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.