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Salting the earth

The environmental crisis of salinity in Australia

Quentin Beresford

The Prime Minister, John Howard, has set the goal of dealing with Australia's salinity problem as one of the top priorities on his government's third term agenda. In support of this goal, a National Salinity Strategy has been announced with over a $1 billion in matching Commonwealth-State funding. For those concerned about Australia's landscape and its human and ecological communities, the elevation of salinity to the top of the national political agenda is welcome. The government's commitment, however, is widely regarded as inadequate.

There has been little sustained public examination of the likely success of the government's strategy, or the principles which should underline a public policy response to salinity. Can we rid the land of salt, and continue to exploit it for agriculture? Can we save about 80 threatened rural towns without fundamentally questioning our ability of populate rural Australia? Can we fiddle while hundreds of plant and animal species are driven to the wall by creeping salinity, without questioning our cultural attitudes to the environment? Can we leave farmers to battle this crisis very much on their own, without taking full account of our collective responsibilities?

The government's belated political commitment on salinity is not enough. The nation needs a far-reaching debate on the difficult choices it faces in tackling this most serious of our environmental problems. Yet there are few takers for such a debate. Neither our political leaders, nor those in farmers' organisations and the conservation movement, seem much interested in engaging the public on the issue. Not surprisingly, metropolitan Australia views salinity with a combination of ignorance and indifference. This apparent silence is a sad contradiction for a nation whose national identity was forged in its emotional attachment to 'the bush'.

Extent and complexity of the problem

The statistics on salinity confirm its rapid elevation to the status of a crisis. Recently, technology has allowed for a comprehensive assessment. Estimates compiled by the CSIRO show that 15 million hectares are at risk over coming decades, with nearly 3 million hectares currently affected. Western Australia and New South Wales are the stand-out States, with the worst potential problems. Adelaide is the most threatened urban environment, being at significant risk from future saline water problems.

The very complexity of salinity confounds political and public understanding. Firstly, two different types of salinity are present in the Australian landscape: dryland salinity and irrigation salinity. Each relates to different farming systems, although the causes of both are the same: massive and sustained land clearing for agriculture, bringing under-ground salt to the surface.

The second area of complexity is the different ways in which salinity manifests as a public policy problem. Salinity is, in fact, a series of distinct, but inter-related, issues. It is primarily seen as an economic problem arising from the annual loss of some $250 million in production, while rendering unviable a growing number of farmers. In the longer term, some of Australia's most productive lands will no longer support traditional cereal and grazing industries. Salinity has raised sustainability as the critical issue in Australian agriculture.

Unrelated to farming are the economic costs, which are starting to mount because of damage to infrastructure such as roads and railways. The potential costs arising from such damage could be enormous. The National Audit on Dryland Salinity recently estimated that 20 per cent of the country's road and rail networks are affected by salinity damage, a figure that could rise substantially by 2050.

Little recognition has be given to the social dimensions of the salinity crisis, which rang from extensive salt damage to people's houses in affected towns - growing numbers of which are likely to be unsaleable in the future - to a discernible impact on many farmers' health. Salinity has become another cause of the lack of confidence many have in the future.

The environmental impacts of salinity are only slowly being understood, but they are considerable. In rapidly destroying significant parts of our landscape, salinity poses a serious threat to the nation's biodiversity. In the vast Western Australian wheatbelt, for example, up to 450 species are at risk of extinction. In other parts of the nation, the full extent of the potential loss of biodiversity is not fully documented, but encompasses a wide range of the nation's unique vegetation types: woodlands, grasslands and wetlands. In all states, 'icon' areas are under threat, such as South Australia's famed Coorong, at the mouth of the Murray River.

Whose responsibility?

Fundamental to tackling salinity is an informed understanding of how the crisis arose. So far, a strong tendency exists in government responses is to view the problem as one of assisting farmers grapple with the problem. Thus, governments have funded the highly regarded landcare movement, which has facilitated extensive co-operation among local rural communities to plant trees in their district.

Such a response has suited neo-liberal governments concerned about minimising expenditure and enhancing individual responsibility. The history of salinity, however, presents a very different picture of government responsibility for this problem. Official government policy of land clearing for agriculture intensified after the turn of the century, and particularly after the Second World War, when ideology and technology combined to create in Australia some of the greatest land clearing schemes in the world.

The advent of land clearing machinery, and especially the infamous 'Hi-ball' - a 3 metre steel ball suspended between 200 metres of chain - paved the way for a revolution in land clearing. This intensification of technical capacity neatly dovetailed with the pre-existing ideology of 'developmentalism'; the commitment to use the powers and resources of the state to underwrite agricultural development. The post-War balance of payments problems added a sense of urgency to grow more wheat and wool for export.

Thus, government land clearing schemes before and after the Second World War were undertaken with the extensive involvement of both the States and Commonwealth. Governments directly funded private contractors to open up vast areas, and established a legal framework for those granted unimproved blocks of land. Most of those granted 'conditional purchase' blocks were legally required to clear land. In all, up to 30 billion trees are estimated to have been removed from the Australian landscape to make way for agriculture. In the frenzy of land clearing, some areas - such as Western Australia's vast wheatbelt - were left virtually treeless.

There is a crucial additional element to government policy on land clearing. From the 1940s, the link between land clearing, the rising water table and salinity was well established scientific fact, widely published in agricultural journals. That governments aggressively pursued such extensive land clearing in the face of this understanding can only now be seen as a breach of the official duty of care to both farmers and the environment. In this context, it is not surprising that governments have chosen to tread softly when dealing with the politics of salinity.

