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

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Jackson, Sue
Head, Lesley
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2020
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Abstract

In the summer of 2018/19, a series of fish kills on the Darling River attracted international attention. We analyse the disaster as a crisis of modern water within the hydrosocial cycle framework formulated by Linton and Budds. Using archival analysis we identify four phases in the emergence and transformation of modern water in the Murray-Darling Basin generally and the lower Darling specifically; navigation flows (1850–1900s), entitlement flows (1880–1940s), exchange water (1950–1990s) and saved water (2000s-present). The phases are driven by conceptual abstraction and commensuration, leading in turn to the material abstraction of water from the lower Darling, rendering the river and its communities vulnerable. We reveal three previously unidentified social processes contributing to the current crisis. First, the development of a model of hydrological productivity that rationalised the Basin scale as a unit of governance and deemed some places ‘effective’ and others, like the Darling, ‘ineffective’. Second, an early form of offsetting in ‘exchange water’ that disembedded water at least three decades before market environmentalism took hold. Third, accounting technologies that enrol evaporative water into basin water governance and politics. A crisis like the fish kills reveals the ways in which the hydrological cycle overflows with social content, internalising scientific expertise and dominant modes of water governance that include settler colonialism. However, hydrosocial framings need to better capture the diversity and complexity of co-existing Indigenous ontologies, and their different expressions of the social and experiences of the material. These ontologies both intersect with and exceed modern water.

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Geoforum

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109

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© 2020 Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/BY-NC-ND/4.0/), which permits unrestricted, non-commercial use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, providing that the work is properly cited.

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Human society

Social Sciences

Geography

RIVER

MANAGEMENT

FLOW

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Jackson, S; Head, L, Australia's mass fish kills as a crisis of modern water: Understanding hydrosocial change in the Murray-Darling Basin, Geoforum, 2020, 109, pp. 44-56

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