Sunday, October 18

Post Card to the future

The thirsty camel

Most of us love water which is possibly the most valuable of all resources – to enjoy the refreshing sea, river, stream or lake. But the bulk of our fresh water resides in the polar icecaps which are now threatened by global warming. Water occupies about 70% of the earth’s surface and is 75% of our human body mass.

Australia to me is like a giant camel whose safely stored water is to be used sparingly between infrequent stops at waterholes fed by uncertain rain.

The Australian land mass was once part of a larger mass which remained submerged for nearly 4 billion years beneath the sea (click here to read more) to accccumulate vast salt deposits below the water table. Our soils are generally poor since the sea washed out most of the soils nutrients except for a thin rich top soil.

Our industrious pioneers were blissfully unaware their extensive tree felling and irrigation would raise the water table sufficiently to cause salt deposits; miles and miles of desolate, salt filled land with pools of salt water to render the once arable land unusable. It is an eerie and disconcerting feeling to gaze out the window when travelling to view this blight visited upon the landscape. Similar outcomes are prevalent in parts of the USA, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan, all effected in the same way by salination. Over grazing and tree clearing also exposed the precious top soil to more frequent dust storms and erosion.

Our economy today is less dependent on agricultural exports and more resilient to withstand the effects of drought since forging stronger economic ties to the Asia region. The strong bond to Mother England reduced about the time of the discovery of minerals and energy when England was to also join the common market and reduce trade with Australia.

Immigration has remained a stalwart for post war economic growth but many may be surprised to learn Australia is currently growing at its fastest pace ever; faster than any other country in the world. This combination of population growth, a robust financial regulatory regime combined with improved corporate social responsibility and rising exports to Asia has allowed us to avoid a recession.

Given existing growth ratios our population is forecast to double within the next 40 years in the Asian region which is expected to contain 60% of the world’s population. While the economic benefits are both apparent and challenging the more fundamental question arises over whether our finite water, land and infrastructure systems can sustain such a projected level of population.

Nobody has the definitive answers but there any number of futurists willing to stake a claim both for and against Australia being able to support such an increased population scenario. In the end their educated guesses are no better than yours or mine – but with the amount of information doubling every 18 months no one is short of information but as always there seems to be a shortage of wisdom. This post does not pretend to be wise or better informed, rather, within my limited sphere of knowledge and research I will attempt to examine the challenges as I see it to argue what might be sensibly suggested to achieve a more sustainable future.

Pre colonization

Living on a large Island which had become separated from the mainland Australian Aboriginals are thought to have enjoyed a period of 60,000 years of isolation prior to colonization,(click here to read more) to represent the oldest known period for any culture. Like many indigenous societies its oral and visual history does not reveal definitive records of changing climatic and land mass conditions although it has bben gauged they were involved in extensive burning of bush land to seek out game which permanently changed the landscape. Aborigines also engaged in some agriculture using water channels (click here to read more) for irrigation planting of a variety of wild grains which were cultivated into regular crops. They also engaged in seasonal eel framing. They erected stone cottages where they lived during the time of harvest. It is difficult to ascertain population levels at the time of colonization due to their rapid decimation from the newly contacted diseases and ensuing wars but estimates vary from a million to a low of three hundred thousand.

A feature of the Australian bush is many of the species require the intense heat from a bush fire for the seeds to burst from their pods to later germinate. Evidence points towards Bushfires being an integral part of our landscape for a very long period of time- possibly caused by periodic man made burning and lightning strikes. Many have argued the tragic bush fires in February of this year would have not been as ferocious had periodic large-scale burning off of the tinder dry forest areas been more widespread.

What we can learn from the aboriginals is the land owns us, not the other way around. It is only in partnership with nature that modern methods can be effective. It seems to me unhelpful extremism exists on both sides of the bush fence so to speak; unbridled development versus maintenance of a wilderness. I don’t think there are any definitive answers other than to aim to work in partnership with nature by setting aside connecting corridors of land to maintain bio diversity which have been demonstrated will enhance yields of existing land use.

Genetically modified agriculture is yet another subject and suffices to say science can be the friend of agriculture. But GMO based agriculture tested in the laboratory may not behave in the same manner in the environment and requires vigilance to be carefully tested in the field for a very long time to avoid unforeseen consequences.

A Farmers lament -Rain no longer follows the plough!

The early settlers reshaped the landscape with extensive tree felling and overgrazing by sheep and cattle unaware of the consequences of their actions as if Australia was to expressed as an extension of an English county. During the early periods buoyed on by a repeat of unseasonally good rainy seasons a philosophy took root from successive good harvests – the rain always follows the plough.

