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Living Lightly column

Why will the Basin plan always seem to be ‘flawed’

By Jonathon Howard, Albury

The future of Murray Darling Basin is one of the most important environmental issues facing our Nation.  Yet a Plan for its future, which uses some of our best science, is often claimed to be flawed. Why is this so?

Sustainability is not just about science, it is also about fairness and compassion.  Fairness focuses on how things are distributed while compassion focuses on involving people in decision-making.

So how do we decide what is fair? The plan might simply give all groups or regions an equal share. This would create problems. Different regions have different rainfall, different farms are more efficient that others, and different crops use more water than others do.

An alternative is to view fairness as ‘equity’. Those catchments with more rainfall can have more water.  This creates problems for downstream regions when upstream regions get all the rain. Different regions use water dependent on other factors such as topography, climate, soils and infrastructure.

The key point being, there are various ways to regard what is fair. It is always comparative and always in the eye of the beholder. Given there are limited resources, some ‘eyes’ will always see the Basin plan as flawed.

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. Sustainability is also about compassion. That is, the processes we use to listen to communities, resolve disputes, and allocate resources.

A compassionate plan would have all stakeholders agree that an outcome is just. One group or region might be happy when another get more because they have listened to the various arguments and agreed.

A compassionate plan also includes ideas about ‘legitimacy’ in decision making. For example, I have seen several people suggest that only irrigators should be involved in decision making.

Compassion also includes ideas about ‘retributive justice’. That is how much compensation is reasonable when one group suffers while another benefits.

A compassionate plan without flaws is therefore difficult to achieve. It requires everyone to have a voice, legitimate decision-making, and compensation where appropriate.

There will always be claims the Basin Plan is ‘flawed’. This is not to say the Basin Plan is perfect. Sustainability requires trade-offs that affect both our collective wellbeing and those of future generations.

It requires a fair and compassionate community to underpin decisions that affect the health of our environment and our collective wellbeing.