“We know another drought will hit, and we know it could be even more severe than the millennium drought – it’s just a question of when.” This ominous forecast comes from the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s (MDBA) CEO, Phillip Glyde, the man tasked with the implementation of the A$13-billion 12-year Basin Plan.

The complex blueprint provides a strategy for the long-term conservation of the basin – which is home to 40% of all Australian farms, including 96% cotton production and almost 100% of the nation’s rice production – based mainly around the balanced usage of water for all users, including the environment.

Phillip Glyde backs the Basin Plan

Phillip says the plan is a critical step in the right direction. “We’re turning around essentially 100 years of degradation, 100 years of [!water!] over-allocation, which is a terribly long period of suffering,” he says. Now it’s the farmers who are suffering. Phillip, who has been in the driving seat since January 2016, is fully aware of the hardship faced by some farmers, who are running their livelihoods on significantly less water.

Phillip Glyde CEO of MDBA

“It’s easy for us to sit in the middle; we’re not the ones who are having to fundamentally adjust our business models like the irrigators,” he acknowledges. “Through our engagement, we can see that people are doing it tough. We’re full of admiration for these people, because there are not too many other businesses where you take 20% of their inputs away and they still battle on.”

And while the experienced natural resource-management public servant admits he’s “not met a single person who likes the current version of the Basin Plan,” he’s also “never met a single person in any lobby group who wants to go back to where we were in 2012.”

A "rare jewel of bipartisan, multi-government agreement"

That five state and territory jurisdictions and the federal government passed the plan through Parliament, and are still united in support of it five years later, is a strong indication it’s worth persevering with. “As someone who’s worked on Commonwealth–state relations for a long while, it’s amazing to me that, in 2012, all those governments could agree in a bipartisan way,” he continues.

Murray-Darling Basin

“When you look at politics today, it’s very hard for parties to agree on anything. And yet there’s this rare jewel of bipartisan, multi-government agreement to a plan that is set down in concrete and well-funded.” Phillip reserves special mention for the basin state jurisdictions and the Australian Capital Territory for their continued commitment to making the Basin Plan work.

“The cooperation of all states is key to the successful realisation of the plan and the benefits it will deliver to the environment, basin communities and agriculture into the future. We rely on the expertise state officials offer, just as they rely on us. So I think there’s a shared recognition that we’ve each got something to contribute to the goal. Respect, and open and honest relationships go a long way to overcoming some of the temporary differences of opinion on policy and approach.”

Safeguarding against drought

But back to the devastating dry spell that Phillip says is inevitable, and he’s certain our farmers are better prepared after five years of adapting to restricted resources. “Definitely,” he nods. “First, because of the Commonwealth’s A$8 billion investment into upgrading infrastructure for farms, our growers are now able to continue producing the same amount of crop using less water.

Coorong near Goolwa, South Australia.
A spot of fishing in the Coorong near Goolwa, South Australia.

They are becoming more innovative in their approach. Second, farmers are adjusting their business models so they can safeguard against a drought. An example of this is SunRice, which has purchased rice mills and is growing overseas.

“But it’s not just farmers we have to protect; it’s Indigenous communities too. I have to commend the foresight of my predecessor [!rhondda!] for setting up the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, and now there is the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations, and these groups help us better understand Indigenous values and Indigenous uses of the Murray–Darling Basin.”

So, if we stick to the plan, what will the basin look like in 2024? “Certainly, you’ll see the wetlands return and there’ll be fewer endangered species,” Phillip enthuses. “I mean, we’re already seeing silver and golden perch bouncing back because two-thirds of the surface water (more than 2,000 gigalitres) that is needed to get back to our sustainable level has already been recovered.

“We’ve seen increasing numbers of waterbirds such as grey teals and black-winged stilts, and we’ve seen frog populations in Mid-Murrumbidgee wetlands rise – but we need to continue to focus on this issue so numbers continue to improve.”