The repeated cycle to clear the land gained momentum to the extent more and more marginal areas were opened up for farming with disastrous results. Soon landowner’s optimism gave way to despair as they were forced to walk off the land destitute as a consequence of the inevitable drought cycle which took them by surprise.

In the more immediate post war period the same pattern was to occur. The then liberal government created solder settlements; small farming land parcels ganted to returning servicemen. Although many of these holdings through amalgamations and capital improvements continue, many were forced to walk off the land broken heartbroken. I remember vividly, the anger and frustration in my Uncles voice, as a youngster staying on his farm ,to hear him berate the government for their foolishness. He knew full well there was never a hope in hell they could become sustainable farmers from such small uneconomic land holdings.

Fortunately today these lessons have been learnt and larger scale amalgamations have occurred in most agricultural sectors to ensure farms collectively have become world’s most efficient. However, encouragement to use irrigation for water dependant crops such as rice and cotton were examples of ccontinued bad policies.

Kidman’s bid to drought proof his properties

Cattle king Sir Sidney Kidman set up a vast pastoral empire dating from the late 19th century where he sought to drought-proof his landholdings by buying up strings of interconnected properties across the continent so that stock could be moved from one area to another as the need arose.

Today only 15 of the properties remain including Anna creek, (click here for ther website), which is the largest cattle station in the world covering 3 million acres – larger than Belgium. You can read the history of Anna Creek and the present carrying capacity by clicking here . At one stage during the drought in 2008 they decided to shut down and wait for rain.

A perspective on modern day agriculture and farming in Australia

When Jarred Diamond visited Australia a few years ago he talked about what had changed from 40 years ago when he was last here. It was all about the land, he said, the new spirit within the country that acknowledges it is not here for us to do with it whatever we please. In Australia away from our dense populations on the eastern seaboard, in our dry fragile country our unsubsidized farmers- unlike our European and American counterparts- have had to adopt innovative farming techniques combined with excellent infrastructures to compete and remain at the top of the table as the world’s most efficient. This has meant Australia is currently in the enviable position of having food security and being one of the largest net food exporters. Naturally enough there will not always be general agreement between farmers as to the best way to farm alongside nature and there are both positive and negative aspects but overall there are many reasons to remain positive.

There currently exists a mixture of the large scale technologically based farming more reliant on chemicals versus those in favor of a more bio diversified approach that relies more on nature for its sustainability. But overall, despite our poor beginning most farmers today are staunch conservationists, intent on preserving the land in perpetuity for future generations. One aspect I think that has tremendous potential to continue to yield outstanding results is Land Care.

Local Land Care groups ensure farms are not only sustainable, but set aside corridors of up to 12% of the land as sanctuaries for nature. Land Care, introduced in 1989, is an exciting government funded initiative which enables groups to receive grants and technical advice to help better maintain the native landscape and set up the vital corridor sanctuaries which interlink the properties within each respective land care group. There are 4,000 community Land Care Groups currently engaged at many different levels.

I like the conclusion in Dr Chris William’s book entitled Old Land, New Landscapes “The foreground of Australia’s old frontiers reveals that people’s circumstances, personal histories and memories are diverse, mutable and dynamic, like the physical landscape itself. The future of the bush in the sheep and wheat belt, as an ecological opportunity, remains dependant therefore on embracing diversity in both the landscape and its people. Landscape foreground is complex, even chaotic, but it is human. It is, therefore, the source of the relationship with nature that we now attain, or for which we might one day strive.

Click here for Chris Williams book.

Water shortages

Since Australia is the driest continent on planet earth it is not surprising water shortages should remain the most crucial of issues to support a burgeoning population.

One of the worst areas affected is our largest river the Murray which is in desperate needs of an increase in its water flow, depleted by inappropriate irrigation. The Murray flows along the eastern side of South Australia, and part of the New South Wales and Victoria borders. Irrigation from the Murray sustains this region which produces 50% of Australia’s fresh fruit and vegetables, but at a terrible cost to the river and its eco system. Irrigation water drawn from the Murray has resulted in so little water remaining in the once mighty river its flow was insufficient to carry any fresh water into the ocean.

This environmental position for the river, if allowed to continue, would have a devastating effect on its biology, eliminating many species dependent upon brackish waters.

