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					Melbourne Festival lecture – 19th May 2001
Water, science and society
Graham Harris
CSIRO Land & Water
Canberra


As we stand on the dawn of the new millennium and in the centenary of our
Federation, Australia faces a number of very significant challenges. As Dr Peter
Raven, the well known scientist and campaigner for conservation, said in Canberra
recently Australia is a microcosm of a global Natural Resource Management (NRM)
problem – that of over population, resource depletion, over extraction of water, and
destruction of biodiversity. In all of this water is a key resource. Recent United
Nations reports show that water is now, and will increasingly be, a source of national
and international conflict. For many people in the world access to sufficient water of
high enough quality for domestic use is not a right as we would see it, but a daily fight
for survival. Small wonder that we are having our own debates between States and
communities.

The human population on this planet faces a number of unprecedented challenges.
The next fifty years will see a number of fundamental transitions – that of a stabilising
global population, of declining energy and mineral resources, and of environmental
change brought about by the need to feed, water and house a global population of nine
or ten billion people. We are the cause of a massive biodiversity loss not seen since
the last great extinction about 65 million years ago. In all of this water is the key – it
is water which links the processes of the planet. Water falls and flows down, across,
under and through the landscape and when we change the biodiversity of the planet,
when we alter land use, when we fragment habitats and destroy ecosystems we
change the hydrology, the chemistry and the biology too. The sum of all this is a set
of major NRM challenges.

Australia has seen major changes in the way it manages and prices it water. We are
world leaders in the use of economic instruments for managing water, but right across
the western world governments and agencies use resource economics as a tool for
NRM. Rights markets are a popular tool of NRM. It is necessary however to
remember that by their very nature markets do not include two really important
constituencies – other species and other generations – both of whom who have a right
to a share of the world’s natural resources. There are moral and ethical dimensions to
what has become primarily an economic debate.

By 2050 Australia will have seen a major transition. Our population will stabilise (at
around 25 million), the era of cheap energy and mineral resources will have passed
and there will be large areas of the Australian landscape sterilised by salinity. If we do
not act it will be an area about the size of this State of Victoria. And it is water which
will have caused the salinity problem – a real irony in a country where water is a
limiting resource. There is also evidence that in parts of this country long term
changes in rainfall patterns are occurring – Perth has experienced a significant decline
in rainfall the in the last thirty years (up to 60% in some regions of WA). Whether this
is climate variability or a result of the Greenhouse effect is too early to say. But by
2050 Australia is very likely to be managing water shortages, salinity, biodiversity
loss and landscape failure – and by landscape failure I mean the loss of function and
uncontrolled leakage of salt, nutrient s and other elements from the land and into our
rivers. This challenge will require us to be innovative – and innovation will require
social, economic and scientific responses if we are to cope.

We will be responding to these challenges in an era of economic globalisation and
competition. Right around the globe environmental management is becoming a
significant public issue and large corporations are beginning to see that good
environmental management is good business. Agriculture is the biggest water user in
this country and one of our major exporters. Food quality is just one area where there
is justified concern on the part of consumers about pesticide residues, GMOs and even
the environmental impacts of growing the crops. Sainsburys, the big UK supermarket
chain, has recently launched a campaign to lift its market share by tapping into these
concerns and marketing itself as the store which sells the cleanest, greenest and best
tasting food in Europe. Australia’s use of water, its environmental condition, and the
impact of agriculture on our environment are set to become international trade issues
as we compete in an increasingly tough international market.

All of this will require an institutional response by governments and agencies and a
response by society at large. We will need to improve the way we do business – the
Federal Minister of Agriculture said recently “business as usual is not an option”.
Greed and fear are the two major motivators of human nature – we must balance the
drive for profit (and profligate water use) with other concerns and other dimensions.
We need sustainable environments and sustainable rural communities. This balance
requires new ways of thinking and new ideas. Increasing water use efficiency is going
to be a major challenge. Science is an agent of change but it must be a part of a social
process of debate and acceptance. Leadership is required but it must be done both
with and within society, not from without.

