Water and Land are Inseparable


The last couple of weeks might prove to be a kind of tipping point in the history of discussions about climate change, land use and water management in this country.

Senator Bill Heffernan announced last Friday that he thought it would be a good idea for farmers to go where the water is, up in the northwest corner of Australia. His suggestion, delivered seriously, reveals how little he appreciates the history of farming in Australia.

Unlike his parliamentary leader, Heffernan believes that global warming has badly effected rainfall patterns in the south so with the help of science, farmers should go to the tropically wet north. Hey presto! Problem solved.

Except that in the northwest corner of Australia, around the Ord and Fitzroy Rivers, water levels have been dropping. I don’t know whether the reduced water levels are the result of mining, farming, increased population density or reduced rainfall, but the gorges are not as full of water as they have been in the past.

Moreover, from the point of view of farm history, early irrigation on the Ord River resulted in salt rising through the water table, ruining good land. And in the end, the costs of transporting the produce to the cities were prohibitive.

Australians live in the driest inhabited continent on earth. Since White settlers first tilled the soil at Botany Bay, farmers came to understand that repeating the farm methods of the UK or Europe would bring problems. Having the imagination to work the land differently was another matter.

During the 1860s, benefactors encouraged farming practices that would work in a land with unpredictable and extreme climate patterns. WW Jenkins set up the Illawarra Agricultural Society, for example, putting some of his wealth towards instructing new settlers in better farm management.

In 1870, Josiah Mitchell blamed government policies for encouraging the American experience where ‘the settler subdues a piece of land, flogs it to death, abandons the carcass, and repeats the operation on a new subject.’ The Fencing Act of the 1870s was bad for the land (and the Indigenous people), forcing landholders to ‘improve’ rapidly, without time to learn how much flogging the land could take. As Mitchell predicted, bad farm practices were perpetuated.

But good farm management, as Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute pointed out on ABC Radio National’s AM a few days after Bill Heffernan’s comments, means accepting that drought is the usual condition of the Australian climate, not an exceptional event requiring governments to fork out ‘exceptional circumstances relief.’ Rainfall has historically been unpredictable in Australia and Hamilton argued that helping farmers who have not prepared for drought only perpetuates the degradation of the land. Those farmers in most need are usually on land that is the least suitable for farming. By encouraging them to continue to farm these already marginal plots, they will further degrade barely arable land.

According to Hamilton, city people believe that there are farmers who expect to be bailed out repeatedly by governments consisting of urban politicians enamoured of the ideology of the bush. And sure enough, on Tuesday, John Howard announced that he believed the bush and its rural communities were essential parts of the Australian psyche and that this was reason enough to spend $350 million on rescuing failed and failing farmers. But the PM was adamant that these custodians of our bush ‘psyche’ should stay put, and not be tempted to leave the land, because for them to take a hint from ‘market forces’ in the form of Mother Nature’s Big Dry and move on would somehow compromise the essence of the vast majority of us who live in this most urbanised of continents.

There are always farmers and graziers who have prepared wisely for drought. Over the years, thinking farmers have reforested to consolidate watercourses and to protect dew from rapidly evaporating. Some have planted marshes to restore and maintain ground water on their properties. But even these imaginative land managers do not doubt that this is the worst dry spell, and the longest, that they have experienced. And many believe that the pattern of declining rainfall over several decades can be sheeted home to global warming notwithstanding Howard’s warnings ‘not to overdo the link’ between the drought and climate change.

Professor Peter Cullen a water ecologist and member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a member of the National Water Commission also believes that paying increasingly generous sums of money to support drought-stricken farmers ignores the evidence that the climate is changing, making some land unsuitable to farm.

Recognising that there are farmers who know no other way of life, and for whom a move to a town or the city would be destructive, Professor Cullen believes re-training makes sense using subsidies perhaps to assist families to stay on the land, use it less intensively and restore watercourses and tree cover, activities that would go towards stabilising both the land and rural communities.

Thanks to emo

Nevertheless, the farmers interviewed on AM believed that the State and Federal Governments’ management of water exacerbated their problems. Rob Priebe, a dairy farmer from south-east Queensland, wants the Queensland Government to build a dam to store water that falls during the good times. And Dudley Bryant, President of Northern Victorian Irrigators, complained that dairy farmers in Victoria pay for water they don’t receive.

Damming, redirecting rivers, storing water that has been syphoned from rivers in underground tanks, then paying the government for an allocation. Is this what water management means?

But even if the Prime Minister believes the drought and global warming are separate issues, drought subsidies to relieve farmers in the Murray-Darling basin might be better spent on ridding this part of the country of rice and cotton two stupid crops for a desert continent. The Murray-Darling River system is desperate for these two industries to go, so that farmers downstream can have access to running water.

Walgett is where waters meet that’s what ‘Walgett’ means in the local Indigenous language. The Barwon and Namoi Rivers used to flow through Walgett until cotton robbed the town and surrounding small farms of water. I assume that part of what Hamilton means by ‘farm management’ is choosing the right crop for the climate and the quality of the land to be tilled.

Rice depends on regular irrigation. How many times have we read that the removal of trees stops water from being taken from deep under the soil; that water from irrigation soaks through the soil, raising the water table, and facilitating the rise of salt to the surface of the water, eventually leaving deposits on the soil surface; and that the salt stops plants from growing, reducing the productivity of the land. The salination of the Murray-Darling destroys both arable land and clean running water.

That’s what rice production does.

There are things that politicians can do other than pandering to sentimentality based on outdated notions of the nation’s ‘psyche.’ In Sydney’s west, at Liverpool some of the country’s richest soils there used to be rich dairy farms, commercial vegetable farms and orchards. Sydney property developers bought up the
land from the 1950s on. Nowadays, it’s the turn of the orchards and farms in the Richmond and Pitt Town areas to be bought and razed to make way for housing estates.

Planning at micro-level for city-focussed water and green belt maintenance makes good sense for Australia’s population where it is most dense along the eastern seabord strip. In New South Wales we need legislation to maintain a green belt (like New York City’s) around Sydney. Buying up the suburbs built on the best soil sounds radical and expensive, but that’s the direction our legislators should be going.

A green belt would not only keep Sydney fed, it would also help keep humidity and temperatures down. Reserving tracts of land for recycling water through rushes in marshlands keeps the supply of potable water going to the city person and also to the invaluable green belt farmlands.

I am sure Senator Heffernan loves his land. But, at the national level, moving farmers to the wetter north, by his own admission also on expensive idea, is reactive. Even with the best of scientists, all it will achieve is a repetition of misguided land use.

On balance, climate change means government investment in science to better understand the restoration of water courses to maintain arable land is the less expensive option, the benefits being long-term with a sustainable future.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.