4 October 1999

Water, water everywhere....

by Kate Melville

In the world's driest continent problems with water are already having a serious impact on city dwellers.

According to a new report by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organisation (CSIRO), South Australians will to need to buy water or find new water sources in the future, unless new agricultural practices are rapidly introduced to reduce dryland salinity.

According to CSIRO salinity expert Dr Tom Hatton, "Dryland salinity will impact hardest on this State's urban dwellers into the next century,". Dryland salinity is already making SA's water too salty to drink and 20% of the State's surface water resources were already above acceptable saline levels for human consumption.

"Adelaide's water supply systems will bring the problem right into the homes of hundreds of thousands of people. It means they will pay more for water and also domestic appliances like heaters and jugs will depreciate faster because of saline levels in the water. There will be a significant impact on industry infrastructure which uses this water too."

Dryland salinity occurs when native vegetation is cleared for agriculture that uses less water, causing groundwater to rise to land surfaces, bringing with it salt that finds its way into water catchments and rendering land unproductive.

With more than 2.5 million hectares already affected by dryland salinity in Australia, the problem is already costing A$300 million in lost agricultural production and damage to infrastructure.

The State Government estimates 400,000 hectares is affected in the Adelaide Hills, mid north, upper south east, Kangaroo Island, Eyre Peninsula and Yorke Peninsula.

However the outlook is not all bleak, with an semi government initiative called Landcare promoting new farming techniques to help address what is a very serious threat to Australian agricultures. A good example of the success of Landcare is Port Vincent farmer Wolford Parsons who has spent 10 years rehabilitating 300 acres of salt-affected land at his 620ha family farm. Ironically, he helped clear with his father in the 1950s to grow more barley. He estimates dryland salinity has cost him $400,000 in lost production (Australia has few agricultural subsidies unlike the US and EEC).

Tom Hatton says science had a major role to play in underpinning sustainable practices. "Research and development is also required in the area of social science -- on how to identify impediments for change; what environments rural communities operate within and how to get them to change their practices," he says.

Science A Go Go plans to keep a watching brief on this issue, as it's a good example of the role science is playing internationally in practically addressing environmental concerns.