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Stop hiding behind Ramsar Convention

A community group is again calling for a fresh approach to the controversial Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

The Speak Up Campaign is throwing its support behind a leading wetland ecologist who believes our water management needs to adapt to climate change and be led by “real community participation; not top-down consultation”.

Adjunct Professor at Charles Sturt University Max Finlayson, who has also been an advisor to the key international wetland convention Ramsar, also says Ramsar is not being used in a way that maximises the benefits to communities in the debate around the Murray-Darling Basin.

It has been used to argue that the Lower Lakes are a freshwater system and need to be maintained with freshwater, even at the expense of other parts of the basin and their communities, especially those in northern Victoria and southern NSW.

Professor Finlayson says a more “nuanced” approach to the Ramsar listing is required and “there is not a lot of understanding about how the convention works”.

“We could, through Ramsar, decide to have a different ecological condition and still maintain a high value site and be listed under Ramsar,” he said in a recent radio interview.

Professor Finlayson has called for processes in water management to adapt to climate change, “and they have to operate on a whole of river basis”, and emphasised the need for the community to be involved in a participatory way from the outset in all discussions, not at the end.

Speak Up Campaign deputy chair Lloyd Polkinghorne supported Professor Finlayson and said it is “time for politicians to step up”.

“The Basin Plan is not, and has never been, about protecting the environment. It’s about a freshwater solution that ensures South Australia has a constant and cheap water supply, without the need to turn on its desalination plant or considering other alternatives.

“This is no secret; it’s been well known since before the Water Act was amended during the Millennium Drought as the catalyst for increasing flows to South Australia.

“We have since made some appalling errors in water management that have had significant impact on communities and damaged large sections of the Murray and Darling/Baaka Rivers.

“As difficult as they will find it, our politicians need to acknowledge the mistakes and – as Professor Finlayson suggests - work with communities so we can develop solutions,” Mr Polkinghorne said.

He added that under climate change scenarios the demand on our water is going to increase, so it must be managed more effectively.

“A starting point would be to debunk the crazy notion that our hands are tied by the Ramsar Convention. We need to take the Professor’s advice and ‘get ahead of the game’ to ensure there is enough water for environmental and productive needs into the future. We can make better use of the Ramsar Convention and help our communities, and our rivers and wetlands at the same time,” Mr Polkinghorne said.

He called for politicians to start mature discussions, instead of the constant political point scoring that we have seen, so we can move forward in the national interest. This needs to include steps to: (a) Protect South Australia’s water supply without sending huge quantities down the system from Hume Dam; (b) Reduce river flows that are damaging the environment; and (c) Protect food security by providing certainty about water supply for farmers, supporting the wellbeing and health of our rural communities. This in turn will revitalise rural communities and our nation.

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