Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 23, 2020

Cry Me a River (2020), by Margaret Simons (Quarterly Essay #77)

Right now, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing else is happening in the world today, except for COVID_19.  And I bet there’s more than one politician who’s hoping that the pandemic means this Quarterly Essay doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

That’s not going to happen if I can do anything about it!

First, a quick briefing for overseas readers.

(And in case you’re wondering why you should care, this issue involves the threats to numerous endangered species of international importance, not to mention Australia’s food bowl, which exports to the world).

The Murray–Darling basin is a large geographical area in the interior of southeastern Australia. Its name is derived from its two major rivers, the Murray River and the Darling River. The basin, which drains around one-seventh of the Australian land mass, is one of the most significant agricultural areas in Australia. It spans most of the states of New South Wales and Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory, and parts of the states of Queensland (lower third) and South Australia (southeastern corner). The basin is 3,375 kilometres (2,097 mi) in length, with the Murray River being 2,508 km (1,558 mi) long.

Most of the 1,061,469 km2 (409,835 sq mi) basin is flat, low-lying and far inland, and receives little direct rainfall. The many rivers it contains tend to be long and slow-flowing, and carry a volume of water that is large only by Australian standards. (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove links and formatting, viewed 22/4/20).

Ok, got that?  It’s a very large part of Australia, and it covers four states and a territory which means managing it involves six governments by the time you include the federal government. And manage it we must because we cannot go on as we are.  (As Dorothea Mackellar’s poem says) Australia is a land of drought and flooding rains.  (And she wrote that in about 1904, before Climate Change was even thought of.) It’s a bit like the situation with the Rhine in Europe, except that when we’re in drought there’s not enough water in the Basin to please everybody. Irrigators in Qld, NSW and Victoria (i,e. Australia’s food bowl) don’t have enough water for their crops; wetlands protected under the Ramsar Convention of Wetlands of International Importance dry up; tens of thousands of fish die; and the river silts up in South Australia and has to be dredged 24/7 to enable the supply of fresh sea-water into the Coorong National Park, which would be catastrophic for the bird life there.  The social costs should give anyone pause for thought.

As you know if you’ve read my reviews of her books, Margaret Simons is one of Australia’s best journalists, and this essay is the best, most comprehensive explanation I’ve read of the troubled efforts to manage these competing interests: agriculture, business, environment, recreation and the interests of the First Nations on whose land these issues arise.  It’s a complicated story made intelligible by her clear-eyed assessments of:

  • the history of the reforms to the ad-hoc use of the river water, and the development of the plan and its relationship to free-market reforms of the 1980s and 90s i.e. the concept of water-trading;
  • the environmental, social and economic aims and ambitions of the 2008 Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the compromises that it was forced to make;
  • the framing of the Water Act as environmental legislation because, constitutionally, the federal government only had power to legislate for the Murray-Darling Basin because Australia had signed up to the Ramsay Convention on Wetlands;
  • the impact of the Millennium Drought and the social, economic and environmental consequences for rural Australia and beyond;
  • the political consequence of a plan that necessarily creates winners and losers; the emergence of conspiracy theories; and the way certain politicians (from state and federal parliaments, and a notorious federal politician in particular) have exacerbated an unmanageable situation.

Margaret Simons travelled extensively through the Basin, listening to all sorts of people, and she writes with great empathy, along with a deep appreciation of the river.  This enlivens reading what would otherwise be a dry subject:

The Old Wharf in Pooncarie is a fishing shed repurposed by its owners to serve the grey nomads who, in a good season, brave the bull-dust roads and the saltbush plains to see the mighty Darling River.  Here, you can buy the Big Breakfast — sausages, beans, black pudding, eggs and more — and sit facing the old wharf, which was, back in the 1800s, a staging place for the river steamers heading upstream to Menindee and Wilcannia and downstream to Mildura.  There is an old gum tree that has seen it all — the first white men, and probably a few generations of Barkandji before that.  Burke and Wills camped near here for two weeks.  There are Indigenous stories too — of the Pooncarie mission and the women who travelled up and down this river with their children to prevent them being taken.

