Dead in the Water

Reviewed by Geoffrey Watson

Author: Richard Beasley

The river system now known as the Murray-Darling Basin has flowed for hundreds of thousands of years. For 40,000 years the First People lived in harmony with that system. In the last 150 years white settlers have managed to destroy it. Most of the damage has been done in the last 50 years. The damage is continuing.

Richard Beasley’s Dead in the Water tells this bizarre story. The story is bizarre because the potential damage was avoidable. Experts at the CSIRO foresaw the risk, warned against it, and told the politicians and irrigators how to prevent it. That advice was not just ignored, it was suppressed. Instead, schemes were implemented which aggravated the damage. Much of the damage is now irreversible. Shame on those who have presided over the destruction of the single most important river system on the world’s driest continent.

This book is a remarkable achievement. It is constantly engaging and entertaining and informative. At the same time it is cynical and sarcastic and, at times, downright disturbing. It is not a happy tale. At times I found I was getting angry. Beasley exposes a failure at Federation when the river systems were, pointlessly, excluded from central control. After that it becomes a sorry saga of incompetent and spineless politicians, greedy irrigators, lies and corruption. If only a murder could be woven in, Beasley’s book could be converted into a movie.

I am amazed at the skills of the author. Many of us know and admire his work as a novelist, but this is a totally different genre. Beasley’s transition is completely successful. He has a light writing hand, a sharp tongue, and a gift for delivering a weapons-grade barb when it is necessary. Unless you are one of those impaled on one of Beasley’s skewers, I guarantee you will enjoy this book.

I urge you to buy and read this book. Few barristers these days take up a position in public life – Richard Beasley has and it is an important role he has taken on. His message is simple and the issues opened by his book cannot be ignored any longer. Be better informed. Acquiescence is no longer acceptable. We all share a responsibility to the future. Read Beasley’s book.