Australia’s mass fish kills as a crisis of modern water: understanding hydrosocial change in the Murray-Darling Basin

Seminar/Forum

Australia’s mass fish kills as a crisis of modern water: understanding hydrosocial change in the Murray-Darling Basin

Wide Brown Land: Australian Studies Seminar Series 2019

In the summer of 2018-2019 a series of fish kills on the lower Darling River near the town of Menindee caught the attention of Australians, and then the world. We were members of an interdisciplinary Academy of Science panel that reported on the causes of this disaster. This paper is our attempt to make sense of the issue between the dominant framings of drought, scientific management, and climate change.

We use archival analysis to examine the emergence and transformation of modern water in the Murray-Darling Basin, identifying four historical phases. The central dynamic that links the phases, and entrenches and materialises modern water, is ‘conceptual abstraction’ – from unimpeded navigation flows to entitlement flows based on complicated formulae and the morality of catchment productivity, to exchange flows that make water fungible and ready for marketing and offsetting. The discursive shift towards conceptualising water as fungible occurred at least three decades before ‘market environmentalism’ took hold in Australia. We show how this conceptual abstraction had material outcomes for the human and more-than-human communities of the lower Darling over a long period of time, rendering them increasingly vulnerable.

Sue Jackson is lead author on the paper this seminar draws on, but Lesley Head will present the seminar.

Hosted by the Australian Centre

This interdisciplinary series considers the impact of climate change on aspects of Australian life and society and presents research on issues and practices that are important to contemporary Australia, and to Australia’s relations to the region and the world.

All welcome, light lunch provided.

Presenters

  • Professor Sue Jackson
    Professor Sue Jackson, Australian Rivers Institute
  • Professor Lesley Head