The Federal Government should back the social and economic development of river towns with $5 billion that has already been allocated to water reform, according to Flinders University researcher, Professor Chris Miller.
Professor Miller – who has been participating in community consultations in a number of river towns – says that Federal funds and local knowledge should be combined to give river communities a sustainable future in the face of reduced water allocations and employment losses in traditional industries.
“Research in which I have been involved with the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists indicates that $5 billion that the Federal Government has allocated to upgrading irrigation infrastructure could be more usefully invested in supporting new business opportunities and social development in towns throughout the Murray Darling Basin,” Professor Miller said today.
“In the discussions I have had and in public meetings, irrigators in South Australia and interstate are making the strong and valid point that they have already invested in new, efficient irrigation systems which have made significant water savings,” he said.
“As it stands all those irrigators who have already invested their own funds in efficiency measures will not be able to access the Federal funds. We need to see this money as the vehicle by which to bring about economic restructuring for the whole community.
“What is required now is a commitment to supporting a diversification of these regional economies to produce new products and services that will create jobs to offset the adjustments occurring elsewhere.
“However, it is essential that a reform plan supported by the $5 billion in the irrigation infrastructure fund taps the knowledge, creativity and expertise in individual communities. My sense is a lot of people in the Murray Darling Basin feel that their knowledge has been undervalued and not recognised.
“In fact, the views of the people that will be most affected by water reform – the farmers, the machinery suppliers, the local retailers and community organisations – have been given little respect in the whole process that’s gone on for the past two years or so.”
Professor Miller attended a number of community meetings in the past week and called for the current discussion to incorporate analysis and consideration of the ways in which river communities might grow in new directions.
He said Flinders University’s Thriving Communities model would provide a useful approach for this work.
“The model is based on an inclusive social and economic development approach. Communities know better than anyone the history, issues and previous interventions in their particular areas: what has been tried before, what has worked, and what has not,” Professor Miller said.
“We need to tap that knowledge and combine it with Government funding which might support new enterprises and activities through, for example, grants or low interest loans for market analysis and product development,” he said.
“We would want each community to set up the kind of structures that would work for them. These would be structures that would ensure maximum community participation, inclusivity, sound and ongoing deliberation, transparency, accountability, good decision-making and, fundamentally, structures that were owned by the whole community.
“The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has announced that it will commission a more detailed social and economic study of the affects on the regions of reform. Flinders’ Thriving Communities model could make a significant contribution towards that work.”