The options

The scale of the response required to satisfactorily deal with the salinity crisis is simply immense. It is no less a challenge than reassessing the way in which we manage the Australian landscape. Some experts doubt that the challenge can realistically be met. One recent study undertaken on behalf of the National Dryland Salinity Program concluded that salinity "has all the hallmarks of an intractable policy problem". This judgement is based on the understanding that the science and politics of salinity are not compatible: the politically feasible solutions to salinity - such as landcare approaches - are ineffective in producing the scale of change needed, while solutions based on science - such as drastic changes to farming and extensive revegetation - are too politically costly.

Still, much work continues to be done to affect a turn around, much of it buoyed by examples of local successes in bringing salt-affected land back into production, and in preventing further loses in affected areas. Current approaches - with their inherent strengths and limitations - can be categorised under the following headings.

Government regulation

Advocates of this approach favour the imposition of a legalistic framework defining the rights of farmers to use water - both above and below ground level - in a sustainable manner, within a common law 'duty of care'. In other words, farming should be brought into line with requirements that have steadily been placed on industry to protect the environment in the interests of all. This is undoubtably a long-overdue change, but runs the risk of leaving farmers to bear sole responsibility for the damage already done at the behest of government policy.

Participation and communication strategies

The Landcare and Natural Heritage Trust Programs, together, have mobilised significant community co-operation to stall the spread of salinity in some areas, by encouraging changes to farming practices and tree planting. Such strategies are at best a holding operation; they contradict CSIRO findings that even under best practice much of Australia's traditional farming is environmentally unsustainable. Put bluntly, the wholesale replacement of native perennial plants with annual crops not suited to large areas of the fragile Australian landscape.

Market-based incentives

In light of the emerging understandings about sustainability and Australian farming, much work is being undertaken to find alternative commercial crops which mimic nature and are therefore compatible with the environment. There have been some encouraging developments, such as tree plantations and better adapted cereal crops. In Western Australia, considerable research and development work has been carried out on developing an ethanol industry by harvesting particular types of the original mallee species.

Yet the problems with alternative crops remain immense. In the first place, science has not yet delivered a crop capable of relacing the scale of existing cereal and grazing industries. Most of the promising alternatives currently being developed are niche industries with limited markets. Secondly, those alternatives with potential for large scale adoption (such as an ethanol industry) require huge infrastructure costs (such as refinement plants) to which neither the market nor government currently shows much commitment. Even the promise of tree planting for carbon credits under the Kyoto Climate Protocol remain uncertain, following the decision by the United States and Australia to scuttle the agreement.

Do we have an ethical responsibility?

It is likely that work will continue on all the above strategies and some achievements will occur. The real question is: will it be enough to stave off the worst predictions of environmental devastation? Most assessments suggest that, on current approaches, progress in halting salinity will be limited. This likelihood raises an important further question: do we have an ethical responsibility to do everything possible to save the Australian landscape at risk of salinity and protect its biodiversity for future generations? If so, then massive revegetation of existing farmland is the only option capable of working in most parts of the affected landscape. Between 60-80 per cent of affected areas may need to be revegetated to reverse salinity.

Adopting an environmental - rather than a predominantly economic - approach to salinity has a strong philosophical foundation. Aldo Leopold - the American founder of the environmental ethics movement - was among the first modern environmental thinkers to advocate for the environment beyond the well-being of humans. Leopold argued for a radical rethinking of our ethical response to nature. Importantly, he challenged us to "quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem". Humans, he said, needed to be transformed from conquerors of nature to the status of but one member of the "biotic" community. Within this community "rights" should be extended to all the component parts of the ecosystem.

Translating the essence of Leopoldian thinking to salinity would produce a very different set of policies, and a sense of urgency that is currently lacking. It would place a priority on saving biodiversity and a commitment to massive revegetation with native species to preserve the landscape. Where this proved to be incompatible with the economics of farming in affected areas, the community would need to exercise collective responsibility. Revegetation on the scale needed is beyond the capacity of individual farmers and, obviously, incompatible with normal farming operations. The total cost would run into billions. Funding for revegetation and for structural adjustment packages for farmers would need to come from a long-term salinity tax.

What hope of such an approach? Buckleys, probably. A concerted attack on salinity is unlikely unless the issue is transformed into a high profile environmental cause, with consequent political implications for governments. The more likely outcome will be similar to the 'muddling through' pursued by government on most complex issues. To date, we have no real idea of how we will adapt to a landscape with huge areas made barren by salinity. Few Australians have even seen the damage it can cause. For those who have, the prospect that millions more hectares are at risk is a deeply depressing thought. After all, who can imagine an Australia without the integrity of 'the bush'?


Quentin Beresford is Associate Professor of Politics and Government at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, and a contributor to the Evatt Foundation's new book Globalisation: Australian Impacts (UNSW Press). This article draws on the first attempt to provide a comprehensive explanation for the reasons behind the salinity crisis, which is Quentin's co-authored study (with Hugo Bekle, Harry Phillips and Jane Mulcock) The Salinity Crisis: Landscapes, Communities and Politics, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 2001. Image courtesy Salinity Com.


Suggested citation

Beresford, Quentin, 'Salting the earth', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, March 2002.<>


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