Images of dry rivers, dying fish and withering eucalypts along the banks of the Darling River conjure up the spectre of climate change. But what should come to mind is Barnaby Joyce and his ilk. That is, if you want to understand why a wondrous river system of world significance – the Murray-Darling Basin, which was harvested and managed by the Paakantji people and others for probably more than 40,000 years – could be devastated in a bit over 200 years.

The stench of corruption surrounding the odious Joyce has fuelled the liberal media’s interest in just one episode in this ongoing destruction. In 2017 Joyce paid Kia Ora and Clyde, two stations in the upper reaches of the system and in his old home turf, the highest water rate ever for what locals call “goanna water”. It is available only when the goannas have their heads sticking out of the trees – during floods.

In 2015 the Queensland Labor government proposed that the federal government buy out both water licences, providing 57,000 megalitres, plus the land, which could have been restored to essential flood plains, for $123 million. There has never been an explanation of why Joyce paid $79 million for 28,000 megalitres and no land.

The deal included a requirement to decommission levees to allow water flows. But there is no system of oversight to enforce this. Predictably, it’s provided negligible water to the system. And in any case, water that might have been released is not legally available to the government downstream. So irrigators can steal it for no cost!

Hopefully the outrage, bitterness and sadness in remote towns that are suffering with no drinkable water will eventually help to land Joyce and others like him, along with the agribusiness profiteers, in jail. But don’t hold your breath. They’ve been getting away with it for at least 30 years.

Cotton, harvested, spun and woven by humans around the globe for 6-7,000 years, does not belong in the arid, semi-desert landscape surrounding the Darling. This water-hungry plant creates unsustainable demands on the river and wetlands system.

Yet corrupt politicians of all stripes have bent over backwards to enrich those who, bearing bags of money, replaced grazing (which was bad enough) with cotton in the 1970s.

In the northern reaches of the system in southern Queensland, Wayne Goss, Labor premier from 1989 to 1996, entrenched a laughably called “honesty” system relying on “integrity” for managing the amount of water properties take out of the system. Thanks to his legacy, and the connivance of federal and state governments ever since, 75 percent of farms in this region have no water meters.

Lax laws allowed construction of levees and dams to store flood waters that should flow down the system, maintaining precious wetlands. This, not climate change, has created a dying river to the south. At the same time, by backing up water, the levees have caused floods where they had never occurred before, altering the natural flow of water and destroying some adjoining properties.

Stations like Kia Ora, Clyde, and the Cubbie cotton farm, which has a dam able to hold as much water as Sydney Harbour, block essential flood waters from nourishing the system with their shonky levees. And then they sell it at the price of gold to us, the taxpayers!

There was no public tender for the 2017 sale, and no investigation has yet found how Joyce decided from whom to buy flood waters in a drought.

He and the water minister, Angus Taylor, proclaim they have had no benefit from the shadowy deals they’ve organised. And it’s noticeable that journalists and researchers, water management specialists, while pointing to what are pretty clearly conflicts of interests created by their various links to the companies that own the two stations, are careful not to accuse them of illegal corruption.

And that’s the rub. Unregulated levees are not illegal. Cronies of the Liberals such as Chris Corrigan, who as head of Patrick Stevedoring tried to destroy the Maritime Union in 1998, is head of the company that runs Tandou, another cotton grower near the Menindee Lakes. In 2015 it pocketed $80 million for “empty bucketfuls of water”, in the words of bitter locals. Angus Taylor set up Eastern Australia Irrigation, the parent company of Eastern Australia Agriculture, owners of Kia Ora and Clyde. Of course, when he entered parliament he broke formal ties with this shady outfit based in the notorious Cayman Islands tax haven, where it’s impossible to know who has ties with what.

Who but a mug would believe that with these intricate links between politicians, company executives and possibly even some government bureaucrats, Joyce and Taylor are merely administering a bureaucratic system and caring for the communities along the river system? After all, Eastern Australia Agriculture donated $55,000 to the Liberals before the 2013 election.

Only the blind, corrupt or naive would deny the perks, backroom deals and outright monetary benefits friends of these environmental vandals are likely to be amassing.

But then, as Crikey commentator Bernard Keane quipped, this isn’t corruption, it’s capitalism.