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Water: another crisis

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 15 March 2016


Water is vital for a sustainable future, particularly in Australia. To survive, and therefore for all of us to survive, water needs all the care and compassion it can get. Not so in Australia.

The new and brash head of CSIRO, Larry Marshall, recently announced plans to get rid of scientists from the Land and Water division. Apparently there has been a judgement that they do not have the capacity to make money for the organisation.

Starting with Bob Hawke and Barry Jones, as his minister for science, it was decided that the CSIRO should be partly funded from money it raised externally, mainly from the private sector. As is the way with external money the resulting science – largely paid for by public funds – is often owned and controlled by particular companies on a commercial in confidence basis. This means that the public and other Australian enterprises have no access to what is essentially publicly funded science – our money. This flies in the face of what the CSIRO was set up to do.

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Abbott was and remains a Luddite with respect to scientific research particularly to climate change, land and water. He axed the National Water Commission as well as the National Climate Commission. The braying acolytes that are coyly referred to as his supporters share his attitudes to public good science. They are against it. Marshall is their man, he was appointed during Abbott's prime ministership. Marshall brings a strong right wing agenda to the administration of CSIRO. How dare he? The CSIRO was set up to conduct research for both industry and the national interest. The government must move to fully fund the CSIRO.

I am from Western Australia. I was recently in the wheat belt of that state. The rain fall for the area around Tambellup has declined 125ml over the past fifty years, from 500 to 375ml and around Kondinin from 350ml to 250ml, making it a marginal wheat growing area. In both districts salinity continues its relentless march. More and more productive land is being lost each year. In the face of this – and a thousand more examples like it including fracking and the mining industry- where is the sense in the CSIRO cutting funding to land and water research?

As if to underline my observations about the water crisis facing Western Australia an article in the local paper, 'The West Australian', a paper that both Julian and I worked on, detailed the falling levels of the Gnangarra ground water system, Perth's most important source of drinking water. The Department of Water reported that 16 out of 30 monitoring bores had water levels lower than the allowed minimum in the 12 months to 30 June last year. It noted that compliance with water extraction limits was often being breached.

Water has no advocate and very little scientific support. It should not be placed in the 'care' of agriculture departments; as federal minister, Barnaby Joyce, clearly does not see himself as having a brief to protect water. Water for him is a resource to be exploited for economic benefit. In February of this year Joyce is reported by the ABC to have said, "Water is wealth and a dam is a bank, any essence of wealth is connected to water and water infrastructure, as they say you can make money out of mud but you can't make it out of dust." Some bank when in Australia most dams lose metres of water each year to evaporation. A dam is 19th Century technology; an obvious solution is aquifer recharge. But most likely Barnaby wants his name on a dam wall.

In NSW the 'care' of water is entrusted to the Department of Primary Industries. An official of that department recently told me that in drought when farmers plead for a greater allocation of water 'we more often than not look the other way'. Perfectly understandable when a department of agriculture is given responsibility for what they view as an economic resource, rather than an essential commodity that has to be nurtured for many stake holders for there to be any hope of a sustainable future.

Julian Cribb, a science writer who worked with CSIRO for a number of years and has written extensively on the environment, water, land and food production tells me that the tragedy is that the CSIRO has done outstanding work on land and water research particularly with respect to the Murray-Darling Basin. He said that it was disastrous that Marshall now proposes to decimate the very work of CSIRO that will be of greatest benefit to the sustainability of Australia into the future, in a world heading for a major water crisis.

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Water and best use of land are the keys to the future sustainability of this nation. Even aside from the nonsense of the CSIRO proposals, best use of land and water has been allowed to fall badly behind with the closure of agricultural research stations and colleges. Food production, if managed sustainably, has the capacity to remain a major industry in Australia. But it needs nurturing, it needs research, not driven by chemical companies but by public spending for the long term public benefit.

It needs infrastructure, which might have been provided by the windfalls of the mining boom but were wasted by the populist tax cuts of the Howard/Costello years.

All sides of politics have been guilty of neglect of water, land and the CSIRO. Gillard axed Land and Water Australia and showed the same ignorance of the environment as her predecessors and successors.

Water is Australia's most precious natural resource – bar none. It underpins our cities, our food supply and much loved landscapes and wildlife. Yet we still do not know how much we have, where it is, how ground and surface water interact, and how climate is affecting our supplies, all of which is the task of water science.

The cuts to CSIRO water science will guarantee Australia cannot manage its most valuable resource into the future.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat and farmer.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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