Australia’s longest river, the Murray River flows for a distance of 2,508 kilometers from its sources in the Australian Alps to Lake Alexandria. The river rises from the Pilot mountain in southeastern New South Wales, and flows westwards towards the New South Wales-Victoria border, and then enters South Australia where it finally flows through Lake Alexandria to drain into the Indian Ocean at the Murray Mouth. The Murray River is considered to be the third longest navigable river in the world after only the great Amazon and Nile rivers. The river and its tributaries also form the world’s third largest water catchment area. The Darling River is one of the major tributaries of the Murray, which joins the river at Wentworth in New South Wales.
The Murray River has always found a significant position in the history and culture of Australia. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the plains drained by the Murray River were inhabited by a large number of aboriginal peoples of Australia, including the Ngarrindjeri people who depended on this river for their sustenance and livelihood. Hamilton H. Hume and William H. Hovell were the first Europeans to discover the Murray River in 1824. The river was named as the Murray by Captain Charles Sturt in 1830. Sturt did so to honor Sir George Murray, the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. From that point until the development of the railways in the area, the river served as a crucially important trade route for the transfer of wool, wheat, and other goods from interior Australia out to the coast.
Currently, millions of Australians depend on the Murray River for their livelihoods, and the river is a source of domestic water for around 1.25 million Australians. The Murray-Darling River Basin forms one of Australia’s most fertile cultivable lands, and occupies an area of 1,062,025 square kilometers. One third of the country's food supply is generated from this river basin alone. Large numbers of farms present here cultivate cotton, wheat, rice, oil-seeds, fruits, and vegetables alike. Furthermore, 47% of the country’s cereal producing farms are located in the region surrounding the Murray River Basin. Animal agriculture for the purposes of obtaining wool, dairy products, and meat is also widely practiced in this region. Many important Australian towns and cities are located along the river basin, such as the capital city of the country, Canberra, and such other important cities as Toowoomba, Tamworth, Orange, Shepparton, and others. The Murray River also hosts a rich variety of commercially important edible fish species. These include the Murray cod, Murray perch, Brown and Rainbow trouts, and Hair-back Herring.
The Murray River Basin serves as a species-rich habitat, and supports a wide variety of plants and animals well beyond its banks. About 50% of the Murray-Darling Basin region is covered by native flora, and 45% of the area of this region comes under the purview of protected lands in the form of Australian National Parks, wildlife and game reserves, and heritage areas. Colored spider orchids, the Monarto mint-bush, and Silver daisy bushes are some of the native flora of the region which are in a vulnerable state and in need of immediate protection. 35 endangered bird species, 16 endangered mammalian species, and 35 endangered fish species are also located within these habitats. Mammals like Western Grey kangaroos and koalas, such birds as Black swans, Red-rumped parrots, Mallee-fowls, Wedge-tailed eagles and Western whip-birds, reptiles like Bearded Dragon lizards, and a wide variety of fish, such as the Murray cod, Red-fins, Southern pygmy perches, and Murray hardy-heads are all found living side by side in the Murray-Darling eco-region.
Threats and Disputes
Indiscriminate clearing of land along the course of the Murray River for expansion of agriculture has led to water-logging of the land, and in turn has increased the salinity of the soil. Besides the damage of natural environs, this is also, both sadly and ironically, creating unfavorable conditions for the growth of the crops these lands were cleared for in the first place. The felling of Red gum forests in the region for timber, firewood, agriculture, and animal grazing has put at stake the survival of all manner of native flora and fauna species living in these forests. Construction of dams and levees along the course of the river has deprived the floodplains and wetlands dependent on the Murray of their water sources, and in turn this has discouraged the nesting of water birds in these areas, and also diminished the aquatic flora and fauna of these wetland habitats. Growing population pressures and disturbances created by the booming tourism industry has already started taking its toll on the Murray River ecosystem as well, increasingly polluting the river waters with domestic and industrial wastes from ever more people and activities.
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