesses its inadequacies in this area:

Missing from this preliminary assessment is an impression of the status of catchment communities and how they are likely to be affected. There is a need to understand individual and community aspirations, values, and notions of fairness to be able to interpret a social impact.

Changes in farm incomes or returns to tourism operators and others may lead to changes in expenditure patterns in regional communities, affecting regional income and employment. In turn this may affect population levels and broader service provision and community welfare. It will be important to identify trends in community structure and any opportunities or threats that may arise as changes in water use by farmers, commercial and urban users flow through to regional communities.

It could be argued that rather than an ‘impact assessment’ it might be of greater benefit to facilitate local communities’ own audit of their wellbeing and ways to actually contribute to a solution to the problems faced by the river system. Those problems, after all, have a human, social and cultural basis. Instead, communities in the basin are seen to be passively ‘impacted on’ and ‘affected by’ changes to the river flow rather than taking an actively involved part in steps toward achieving sustainability and adjusting to the changes required for the river’s remediation.

Despite what can sometimes appear to be official government negligence of the need to encourage a sense of community ownership, there are clear indications that people in river basin communities are taking an active interest in the wellbeing of the river and participating in community sustainability projects. (See for example the newsletter of the Murray Darling Association Inc for Conservation and Sustainable Development, Riverlander Notes.)

Once again, one of the problems associated with effective community consultation has been the time required. A community forum organised by the CAC to invite feedback on the Living Murray initiative, was held in Melbourne in April 2003. While recognising ‘the need to maintain a sense of urgency’, the forum called on ‘the Ministerial Council to extend the timeline and broaden the inclusion of community consultation supporting TLM [the Living Murray] process’. It also asked that the ‘definition of community … be extended to include many layers and groups both within the Murray-Darling Basin and the national community’ (from The Melbourne Communiqué). 

As noted earlier, there is one Indigenous representative on the Community Advisory Committee. Given the large number of Indigenous nations in the Murray-Darling Basin this might be regarded as tokenism. But Indigenous groups in the region have also been consulted and a comprehensive report on the Indigenous response, issued by the Living Murray initiative in consultation with MLDRIN (Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations) acknowledges both the cultural diversity of those groups and the importance of the river system to connections between them. Insights into land and resource management practices coordinated between up-stream and down-stream nations and a clearer understanding of a river system characterised by the irregularity of its flows rather than its constancy should make an invaluable contribution to protecting the system’s future. However, consideration of local Indigenous responses to the initiative arguably needs to be part of an overall process that attempts to reconcile local histories of often violent antagonism between non-Indigenous and Indigenous populations in the region. Respect for, and a willingness to learn from, Indigenous knowledge of the land, whether at a local community level or at the level of state and federal governance, can only proceed from renewed, improved understanding. Indigenous knowledges are for the most part marginalised and attempts to incorporate those knowledges – and the people who possess them – into the process must first proceed by examining and seeking to redress some of the cultural, social, political and historical reasons for that marginalisation and its consequences.

Special Forever

The Special Forever project is an environmental communication venture managed by the Primary English Teachers Association (PETA) that teaches primary school children about the Murray and the severity of the problems facing it. Teaching children how to communicate these issues to the wider community effectively and creatively is a vital feature of the project. The participatory approach to teaching employed by the Special Forever program, moreover, has recorded enormous success in literacy levels and community involvement by making ‘environmental education locally relevant and [able] to incorporate local knowledge as well as institutional knowledge’. Other education and consultation programs designed to produce a sense of community ownership and responsibility, and increased levels of community participation, have been limited in their scope and longevity.

David Eastburn, currently a board member of the Australian National Centre for Sustainability, has written extensively about the glaring shortfall between official rhetoric on the importance of community consultation and equity, and the willingness to actually facilitate effective community participation in the Murray-Darling initiatives. Eastburn attempted to ‘complement’ the highly successful and award winning Special Forever project with an ‘intergenerational equity process, Reading the Land, which was designed to enable basin residents to become authentic partners with technocrats and to “respond” rather than simply “react” to the crisis of (un)sustainability’. He notes that his attempts met with extraordinary bureaucratic obstruction, including severe budget cuts, and the refusal of an extremely generous offer of outside funding to test the project. Eastburn notes that the Special Forever program was also threatened and only survived thanks to a coordinated response from community supporters throughout the Murray-Darling Basin.

It is tempting to speculate on the possible reasons for the bureaucracy’s apparent distaste for attempts to encourage equitable community participation in sustainability projects. Certainly adequate community consultation that invites a diversity of opinions from a broad cross-section of the public and regards community members as equal partners is a time-consuming process. In addition, the idea of equity demands a consequent revision of the power structure of the initiative, placing community members and technocrats on an equal footing in terms of decision making. In connection with this Eastburn concludes that:

Special forever was tolerated because it could be diminished as ‘women’s and children’s business’ and it also fitted the traditional view of education being for children, and therefore of low status. On the other hand, equity for the adult community ‘partners’ in the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative, agreed as being necessary to achieve sustainable resource-use and sustainable communities, was apparently seen as a major threat to the technocratic status quo. (‘Equity, diversity and sustainability’, p. 4)

The Murray Darling Association and Save the Murray

Numerous grassroots non-government organisations continue to work for the future of the Murray-Darling Basin, whether in the form of small local land care projects, education, visual arts and media projects, or lobby groups. The largest and most established of these is the Murray-Darling Association, which began in 1944 as the Murray Valley Development League. The association brings together 80 local government municipalities, and a large number of businesses, community groups and individuals all committed to environmentally sustainable development. The association understands the importance of a coordinated, networked approach to sustainability between communities and local governments across state boundaries and the need to try to influence state and federal government decision making. Small-scale conservation and sustainability projects at a local level are supported and links between them coordinated. Among the projects currently managed by the association are: the creation of a Murray Valley walking trail which seeks to promote an understanding of the Murray and to educate about the richness of the ecosystems and Indigenous cultural heritage along its length; the National Carp Task Force; the remediation of wetlands at Morgan; and research into the environmental impact of houseboats on the river.

An integral part of the association’s mission is providing information to communities in the basin as a way of raising consciousness among basin communities and providing people with an overall picture of the association’s projects. Its newsletter, Riverlander Notes, is one element of its media campaign. Another is the website Save the Murray, a portal that seeks to:

  • create awareness of the urgency of protecting the river
  • provide access to current and accurate information
  • educate the community
  • facilitate informed debate and
  • stimulate collaboration.


A basic premise of our network is that, while federal strategies for water regulation and management are certainly appropriate, coordinated local action is required to deal adequately with the complex interface between environmental and societal issues. Macro-level approaches to the social problems faced by Murray Basin residents have so far failed to yield any significant results. This is in part due to the nature of top-down approaches that view regional communities as the subjects of sustainability strategies rather than the potential instigators of sustainability initiatives. It is quite clear that projects aiming to change community attitudes will only thrive when the community in question feels some sense of ownership towards the program.

The survey provided here reveals that, despite some resistance within government, there is no shortage of concern over the Murray at the regional level, and there is a growing awareness of the need to study the causal links between social and environmental issues. Such programs have either been initiated at a grassroots level, or are top-down approaches that have been able to engender a sense of community ownership.

Our network node will be initiating dialogue with the various community, business and government agencies listed in this survey, in order to:

  • find examples of best practice in eco-social sustainability
  • assess why some programs have been able to engender a sense of community ownership
  • assess the usefulness of these strategies in other settings
  • make links with those interested in eco-social strategies in the Murray-Darling region and disseminate relevant research and other information through our website.

Areas of study and research

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