So what does science tells us about this landscape of ours? We now know (and people
like Mary White have given us important new insights in this regard) that this is an
ancient land, a fragile and arid land quite unlike the Europe of the early white settlers.
This is the most arid inhabited continent. We know that this land has been inhabited
by our aboriginal peoples for at least 65,000 years and that their lifestyle was much
more sustainable than ours. This was not terra nullius. The introduction of western
agricultural techniques wreaked havoc with this land and we are now beginning to see
the consequences of our actions in landscape degradation. Once again water is the
key, the way we garner it and store it, the way we transport it and the way we dispose
of it after use. Our agricultural crops do not mimic the function of the native
Australian bush with its unique diversity of species and function. The way water
flows through our functionally depauperate agricultural crops is a fundamental cause
of the salinity problems. Our rivers are in particularly poor shape because we have
regulated their flows, used them as irrigation ditches and used them as waste disposal
vehicles. Water is the most valuable resource in Australia and water use efficiency is
key to Australian sustainability. Business as usual is indeed not an option.
Our habitat fragmentation experiments with bulldozers have taught us much about the
way this landscape of ours functions. We have done a huge number of uncontrolled
experiments in landscape ecology in catchments which we can use as individual data
points if we want to try to get a general picture. We know that clearing the land
fragments the native bush, reduces biodiversity and changes the hydrology. Land
clearing increases run off and ground water recharge – and leads to increased salinity
in our rivers. We know that land clearing increases gullying and erosion, and
increases river turbidity. Simultaneously the movement of nutrients and major ions is
increased, with risks of poor water quality due to acidity and nutrient enrichment. All
of the above phenomena follow a general pattern which is explicable in terms of
functional ecology and ecosystem theory. The overall result of land clearing is
increased risk of salinity in the landscape and the extinction of our iconic biodiversity.

Salinity is not just an agricultural problem. In many rural towns it is an urban
problem. Rising ground waters and salinity in urban areas degrades infrastructure at
real cost – roads, culverts, bridges, foundations and walls all suffer. In towns like
Wagga Wagga even playgrounds and sports ovals are being lost. In Adelaide salty
drinking water is already a fact of life – and it is going to get worse over time. Salinity
is a problem for all of us.

I believe that reconciliation with our aboriginal peoples is a key part of our acceptance
of our heritage. It is a key part of our reconciliation with history and with our
environment – something that is essential if we are to move forward positively and to
really tackle our environmental and social problems in innovative ways. We need to
foster and accept a sense of what Mary White would call “deep time” and acceptance
of our aboriginal heritage is part of that process. But do we as a society really want to
know what is going on? Or are we all ostriches? Will we accept this challenge of
acceptance of our history, and the challenge to change our ways? The Australian
Federation has been in existence for one hundred years. Our aboriginal peoples have
been here about 650 times as long, and their record of sustainability is much better
than ours.

It is necessary to ask whether Australia, as we presently use it, is sustainable.
Historically we have focussed on but one part of the triple bottom line – that of
economic advantage, of profit and greed. We have seriously depleted our water
resources and extracted a large proportion of the total flows from our major drainage
basins. The Murray Mouth has closed for long periods. The national risk from dry
land salinity and rising ground water mounds under our irrigation areas is severe.
Much of our iconic biodiversity is at risk from land clearing – as many as 30% of the
birds in the wheat and sheep zones are under threat. Yet there are still those who clear
land and build dams in unsuitable areas for short term profit.

It is not just water quantity that is at risk. We know realise that there are close links
between agriculture, soil chemistry and water quality. By clearing the land and
altering the hydrological balance of the landscape we have mobilised salt and caused
massive salinity problems. We have increased erosion dramatically and loss of soils is
a significant problem. Agricultural activity in many parts of Australia leads to soil
acidity – and this is a bigger problem in many areas than soil salinity. Recent research
has shown that soil acidity rapidly leads to acid waters in our rivers as well, and
acidity has increased in many Victorian rivers in the last twenty five years.
We require solutions to these problems at regional and catchment scales. The
challenge to science in all this is to integrate and synthesise much of what we already
know as well as to do science at unprecedented scales. Science has not traditionally
been very good at team work or large scale integration. The days of the lone boffin
are numbered as we focus on large scale solutions. Much new information is now
coming from activities like the National Land and Water Resources Audit and the
State of Environment reporting being carried out by the States. We have new
technologies and new tools – satellites, computers and the Web that we simply did not
have a decade ago. We are making rapid progress but there is much that we do not yet
kow.

