The Great Murray River: The Real Tragedy of the Commons

The horizon stretches out before me, flat but for a few clusters of trees. The baked soil makes the horizon dance beneath the hot sun.

It is an arid environment and yet, before my feet spreads out an artificial wetland, complete with ibis, herons, egrets, plovers and ducks. Some of these wetland plots are void of all life, but for the rice shoots, due to air cannons sporadically setting off to scare all other life away.

Around the region, it is not uncommon to find aging signs tied to posts and trees along the roads, warning anyone who cares to listen that without water, we have no farms. I cannot help but feel that I am witnessing a real example of the tragedy of the commons. No story of cowboys feeding stock on a shared land required for, in Australia, we have real farmers on one real waterway.

Some readers will remember that, under the chapter “Nothing is Wasted” in The Human Island, I discussed the heated response to the Murray Darling Plan in agricultural communities across the waterway. Memories of that time flooded back as I stand over this man-made wetland.

What happens up-stream plays a roll on what happens down-stream. In effect, these farmers are evaporating away wealth stripped away from periodic wetlands and farming communities from the Riverland all the way down to the Lower Lakes solely to grow a subtropical crop on the arid inland of New South Wales. They could do this due simply to the rule; first come, first served.

I have been privileged to have travelled and to work alongside the most of the length of the great River Murray. I have been involved in air quality concerns resulting from the dry Lower Lakes blowing acidic dust around the struggling communities. I have worked alongside individuals measuring pollution due to industrial, residential and agricultural run-off as well as from the icon house boats that drift along the river system. My previous research focused on the productivity of the floodplains to fringing mallee lands while my current work places me in the Murrumbidgee region, further up-stream.

Even more personally, my father was born in Murray Bridge.

More than many Aussies, I have been lucky not to just know the Murray, but to follow the river from the Great Dividing Range all the way to the ocean mouth and to have studied alongside it and appreciate the rich biota at every bend.

Standing over the evaporating pool, after years of appreciation of the hardship at the tail-end, I could not help but shake my head. States and individuals prove that they are not capable of managing the river system properly as independent entities across the river. Gluttonous behaviour follows an inappropriate selfishness wherever the resource first finds itself. Rice fields in the arid inland are iconic to this fact.

We are likely to experience climatic conditions we simply cannot adequately predict to any great certainty simply because they are not what we knew of the Holocene as we push the climate deeper into the Anthropocene. We, along the Murray, may know a wetter future, with the biggest impact being from inundation of housing on the floodplains. More likely, the Australian “boom and bust” cycle will become more prominent and we will need to plan conservatively in how we utilise common resources. Even in the wetter years, we may not be able to excuse rice and cotton crops with any ethical conviction.

Productivity and, more importantly, what we hope to achieve from productivity – prosperity – will need to result from management of vital resources holistically and not based on border boundaries. Moreover, we need to increasingly maximise our return from limited resources and, in the case of our only major river system, this must mean agricultural practices demanding high water efficiency. The strong pull of water conservation down-stream needs to work against the flow and reach the users up-stream. A lot of progress has been made in South Australia to improve water efficiency that could make a difference up-stream.

The first that comes to mind is covering channels to limit evaporation. Another; no crops that require the creation of a wetland. Apart from the ridiculous amount of water loss, the activity creates methane – a further driver taking us away from the stability that favoured our move from hunter-gathers to a point where you are now reading my musings via electrons on computers, tablets and even mobile phones.

I have no sympathy when I read the pleading call on the posters around this region. I have been lucky enough to see what farmers can do when they do not have much water to work with. These people are innovative not solely because of governmental regulations, but more so because other individuals – such as those behind the creation of the “No water, No farms” posters – whom have long taken large quantities of water to produce rice and cotton; water enough so as the Lower Lakes have at times no longer been lakes at all, but instead barren dust pools.

It has been the actions up-stream that have affected the lives and prosperity of communities and ecosystems down-stream. “No water” has been seriously contemplated along the tail-end of this common resource long before the slogan was planted all over the lucky up-stream region.

This river system illustrates a small real world tragedy of the commons. If this one little system cannot be managed properly, how can our global atmosphere?




Saturated Riverland mid Summer

Now that I’ve shaken all that nastiness off, back to the interesting side of life. Following my unsuccessful site visit last week, I posted some photos from the swollen River Murray and promise some more shots to follow.

Here’s a couple shots from the water logged Riverland closer to my monitoring site. Note, this is arid in land Australia, in the middle of the Aussie summer. I’d expect fire damage and extreme weathers too hot to merit site access – not landscapes like soup after months of heavy rain (around 100mm from each of the three previous months).

Shots taken by my Dad.

Field trip of mid February 2011

It’s been a very wet summer. So much so that I got a rude shock today – the site was inaccessible. The park rangers were willing to attempt the trip with me – bringing a couple vehicles so as we pull each out of the inevitable bogs, but I made the call it wasn’t worth the effort. I can remotely access the data, so I’ll make the effort to download the ~25920000 time stamps worth of data and just hope the site is otherwise in good working order.