Fortunately there is a ground for cautious optimism today as both our Commonwealth and State Governments have put aside substantial funds directed to restoring an environmental flow of water to the Murray River, but at the time of writing programs has been slow with 40% of the projects yet to start. One solution is to buy the water rights from farmers who will either disengage or revert to less water intensive activities. So far about $3 billion has allocated for this purpose. The aim is to return 120 billion liters of water to the Murray River from farmers in exchange for funds for them to upgrades irrigation and other farming infrastructure. Some irrigation systems lose up to 40% of water to evaporation.

Today there is also an industry being built up around water and water rights which are actively traded, like other commodities; ensuring users pay a market price for those facilities to be made available. The rights are aggregated in total to the level calculated as sustainable by respective country authorities.

Although progress has been frustratingly slow the idea Rivers will be legally entitled to a certain amount of water known as an Environmental Water Reserves is a meritorious idea but as yet is not implement.

It is as vitally important for Australia as it is for the developing world which uses around 70% of all available water for irrigation

Overall we are learning from past mistakes and per capita use of water in Australia has reduced by 20% per year for the past few years.

I think farming and looking after the environment go hand in hand. Both can co-exist as an expression of long term sustainability. It's often Farmers who are the ones most interested in preserving their environment to farm in a sustainable way.

Notwithstanding some of these positive aspects of reduced agricultural water usage, the provision of fresh drinking water remains one of the largest challenges for the world today.

Rural land is overvalued

The value of rural land in Australia and indeed in many parts of the western world is vastly overpriced. This is a consequence of continued income support to farmers over successive frequent droughts that ensure the price of land remains unrealistically high, whilst overseas huge subsidies paid to farmers inflate the value of the land.

Rural land in Australia has appreciated in real terms around 5-6%, that’s 5-6 % above the rate of inflation over the past 20 years, putting undue pressure to obtain a commensurate improved return.

But I also think Australian farmers are the most efficient in the world and most are responsible environmentalists who do a magnificent job looking after the land for future generations. During dire times of drought they immediately begin de stocking to mitigate the effects and lessen stress on the land. Many are debt free 3rd generation farmers whose reserves and or alternative incomes tide then through these most difficult of times.

What I favour as an alternative to income support is government assistance in the form of interest free loans, made during such times but to be repaid during good seasons. I think most farmers would prefer a loan to income support schemes, which is nothing more than a handout.

I also think additionally it’s worth considering a substantial heritage type annual payment, in recognition of the Farmers custodian role of looking after the land and preserving the land for future generations subject to meeting certain conditions.


In the long term exceptional dry circumstances will not be so exceptional in years to come, but I also believe the Australians farmers will adapt and preserve the land for future generations in a sustainable way. That means much more diversity for farms, a sole farming income may need additional sources as we experience drier conditions. The dichotomy or tension between country and city, farming and non framing and or industry need not exist at all as we are all co dependent upon one to another, particularly to sustain a substantial increase in population.

In fact I think it will be true for most countries the world over. The pooling of skills and sharing between communities both country and city allows us to learn together as to how to be sustainable, in partnership with nature and to grow more in a sustainable manner. It's how we evolved and it’s how we will survive the future and even accommodate a much bigger population in Australia.


susan said...

I was delighted to read another of your very well thought out, well researched posts. It's also refreshing to read an article written from such a hopeful yet realistic perspective. Living in the US it's easy to become overwhelmed by the fact that so little is being done by the national government toward conservation measures. Although local efforts are being made in many communities it's a problem that requires much more input at national and state levels. If more financial resources were being aimed at the improvement of infrastructure and land management instead of toward a dead economic model we'd be in better shape to face the changes inherent in a world that's growing steadily hotter.

I don't know if we as a race are wise enough to consider cutting our birth rate but it's something that's long been advisable in my opinion. Bill McKibbon of wrote a book a few years ago called 'Maybe One' where he makes a very reasonable argument for single child families.

Cartledge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cartledge said...

Lots to think about there Lindsay, an excellent overview. It seems to me Kidman et al are symptomatic of the thoughtless way we have treated this fragile landmass. When that arid outback can only sustain two or three beasts per square mile (forgive the Imperial) and the produce requires delivery vast distances from the ‘farm’, then surely sensible planners should have seen problems ahead. Instead, the lure of the cash sustains this insanity.
In more fertile parts of Australia a different set of problems are in play. As farming becomes more corporate, the only important yield being profit, we are steadily witnessing a diminishing agriculture base. As you say, the land is over prices, the land and water resources badly utilized. And now we are seeing more prime production land sold to greedy developers or to mining corporations.
We need a radical approach, perhaps nationalizing agriculture and production land and encouraging real farmers back to the farms. But that is not likely to happen until there is a real crisis, and by then it will be far too late.