There are those who would argue that we do not need more science. Some, indeed,
would argue that science has caused quite enough problems as it is! What we do need
is more large scale science that seeks solutions to many of these wickedly complex
NRM problems. This is not he kind of science that has historically been done. The
lone boffin can only do so much, and the tendency in the past has been to focus on the
small and the particular, to the detriment of the large and the general. Yes, sad to say,
science has not delivered the goods for a host of historical and institutional reasons. It
is simply not true to assert that we have all the solutions, and that all we need to do is
to hand them over to empowered regional communities – and that all will then be
well. Science must work in new ways, at larger scales and more much effectively with
regional communities if we are to move forward.

Quite clearly the Audit is telling us that the environmental status of this Continent is
mostly linked to our use of water. We are over-extracting both surface and ground
waters, quality is poor and salinity is rising in many areas of the Murray-Darling
Basin. The challenge to science lies in turning what we know about quantity, quality
and aquatic ecology into useful information and delivering this to governments and
society in ways that they can use. We desperately need new knowledge – particularly
about impacts of altered flow regimes and salinity on aquatic ecosystems, about
ecosystem structure and function and about the links between agriculture, land use
and water quality. We know that society requires (even demands) information,
options and empowerment. Science must operate in new ways in this environment.

But what do we want the future to be like? We face decisions about triage – which
parts of the environment must we protect at all costs, which parts must we write off?
We must take some unpalatable decisions about freshwater and terrestrial
biodiversity. How do we dispose of salt in the landscape? Do we pump out saline
ground waters that threaten terrestrial biodiversity reserves – and destroy aquatic
biodiversity in the process because the water is twice as salty as seawater? What do
we want to keep and where? We can think of setting targets and standards for salinity
and water quality in catchments, even biodiversity, but in a competitive and global
economy, what are our targets and standards for rural societies and economies? How
do we trade off the various priorities?

All these decisions must be taken in an environment of the growing divide between
rural and regional Australia and the cities, of the “balkanisation” of society and the
lack of trust of institutions and professionals. We need a public debate about what we
want this land of ours to be like – encompassing the “triple bottom line” – social,
economic and environmental sustainability. We have reached the biophysical limits in
many aspects of modern Australian life – particularly water – so how do we change
our ways? We need a debate about the future, about the status quo versus future
possibilities.

Whether we like it or not this world is run by natural laws. Science is one of the
enterprises which attempts to understand those laws. Other forms of the arts and
culture can be seen as ways to understand the human condition – also determined by
natural laws of various kinds. We can make decisions and set policy so as to ignore
those laws but we do so at our peril. Sustainable scenarios for the future can only be
based compliance with those natural laws, and on knowledge of human nature and the
nature of our environment. Governments talk about developing “evidence based”
policy, but most decisions are still taken on the basis of profit rather than on cultural
or biophysical understandings. We are seeing the consequences of these actions writ
large in the landscape.

What I would like to see is a more inclusive debate about what kind of country we
want this to be – in the sense of the true triple bottom line. We need to decide what
kind of society we wish to be and how we wish to deal with inequalities of
opportunity and geography. We have to deal with deep cultural and institutional
issues as well as the more immediate economic concerns. We cannot continue to build
dams and clear land on the assumption that the dam will magically fill with water, that
dry land salinity is not a problem in certain States, and that any water running away
down river is a waste. In many cases it is the small residual flows of water that are the
most important – salinity is caused by the small residual flow of water beneath the
root zone – only a few millimetres a year, but enough to cause sever and large scale,
long term problems.

This will be a new kind of debate and the problems are wickedly complex. In most
cases there is no optimal solution. We will have to trade off competing interests. For
science there is a massive challenge to deliver regional solutions in a complex social
and economic environment. This is a new kind of science – something we have never
been asked to do before. This is new science, new policy, new economics and new
sociology. Dr Peter Raven recently pointed out that Australia is coming to grips with
these problems earlier than may other nations and, if we can solve some of these, we
have a major international contribution to make. Our gift to the world can be solutions
to some of these wicked problems. No wonder we are floundering about at times
seeking solutions – we are much further down the tunnel than most and, yes, it does
look a bit dark at times! But there is light at the end of the tunnel – and we have many
national institutions like CSIRO committed to helping everyone find a way forward.

