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Holy water: Anglican bishop says water's spiritual need should be recognised as ACCC water inquiry underway

Mollie Gorman, Emma Brown and Moyra Shields, Thursday November 14, 2019 - 13:56 EDT
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Bishop Donald Kirk covers the Anglican Diocese of the Riverina, which includes the veins of outback NSW — the Darling, Murray, Murrumbidgee and Lachlan rivers. - ABC

The Right Reverend Bishop Donald Kirk says that water needs to be seen as a physical and spiritual fundamental, rather than a commodity, as hearings for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) inquiry into the water market take place.

In his opening address at the diocese of Riverina's annual synod, the bishop stressed that water should not simply be available to the people with the deepest pockets.

"Spiritually speaking, water is the essence of life," he said.

"We are people who not only know the practical need for water, but also the spiritual need of the water of life feeding body and soul."

It was the first time a religious leader has argued the water market is infringing on the spiritual needs of people in the Murray-Darling Basin and irrigation regions.

The diocese that the bishop oversees stretches from Queensland to the Victorian border, covering some of the most drought-impacted regions of the country.

He spoke out specifically against practice of water trading: the buying and selling of water by irrigators and speculators with no intention, or ability, to use the water themselves.

Water trading has existed in the Murray-Darling for decades, but it was only when water rights were separated from land rights in the mid-2000s, that the cost of water began to fluctuate.

With a current ACCC underway at hearings across impacted regions, Bishop Donald said water must be considered as a community resource.

"I'm really praying for people to see water as a community resource rather than simply a commodity for sale to the highest bidder," he said.

"We have a situation in the Riverina where there are many, many people who've relied on water for many years who simply can't afford to buy the water."

Bishop Donald said the ACCC water trading inquiry report was not due until November next year but there was a need to act immediately.

"We need to care for the people on the land now, the basic need, never mind the business aspect of it, just the basic need for people to be able to survive and stay on the land," the bishop said.

"We've lost sight of what water is, it's not a commodity, it's the very essence of life, we cannot survive without water — none of us can."

Bishop Donald said while drought was a clear contributor to the water crisis, there has also been a misallocation of water and the current system does not care for people on the land.

"I've driven round this diocese over the last five months and I drive past failed crop after failed crop," he said.

Regional inquiries hear calls for more transparency

The ACCC inquiry is into the water market across NSW, South Australia and Victoria, investigating Murray-Darling Basin.

At the Griffith forum, there was criticism of water brokers and speculators and their impact on rising prices, some calls to re-attach water to land, but also support for the current trading system to be fine-tuned to ensure more transparency.

Irrigator and mayor of Griffith City Council John Dal Broi said he was not sure what the solution was, but he believed water was being controlled by people with no affiliation to the land.

"Years ago when you purchased a property, you bought the land and you bought the water with it. Now that has changed," he said.

"It's no use having a city-based investor owning big lots of water and sitting back and trading, as people are saying that's better than any stock market or shares that you can trade in."

ACCC Deputy Chair Mick Keogh said many issues across the basin differ, with Renmark irrigators receiving a 95 per cent allocation while Murray irrigators are on zero per cent.

But Mr Keogh said there are some consistent concerns with the water market.

"Generally, I think it's fair to say the transparency of the market and the lack of clarity about what's happening in the market is a common issue across those areas," he said.

Cotton grower Liz Stott attended the Griffith meeting and agreed.

"At the moment there's no ASX style market or single platform for trade," she told the inquiry.

"Having the same parcel listed by four different brokers, having water deals done over the phone.

"I'm not saying anyone is doing the wrong thing but there is potential the price could be manipulated and if there was better transparency for trades and water prices in real time, and an easy to access platform, that would be great."

Mr Keogh said reverting to a government-regulated market was not the answer.

"I think it's making sure these markets operate efficiently and competitively, and that we do take full consideration of some of the issues that have been raised today," he said.

"But I think reverting back to a situation where everything was decided by bureaucrats in Sydney or Melbourne or Canberra, I think most people would say that they don't really think that would be a good outcome."

Mr Keogh said it was hard to tell what was the driver of the suffering that Bishop Donald described.

"I think it's fair to say there's been quite a reasonable expression of concern that the market's been throwing people to the wolves, so to speak," he said.

"And it's hard to distil from that, the extent that's an issue associated with the drought, or that in fact there has been some fundamental changes that have markedly changed the outcome, in terms of irrigators in this region and more generally."

For Bishop Donald Kirk the first change must be in the perception of what he described as the 'essence of life'.

"This is something we should see as a common resource in what is the driest [inhabited] continent on Earth.

And yet here we are happily selling it off and not seeing the need to ensure everybody has an adequate supply for their physical as well as spiritual wellbeing," he said.


© ABC 2019

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