The Murray-Darling in Crisis
The Murray-Darling Basin, one of the most crucial ecosystems in Australia, is facing a tragic collapse after decades of rampant exploitation and neglect. The million-square-kilometre region accounts for 41 per cent of Australia’s farm produce, as well as 100 nationally significant wetlands.  These vital natural systems have been routinely drained by irrigators since European colonisation, leading to the gradual degradation of the landscape. Today, we see the visible consequences of this long, drawn out, man-made disaster.
Notably, Menindee Lakes in New South Wales has been everywhere on the news – but for all the wrong reasons. Many months ago, it was reported that the rampant over-extraction of water by cotton growers in the basin was causing the Darling River to dry up, leaving its vital systems practically dysfunctional. The continual draining of Menindee lakes by irrigators has brought about a full-blown ecological disaster; since December of 2018, there have been two massive fish die-offs in the lake and its tributaries. These recent incidents have rightly placed a spotlight on the environmental mismanagement of Australia’s largest river system. 
It is a story of decades of failed reforms, backed up by ’13 billion dollars’ invested into the MDBA (Murray Darling Basin Authority) to prevent such a disaster. Some $6 billion of this has been spent on ‘water recovery’, with $4 billion used to subsidise irrigation infrastructure. Whilst irrigation in the basin is clearly a huge economic draw, it is also proving highly destructive to our land, water, and wildlife in the absence of reliable regulatory solutions. 
Waterbird numbers have plummeted. Entire forests of river red gums, black box eucalypts and coolabah trees, now dying or dead after being denied water for years.  Half of the native fish species are now threatened. As the rivers cease to flow, and as acidity and salinity increases; so too, toxic blue-green algae blooms become more commonplace.  Traditional owners of the land are lamenting, as are community members who haven’t joined in on the race to the bottom. Tourism in the region has also been hit hard. 
Until the ABC’s 4 Corners program in July last year, many Australians were unaware of alleged water theft and grossly deficient compliance along the Darling River. The situation on the ground is now being broadcasted across the nation, however – and it stands in stark contrast to the official view that the system was doing just fine.
The Millennium Drought at the turn of the century already exposed Australians to the basin’s alarming fragility. Country towns ran out of water – not to mention Adelaide, one of the primary hooch-growing regions on the continent. The drought led to the federal takeover of the Murray-Darling with the institution of the ‘Water Act 2007‘. The act was passed under the prime-ministership of John Howard and dutily supported by the *then* Basin Plan architect, water minister Malcolm Turnbull. The Plan was adopted in 2012 by Julia Gillard’s government, resulting in an independent national Murray-Darling Basin Authority, deftly side-stepping state governments’ vested constitutional responsibilities. 
The federal government invoked its international obligations for wetlands of international importance and migratory shorebirds, like the sharp-tailed sandpipers which fly to and from the Murray-Darling Basin wetlands to Russia and China each year. As stated earlier, over $13 billion was put on the table to fix the river system’s manifold problems. Much of this sum was handed off to irrigators, or used to buy back water from said irrigators at inflated prices.  Additionally, a target was established: return 3200 megalitres of water to the environment each year. 
So, it’s now been five years since the $13 billion was allocated by the federal government… yet, the plan is failing to fulfil upon its objectives. Little has been done to alleviate the intense competition over access to water, nor much to provide clear data for the management of the basin’s water flows.  Remarkably, in some parts of the basin, almost three quarters of irrigators have failed to install meters on their pumps to measure how much water they are extracting – this is over a decade since the Water Act. 
Late last year, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority recommended the Darling River catchments be “docked” 70,000 megalitres of environmental water, citing ‘socio-economic impact‘.  Yet, this also included selling 12,000 megalitres of environmental water initially intended for the vulnerable Macquarie Marshes.  To make matters worse, the federal and NSW governments have introduced policy changes which threaten to further kneecap the plan, beginning with limiting the buyback of water by 22% from July 1, 2019.  This is an average annual reduction that exceeds the volume of water in Sydney Harbour. 
