OPINION: We dodged an environmental bullet with the recent floods in the Murray-Darling Basin. They saved the Coorong and Lower Lakes from an ecological disaster delivered by the Millennium Drought and over-allocation upstream. Creeping sulfuric acid was rapidly changing this wetland forever. The most poignant expression of the problem was the fate of freshwater tortoises living in the lakes; the backs of their shells colonised by marine worms in cement-like cases, as salinity increased. Tortoises weighed down by these freeloaders drowned, unable to come up for air. If the floods hadn't arrived, Australia would undoubtedly have made the international shame list for wetland stewardship, under the Ramsar Convention.

Ironically the floods that saved the Murray-Darling are now its greatest political weakness. Some argue - problem solved. But another drought is inevitable. The proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan, with high ideals for sustainability of this mighty river, lies bruised and battered at the feet of Environment Minister Tony Burke. Conservative governments in the eastern states have abandoned any pretence of supporting ecological sustainability, arguing that 2750 gigalitres of additional environmental flow is too great an impost on their irrigation communities. These governments seem to have forgotten their other constituents, including floodplain graziers reliant on floods, and also their conservation responsibilities for wetlands and floodplains.

NSW has just reduced its funding to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority by more than 60 per cent, promising more cuts next financial year. For more than a century the states have ceded responsibility for running the River Murray to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and its federal predecessors. Water flowing in the Murray down the state border between Victoria and NSW can't be divided, necessitating cooperation. More than half the money withdrawn by NSW was just to manage this water and the remainder was for monitoring. One of the first casualties is the Sustainable Rivers Audit, one of few Basin-wide monitoring programs. Perhaps other states and the Commonwealth might argue NSW now deserves less say in management of the Murray - perhaps NSW irrigation water is better managed south of the border?

An Upper House inquiry in NSW is calling for submissions into the adequacy of water storages or dams, including proposals to construct dams or increase their capacity. Most dams in NSW were built between the 1950s and 1970s, occupying the best available sites for capturing water. The 1971 manifesto of this development, written by the then government agency, the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission, promoted the economic benefits of capturing water wasted in wetlands for productive use. In the preface, there was an admission: ''Limitations on storage sites and the magnitude of occasional floods make it inevitable that a large proportion of the surface flow will continue to occur as unregulated discharge.'' The following sentence captured the time's development sentiment and an active imagination. ''It has been suggested that this problem can be partly solved by the use of nuclear explosives to create giant storage basins in the level areas where no conventional storage structures are possible.''

In the global market, our rivers are fair game. Virtual water is now the global currency for measuring how water moves from rivers through markets in the production of goods and services, particularly irrigated food such as rice and fibre, such as cotton. We export a substantial amount of virtual water. Like most natural resources, river water is cheap to develop and to appropriate, often highly subsidised by taxpayers through the building of dams and running of rivers. And, the public picks up environmental costs or the externalities not adequately costed by markets, often decades later. Look at the $10 billion bill for restoring the Murray-Darling.

The last major river to be developed in the Murray-Darling Basin was the Condamine-Balonne river system, for which the Sydney Harbour-sized dams of Cubbie Station have been demonised. The Queensland government of the mid-1990s argued that it should develop its rivers as the southern states of NSW, Victoria and South Australia had. Queensland promised that state-sanctioned water development of the Condamine-Balonne would be sustainable, unlike other rivers of the Murray-Darling. It is hard to lose a river in a mere 10 years, but this was achieved with expansive development of irrigation infrastructure. It will inevitably mean the demise, over the next century, of much of more than a million hectares of floodplain downstream in Queensland and NSW on the Condamine-Balonne river system.

The next frontier is the north where Queensland and Australian governments are already investing millions into irrigation on the rivers flowing into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Tropical Australia is one of the world's last wildernesses, dissected by 65 rivers, most with more than 40 native fish species and few invasive species. We will alter many of our pristine tropical rivers if irrigated agriculture forms the centrepiece of the drive to be the food bowl of Asia.

We live in the world's driest inhabited continent and so we should be leading the world in water management but we are profligate with our water use. In 2010, according to the Pacific Institute, we had the second highest per capita level of water use in the world, topped by Turkemenistan; we use more than two and half million litres a year, much going to irrigated agriculture. Our cities will continue to grow as our population rises, as will our demand for fresh water. Global food security will press development of our tropical and inland rivers, further escalating our per capita use of water. Graziers and indigenous people of the outback are fighting to hold on to their rivers.

The choices are stark: be clever and reduce our demand for water and protect our rivers or build more dams and develop more rivers. The former will be a path to sustainability and the latter will just increase our water footprint.

It's high time we learned to adapt to our land of droughts and flooding rains, rather than failing time and time again to try to make it adapt to us.

Professor Richard Kingsford is director of the Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre at UNSW.

This extract of his speech delivered at the National Library of Australia first appeared in The Canberra Times