Critical Australia Water-sharing Plan Is on Brink of Collapse

A homestead and roads can be seen near the Darling River in the Murray-Darling basin, Australia's largest catchment river system, located near the far western New South Wales town of Broken Hill, Feb. 12, 2017.

A plan to save one of Australia's most critical river systems is on the verge of collapse after disagreement about how to manage scarce water resources.

The Murray-Darling Basin produces 40 percent of Australia's food, and for the past five years a specially appointed authority has been trying to balance the system's environmental needs with the economic demands of farmers. A critical water-sharing agreement is in jeopardy following disputes between Australian states about how much water is allocated to agriculture and environmental needs.

Victoria and New South Wales insist the plan is now untenable after the Australian federal parliament blocked changes to water allocations that would have given farmers 70 gigalitres of water, which had previously been earmarked for environmental use. Senators were worried by allegations that the system is riddled with corruption and by unscrupulous farmers stealing water from the river system.

FILE - Farmer Ian Shippen walks past a mobile irrigation boom on a dying oat crop on his farm in the heart of Australia's Murray-Darling river basin outside Moulamein, about 600km (373miles) west of Canberra, Aug. 24, 2007.

Federal Greens party spokesperson, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

"Amongst this cesspool of water theft, corruption, mismanagement, why on Earth would this parliament sign off on giving more water to the people who have behaved badly?" she said.

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia's largest and most famous river system. It covers more than a million square kilometers in the country's southeast — an area bigger than France and Germany put together.

Scientists have argued there has been no overall improvement in the health of the river system since a rescue plan was introduced more than five years ago.

The recovery plan had set out to strike a balance to protect the environment and the interests of the agricultural industry, but both sides believe they are being short-changed. There is also heated division between Australian states.

Australia is the world's driest inhabited continent and is frequently subjected to severe drought.