Achieving those environmental flow targets now seems highly unlikely, with even the well-intended water buybacks coming at a high price.  In 2018, he Productivity Commission began conducting a five-yearly inquiry into the effectiveness of the Basin Plan. In recent days, leaders of the NSW opposition parties have called for the government to establish a special inquiry into the state’s water management. 
“The scale of this disaster is extraordinary and unprecedented,” said Michael Daley, the leader of Labor. “The people of NSW have watched for 18 months as water theft scandals, water mismanagement and now ecological disasters have rocked far west rivers.” 
In spite of the overuse of the land and water being the obvious determining factor of this crisis, the highly resource-intensive NSW cotton industry is making it clear that they are definitely not responsible for the mass deaths of hundreds of thousands of fish in the Darling River, or any of their actions. They’re fed up with being the “whipping boy” for problems associated with the drought, from journalists like myself. 
In a statement, Cotton Australia blamed the drought for affecting the river system. They say that the cotton industry was also suffering; they forecasted that their harvest this season would be half of the previous year’s. 
“The recent fish deaths in the Barwon-Darling river system at Menindee was a devastating sight. However, it is wrong to blame cotton growers for this incident.” 
Even though doing so probably wouldn’t position you that far off from the truth.
Hemp as an Alternative to Cotton
36% of the world’s clothes are produced from cotton lint.  As alluded to earlier, there are disadvantages to cotton; namely, the plant is highly averse to natural flows of the water system. Cotton can be a disaster for water quality. 
Using other natural crops for the production of textiles may decrease the impact on the environment, given the lower water requirements of many other plants. 
One of these plants is our friend hemp, already used in the past by humans, including convict Australians.  The water footprint (WF) of industrial hemp is less than one third of the WF of cotton (10,000 l/kg vs. 2,719 l/kg); as such, it functions as an excellent substitute for cotton cultivation. 
The major production areas of cotton, such as the Murray-Darling, are often in water scarce regions in the world. For the sake of their own financial security (and the future of the environment), growers could switch over to a fibrous plant like hemp for the production of goods (such as clothes), with far less of an impact on the land they rely upon for a living.
As of now, this is not possible for many growers, due to the ambiguous legal situation surrounding hemp plants. Yet, things seem to be moving in the right direction. According to government data, South Australia’s fledgling hemp industry will be worth $3 million annually within five years, with the crop expected to grow very successfully in the South Australian climate. 
This is a crisis that has no fix-all solution.  Regulatory practices must change, for one. The government must rethink the environmental targets – and irrigators must be forced to stop taking water that is there for natural systems. Water meters must be enforced, requiring decentralised workgroups on the ground, who answer to a rigorous and independent scientific body, tasked with actively measuring the ecological impacts on the basin.
Of course, the gaping cracks in the Basin Plan could still be filled.  The 2012 deal could yet be realised; we could actually save the basin. To achieve this, however, authoritative and informed decisions must be made, followed by strict implementation of policy on the local level.
Perhaps there is still room for an organic solution to rise from the soil. Australians could rally their representatives to take the bold step of legalising the cultivation of cannabis plants, thus permitting the industrial production of hemp on a wide scale. Australia could be the new hemp mecca, people could still buy their clothes from Australia (albeit made from a different material), and the new crop would act as less of a drain upon the fragile Murray-Darling ecosystem.
Do you think Australians should review their regulatory policy to allow for the cultivation of hemp as a substitute crop for resource-intensive cotton? Let us know your thoughts down in the comments.
 GLOBAL WATER FOOTPRINT OF INDUSTRIAL HEMP TEXTILE
 South Australia’s emerging hemp industry forecast to be worth millions
 The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is not delivering – there’s no more time to waste
 The tragedy of the Murray-Darling river system is man-made
 Murray-Darling Basin Plan secured as ministers agree on socio-economic measurement
 The Murray-Darling management plan stinks
 Darling River Fish Kill: Cotton Industry Says it won’t be a Whipping Boy for the Disaster