We are talking about new kinds of science here. Science to improve water use
efficiency and catchment management at regional scales whilst seeking sustainability
for regional and rural communities and economies. We need sustainable communities
on the landscape if we are to manage it effectively. We cannot abandon large areas of
this continent to woody weeds and feral animals. Restoration ecology at these scales
is a totally new science. It challenges the institutions of CSIRO, the Academies and
the Universities, it challenges career structures, reward systems and personal value
systems. We will have to learn to integrate and synthesis knowledge, to work together
in teams, to apply what we know, to admit freely what we do not know and to move
forward together.

Simultaneously our NRM problems are challenging lifestyles and values in both
urban and rural Australia. We have to address the triple bottom line for communities
as well as businesses and the landscape. Access to quality water, food and a
sustainable community and environment are a right for all. Agriculture is a necessary
activity but we are increasingly seeing it in a new light. As the problems of BSE and
foot-and-mouth disease are teaching us, agriculture is but one facet of NRM – there
are other values and other communities. By virtue of a complex series of interactions,
linking animal husbandry to grazing pressure and hence to run off and water quality,
there here have been major impacts of BSE on water quality in the English Lakes.
Reductions in the markets for beef led to reductions in cattle herds and changes to
grazing pressures. The foot-and-mouth epidemic in UK has had major impacts on
tourism – a much more valuable source of revenue for rural communities than
agriculture in many regions. Food quality, environmental management, lifestyles,
tourism, social concerns – even water quality – must all be factored into modern
businesses – and market economics is not the only solution to these highly complex
problems.

We desperately need a reconciliation and a true debate between science and society.
We need to increase trust and openness on all sides. This nation of ours is poised to
set off in new directions. New ideas are required and change and uncertainty are
inevitable. We need to redevelop trust and open a dialogue over our options. The
future is somewhere we are all going. Strategic planning is about envisaging the
future and then working backwards from where we want to go – figuring out the best
path to take to get there.

What do we want this environment, society and economy to be like? The Prime
Minister’s National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality is a new initiative to
deliver regional solutions in 21 catchment areas across the wheat and sheep zone of
this continent. This is going to be a massive and complex task. I don’t think we have
really thought through the true complexity of what we are trying to do. I applaud the
initiative and the ambition but we have to be very careful to ensure that we succeed in
making real changes and improvements – not just papering over a few cracks and
trying to pretend that all will be well. It is up to all of us to make this work:
governments, institutions, communities.

As the PM’s Plan does we can set targets for salinity and water quality in the 21
catchment areas – but what about the other values, species, generations and
communities? In this, our Centenary of Federation, we can move forward positively
and constructively but we have to do it by conscious choice – not by default. In the
global economy there is room for innovative societies and there is room for new ideas
and new cultures. But if we do not learn from our history we are condemned to make
the same mistakes over and over again And it will profit us not at all.

To move forward positively and constructively we will need to invest in science, the
arts and in all forms of social and cultural development. It is part of long term
investment in who we are, and understanding what are the constraints, the natural
laws, under which we live. Science is a key part of that debate which informs us all,
not just the economic interests. Water is also a key to that debate in Australia – and
not just because it also is part of the economy. Work by Geoff Syme at the Australian
Centre for Water in Society in Perth has shown that there is real concern in society for
Justice, Equity and Fairness – water has many values beyond profit.

These are indeed wickedly complex problems – science can and must inform the
debate – but society must choose its own path forward. Scientists are part of society
and we need to engage more effectively in the debate. We have long under-invested in
many forms of cultural development in this country – now, when we need a vigorous
debate about who we are and where we want to be in the future, is no time to focus on
just one part of the total picture. When you next take a glass of water from the tap,
think through some of the broader issues and do not take secure access to high quality
drinking water for granted. This is indeed a microcosm of a very broad and important
set of issues – one that as human beings on the only known inhabited planet, only we
can solve.

				
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