When I was there — a clear blue day in mid-December — the landscape showed itself in the colours used by its mapmakers, as though they had taken their palette direct from the land.  Before breakfast I scrambled down the bank to look at the river.  It wasn’t there.  Instead, I found a few ankle-deep puddles.  Some, in a break from the pastel palette, were a bright green.  The trees on either side of the banks seemed to lean in, looking for what was absent. (p.26)

Contrary to what the reader might expect, Simons had a warm welcome from the locals.  The people of the Lower Darling like journalists.  They want more of them. Getting their story into the media is a challenge for small rural communities (a problem that will get worse, because so many regional newspapers have folded due to COVID_19 restrictions.)  Many Australians will remember the shock of seeing hundreds of thousands of dead fish in the media — and some of us also noticed the bitterness of some locals about how it takes a catastrophic environmental disaster before anyone takes any notice.  And then it’s too late.

The tragedy of these national waterways is a complicated story, and it’s one that city folk should know about and understand as well.

Update 26/4/20 There’s an illuminating interview with the author at The Readings Podcast. 

Image credit:

Author: Margaret Simons
Title: Cry Me a River, the Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin
Quarterly Essay #77, published by Black Inc 2020
ISBN: 9781760640712
Source: personal subscription

Available from Fishpond: Cry Me A River: The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin:Quarterly Essay 77 or better still, subscribe through the QE website.


  1. I will be reading this, once an electronic copy is available at my library.


    • Would you like me to send you mine? (A small thank you for the gorgeous bookmark?)


      • Oh Lisa, that would be wonderful. Thank YOU!


        • I’ll get it in the post tomorrow – but don’t hold your breath, postal delays at the moment are #understatement a bit of a problem. Nobody’s fault, it just is…


          • Thank you. Yes, I know about the postal delays. I’ll look forward to its arrival.


  2. I think this country needs a sorry day for what we’ve done to this land in a short time. It’s heart wrenching.


    • I think that’s today, isn’t it? World Earth Day?


  3. Sounds excellent Lisa. Sometimes I find that these sorts of situations – like the Murray-Darling saga – go on for so long that the fundamental issues and principles get lost in all the different and competing stories. It’s really useful having a journalist (or someone) put it all together again in one coherent place.


    • Yes, and the advantage of the long form is that she can really come to grips with what the issues are, in a way that other forms of media don’t allow.


  4. Well done for championing this Lisa – trouble is, with the virus dominating the news all the ecological disasters we need to deal with are becoming ignored.


    • Yes, well, that’s what I thought. All kinds of stuff could be passing under our radar right now.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a wonderful series of publications. I’m so glad it has devoted readers like you to draw attention to its contents. Being from away, I really appreciated the map and additional context too. And I agree that there are a lot of political decisions being made now, while all eyes are elsewhere (as well as inaction and neglect). Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine theory?


    • It’s too soon to say, IMO. Here, there is commentary about how the free-market principles have been jettisoned, but I am not so sure. Law and Order is always a big issue with right-wing governments, and keeping the masses quiet with handouts that can be taken away at the stroke of a pen is not so inconsistent with that ideology. So we shall see…


  6. This sad story reminds me of the problems faced in California, where cities were built in what were essentially deserts. Remember the water scandal that’s the background to the film Chinatown?


    • Well, there are definitely shonky things happening here. At the individual and the corporate level. The problem is, there just isn’t enough water and there’s too many competing interests…


  7. The Darling really is in a very sad state, despite the fact that water flowed through to the Murray last month for the first time in ages. And the problem is dams in Queensland, legal and illegal, which prevent rain from ever reaching the river system. And of course your “unnamed” beetroot faced politician, who once lived in and represented that area subverting what Acts we have to protect the river to direct water to his donors. And all politicians on the right working furiously under cover of the Covid-19 crisis to eradicate all environment and climate change protections while there is no Senate (thankyou gutless Labor Party) to say them nay.


  8. […] today than when Greta Thunberg brought everyone out on the streets, and Simon’s essay Cry Me a River, by (Quarterly Essay #77) about our own patch of the environment along the Murray-Darling River, is important […]


  9. […] you may remember from my review of Margaret Simon’s Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River, The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin removing water from the upper reaches of a […]


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