Australia can’t be drought-proofed and we can’t just keep trying to get more water from other sources to grow unsustainable crops – we need to live within our natural means and get a whole lot smarter about how we use our natural resources.
All the catastrophic fire reports refer to the tinder dry conditions, lack of rain and lack of soil moisture – all symptoms of the effects of 200 years of applying European farming methods to a very different continent and failing to understand its limitations. Research shows that 50% of the decline in regional rainfall is due to our farming methods, with climate change effects coming on top of the drying of our landscapes.
In his book ‘Collapse’, published in 2005, Jarrod Diamond says Australia will be the first, First World country to face economic and social collapse because of over-exploitation of natural resources. He notes that Australia has uniquely impoverished soils and associated low nutrients in our marine ecosystems, as well finite, limited water resources. Almost all natural nutrients were tied up in the standing crop of native vegetation cover, and once this was removed, remaining nutrients were quickly depleted by the first crops. Current crops are heavily reliant on supplementary fertilisers.
Bureau of Meteorology charts show a very significant decline in rainfall across agricultural areas since the 1970s, accompanied by a very dramatic increase in temperature over the same period. The cumulative effect of past management of Australian landscapes has increased the drying out of already dry and impoverished soils. Clearance of vast tracts of vegetation has in fact decreased rainfall, instead of the popular myth that ‘the rain follows the plough’.
National Soil Advocate Michael Jeffery says we need to declare Australia’s soil, water and vegetation as national strategic assets and that our national priority should be to focus on soil and water security, to underpin social stability and security (Jeffery 2017).
Former Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, presenting at a National Press Club debate on ‘Re-booting Democracy’, called for an over-arching vision for where our country is going and leadership from politicians on how to get there.
It would be a good start to have a vision of re-vegetating large areas of landscapes, to increase soil moisture, to retain carbon, to shade the soil surfaces to reduce temperatures and increase habitats for insect-eating birds, among many benefits. We also need a vision of how to manage a landscape with such large variability in water availability and temperature, to develop sustainable farming techniques which do not continue to deplete resources and can support farming communities through drought.
Australia needs a new attitude of stewardship of our natural resources and living within our resource means. We have been nominated as one of six international hotspots which should undertake mass revegetation, to help to re-sorb carbon from the atmosphere. We urgently need a re-set on how we manage our landscapes and natural resources. The poster below tells the story.