Dryland salinity

Jennifer Marohasy has a couple of posts on dryland salinity, including a link to an excellent survey of the recent debate by John Passioura (subscription required). Marohasy’s interpretation is (as always) that the problem has been grossly exaggerated. This kind of unvarying optimism (or the alternative position that environmental disaster is invariably impending) is a fine example of the ‘stopped clock‘ approach to punditry. If you make this kind of claim on every issue, you’re going to be right about half the time.

In the case of dryland salinity, it’s easy enough to find examples of both excess pessimism and excess optimism. Among the optimistic errors noted by Passioura are the assumption of the Western Australian government 20 to 25 years ago that the salinity problem was well in hand, and that there was no problem with large scale clearing. This was covered in a book by Beresford et al which I mentioned a couple of years ago. Another form of excess optimism is the belief that there are easy solutions. These include engineering solutions like the use of the Murray as a drain for saline water (seriously proposed in the not-so-distant past as Passioura notes) and, more recently, large-scale tree planting. As I observed in the post I’ve already mentioned, it’s turned out that in many cases, the area that has to be planted is so great and the time to fix the problem so long that, in a lot of cases, it appears not be economically feasible.

Another piece of bad news is that, whereas early studies focused almost exclusively on agriculture, dryland salinity can cause substantial economic losses through damage to roads, buildings and so on. On the other hand, remote sensing has suggested that the area affected by dryland salinity is less than first thought, and that trends are more variable. And the alarming estimate of 17 million hectares derived from the National Salinity Audit refers to the area that might (in the absence of policy change) have high water tables and therefore be at risk of dryland salinity, not the area that is likely to be actually affected.

If you want an easily accessible view of the problem (a little out of date now, but still very good), I recommend David Pannell’s 2001 AARES Presidential Address Dryland Salinity: Inevitable, Inequitable, Intractable? .

Update 8/2/06In response to a challenge to nominate an environmental issue where urgent action is needed, Jennifer Marohasy says

“In a recent blog post (a version of the same published as an article for The Land newspaper) I suggest something needs to be done about overgrazing in the Macquarie Marshes, This links back to the even more dramatic
Cattle Killing the Macquarie Marshes?.”

Despite the question mark, Marohasy is pretty confident the answer is “Yes’. Her evidence? “An aerial photo showing the line of demarcation between an overgrazed private property and ungrazed nature reserve. As she says, “the impact of grazing here is obvious and dramatic.”

But there are many, many similarly dramatic photos of environmental damage in the Murray-Darling. In these cases Marohasy rightly says that dramatic photos may be misleading and need to be backed up by scientific research (when the scientific research is produced she rejects it, but that’s by the way). [I will try to get some more info on this, and report what research has in fact been done].

How is that Marohasy is so quick, in this case, to label farmers as environmental vandals, and to call for urgent action, when she normally disputes conclusions based on decades of research?

A reading of the posts makes the answer pretty clear. The Macquarie Marsh graziers are in conflict with the irrigators she represents. Follow the money.

55 thoughts on “Dryland salinity

  1. Terje, Cris et al. The IPA has a political barrow to push – that is the reason for its existence and why it gets funding. It is not alone in this, and there are left-of-centre equivalents, although rather fewer in number and less well-funded. However, it is surely fair enough to object to aspects of how it operates (and indeed many of the others). These include an elaborate charade of disinterest and intellectual inquiry. That’s why it’s called the altruistic-sounding Institute for Public Affairs and not Promotion of Rich and Powerful Interests Inc. Jennifer makes regular media appearances posing as merely an ‘environmental scientist’. By that standard, John Howard would be a ‘lawyer with an interest in public policy’. Surely a person with the perceived conflict of interest problem deals with it in part by always declaring it. And we are entitled to suspect the worst when there are attempts at concealment.

    On the main issue in this thread, it seems unarguable that win-win proposals for more efficient use of water, less erosion etc ought to be vigorously pursued regardless of whether current inefficient practices are wholly or only partly responsible for the problem, the size of the problem and the rate it is growing. Is anyone arguing that wasteful water use and land use practices that cause erosion are a good idea? Or are we being encouraged to embrace despair – apres moi le deluge?

  2. Steve Munn, I agree with you totally about the threat from right-wing thinktanks. Mark Davis talked ably about this at the Brisbane Social Forum a few years ago, calling for progressives to formulate similarly long-term strategies to counter them (admittedly not so easy to do without the scads of corporate funding available to the right). George Lakoff has been banging this drum also in the States.

    However, in this kind of forum I think the appropriate, effective and humanly-respectful approach is to try to win arguments. In the end, if your reasoning is sound, it doesn’t matter who pays your opponent’s wages. If Marohasy’s climate change stuff is reprehensible then it’s probably poorly-argued (don’t know, haven’t read it) and easy to counter.

    Hal9000, I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said about the IPA. I groan every time I hear that one of it’s ‘experts’ is about to be interviewed on Radio National, knowing I’m going to hear yet more dreary right-wing corpspeak.

    But I’d make two points about this. Firstly: decent people can work for reprehensible organisations (I’ve done so myself, and hope not to fall that far short of decency). Marohasy may well hold her views in perfectly good faith, and assuming that of your interlocuters just makes for better-quality conversation. Secondly: arguments about science and policy in a forum like this do take place on a level playing field. If Marohasy is easily countered, all well and good. If not, and you are still of your original opinion, then surely the kind of challenge that raises is good too?

    I just cannot see how, in this context, shouting people down or making personal attacks benefits anyone.

    (I should add that I don’t think this is always true. Foul abusers of power like the current government, by their very nature don’t engage in argument at all — unfortunately not even in the democratic forums set aside for that purpose. They merit contempt in my view).

  3. Hello to all,

    This is the first time that I have followed a commentary on this kind of website and have found it very interesting. It is good to see this level of discussion.

    The only note I might add is regarding the way to deal with what might be opinions based on little science (or a good misrepresentation of it). My main comment would be to keep any personal comments out of any argument. I know this is not easy as peoples personalities and “interests” do play into what they say. However, if “your” argument is based on the best available science “your” argument will look stronger. A good example is to use and cite the data and discussion at web sites like realclimate.org which was set up specifically to counter bogus claims and keep people informed of the latest science.

    Now, I am sure that most who read this will not have learnt anything new from what I’ve just written, but I hope it is of some help.

  4. Merredin, the first comment set the tone for the thread and continued with enthusiasm, it is all about personalities, smears and unsubstantiated allegations and little to do with substance, much like the Danish cartoon fiasco.

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