D.K. Raed said...

much food (or water) here for thought, and a geologic/economic history of australia to boot!

living in the Colorado River watershed of the dry US Southwest, I think we are facing similar problems. this little thin ribbon of water has made life here possible and yet we have abused it so much.

one abuse is siphoning off so much of the fresh water to supply huge cities like Las Vegas (talk about a Klondike Town) that seem to exist merely for the purpose of existing.

The American Canal from the Colorado River has made desert farming possible, but at what cost? trying to rectify some of these mistakes by buying back farmer's water rights is a current issue here, too. Big Agro Biz (vs small farmers) is a water and environmental issue that seems to have been decided by those with money and means to gobble up small farms and turn them into huge water-wasting chemical-abusing pollution factories pumping out hogs (and other edible things) by taking advantage of govt subsidies avail to them (but not to the small farmer).

I don't have much hope when money and access to power dictates everything, but of course that has always been our way in the US (despite some of Jared Diamond's optimistic observations about the rest of the world). as proof, our ex-prez bush & his capitalized cronies have purchased major portions of one of the world's largest underground fresh water supply (Aquiferi Guanari) in Paraguay.

so it goes on, the struggle for control of oil might change to the struggle for control of water, but the game will be the same.

Seraphine said...

beautifully written lindsay, especially the parts about our stewardship of the earth. water is the most abundant resource on earth, but clean, drinkable water is a finite valuable resource.
we have many of the same problems here in the american west.
but it is a world-wide problem, and poor land-management in one part of the world affects everyone else. i worry about the creeping deserts in africa, and the deforestation taking place in the amazon.
i also worry about the changing climate and the melting of the ice caps.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Susan, Dennis, DK Reid & Sera

Thanks for your many interesting points.


Indeed, time is running out but hopefully our race will use the collective wisdom before long. I notice about 60% of the population In the US now shop organically with the environment in mind – so the tide is turning in a country which has been traditionally a laboratory for change in the past –this time hopefully for the better I trust!!


Town and country planners are continually thwarted in their sensible efforts to maintain sustainable development permits by politicians changing the goal posts. I note the large scale foreshore developments now subject to ocean erosion. The farming sector would benefit from a national audit to check which styles of farming are sustainable and sort out those enterprises whose methods are injurious to the long terms heath of the land.

DK Raed


I have heard about the Colorado River from in Jared Diamond when he was last in Australia. I also learnt a good deal more from his epic narration entitled “Collapse”
I would like you do a posting about such matters which I think would be have interest.

I agree water will become soon the most valued commodity of all. Thanks for visiting and for your insightful comments. I have added a link to your blog.


We have good reasons for concern, but as I mentioned to Susan the US has been a repository for new ideas in the past and maybe the tide is turning. Certainly at the consumer level change is evident with over 50% know careful to buy environmentally sound organic products. Corporate Social Responsibility is also on the increase worldwide with most companies including a sizeable narration to report worthwhile target reductions in waste and measure they are taking to lessen their carbon footprint.
Best wishes

Seraphine said...

my drink of choice is tea. sometimes i brew my own from tap water, but mostly i drink bottled tea.
i like tea in glass bottles better, but there is a tea i like that only comes in plastic.
plastic isn't ideal, but at least i recycle it.
alas, i heard that most recycled waste doesn't really get recycled- the waste companies 'cherry-pick' what they want and send the majority of the collected items to landfills.
what a world we live in.

Gary said...

Great essay Lindsay. I'm glad that in spite of such understanding of the underlying causes of the water issues, you remain optimistic.

A warmer climate here has meant the mountain pine beetle, which used to die off every few years from a long cold winter, has had a free run for about 10 years now. There are dead forests the size of a European country just in BC alone now. They turn red, then brown then black. Then they become fuel for forest fires in our increasingly dry summers. This is not the future, but now. There was a 6,000 hectare fire right across the lake from us in 2003.

In addition to mitigation... trying to pull back the carbon emissions and conserve - we better be ready to adapt to new systems.

Like you, I am at least somewhat optimistic and look for good examples, which can be found.

Gary said...

Oh yeah, birth rates are secondary in my view. There is not a developed country yet that hasn't had a rapidly declining birthrate as soon as prosperity and education arrive. Most northern countries are already at a negative birth rate (including Canada). Even India's birthrate is on the decline as they attain a growing middle class.

Focus on equity and sustainability and the birth rate will adjust. Lots of evidence for this...

Seraphine said...

i've never liked pumpkin pie. i think its the seasoning people use.
but but but... i LOVE pumpkin muffins. yummm.