But I did manage to get some get pictures.

In Nov 2010, this was a platform was by the bank. This is Dec 2010, with the first Qld floods.
Same spot, 2 months later (Feb 2011), after further Qld floods, many heavy down pours and also flooding in Vic
The eucalpyts love it? Salinity will likely be another talking point when the water reduces again, but it is good to see them getting a drink!

I should have some more pictures up soon!

Damming Water: The Human Island (Chapter 13)

It’s always disturbed me; fresh water filling that ceramic bowl just waiting for someone to relieve themselves in it. We must be the only non-aquatic species that makes the conscious decision to putrefy clean water.

Hypocritically to this is the rage discussed in chapter five regarding the Murray Darling Basin Plan. How can we get angry when water rates or water restrictions increase, but still feel comfortable plumbing out toilets to a drinkable water supply?

It’s an all too often occurrence nowadays to complain about the expense of resources (ie. water, food or energy) while making at best token gestures to reduce waste. Sivak and Tsimhoni (2009) for instance found that vehicle efficiency only showed signs of dramatic improvement in the wake of oil scarcity, to only plateaux again when general concern had waned [17].

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has stated that as the climate continues to change, we are more likely to experience increasing numbers of hot dry days and an increase in intense rainfall. In this regard, the prolonged drought over the south east of Australia over the first decade of the 21st century followed by the record breaking rainfall, causing widespread flooding, throughout spring and summer of 2010-2011 may provide some indication of what we can expect to become increasingly normal weather patterns.

Precipitation will forever remain the cheapest and most efficient source of desalinated water and yet we seem so quick to forget the past few years debate over desalination plants, soil salinity, aquifer pollution / recharge, waterway bank erosion / pollution and widespread wetlands loss / stagnation to instead debate increased dams and flood prevention planning. Of all our resource management issues, water is arguably the worst managed; where the public tend to be the most fickle.

Is it that we see our planet as the blue ball?

As mentioned above, precipitation is the cheapest source of desalinated water and is likely to become more infrequent, but more intense, as the world continues to warm (think also of the freak snow storms of the northern hemisphere over the past couple years). We will need to wizen up on water management and do so quickly.

Over recent decades, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of wetlands, not only for the abundance of species which they generally support (see chapter 5 above and Innovation is Key, chapter 6) but also for their ability purify water. This is yet another wonderful example of ecological services that we rely upon.

The problem for wetlands and river ways however, is that human diversion of water tends to restrict water movement (especially in drought conditions), leading to oxygen levels to decrease, where harmful bacteria can then take over; ie. stagnate water (image 7). Species survival is threatened by restrictions to water movement both through stagnation and potential limitations to suitable mates (see the Victorian Fishways Passage for an example). Overall, stagnation reduces water quality, thus stands as another example of water mismanagement.

Another important aspect not often discussed is evapotranspiration. It is a difficult life, believe it or not, relying on the sun and water (and of course CO2) to produce food, but also water to remove heat caused from too much solar energy. It’s a balance that arid plant species are amazingly adapted to coping with.

Think, for instance, of a mallee eucalypt: it’s the middle of a summer heat wave. There’s been little rain the past four months. You have more than enough sunlight, but very little water – how do you both transpire, to remove heat, and photosynthesise to sugars? Amazingly, many of these species are incredible water conserves and also able to tolerate temperatures that would cook many temperate species (well, these species are likely to transpire and thus wilt rather than cook).

Evapotranspiration is an important part of climate, being that it uses a significant proportion of the solar energy at the Earth’s surface, as well a major component of the hydrological cycle (ie. in Australia, evapotranspiration returns close to 90% of precipitation back to the atmosphere) but most importantly, water availability to ecosystems (for evapotranspiration as well as other functions) is most essential for ecosystem health and all the ecological services that they provide.

This in turn ensures increased fresh water security for human activity through various means:

  • Improving water movement, especially through diverse wetland habitats, is one of the easiest methods for improving water quality.
  • Cloud forests directly capture water for the atmosphere, providing a source of fresh water.
  • As mentioned in chapter 3, forests also provide storm surge protection, which will also assist with managing future flooding events, while also assisting in the capture of fresh water as precipitation becomes less frequent but higher intensity.

By islandising our species, fresh water will be without a doubt the most unreliable resource available to human activity. As water is so important to every aspect of human life, this fact should merit management that is both persistent and long term rather than the typical knee-jerk reaction. We can’t simply dam every last drop until we wish to use it, nor can we expect waterways to remain health whilst supporting whatever industrial, agricultural and residential use it meets along the path.

We’ve tried all of this; only to turn on each other to find someone else to blame when it eventually fails. We must stop this now or else we run the risk of a similar fate to the next cistern full of fresh water.

[17] Sivak, M., and, Tsimhoni, O. 2009. Fuel efficiency of vehicles on US roads: 1923-2006. Energy Policy. 37(8). pp 3168-3170. doi: 10.1016/j.enpol.2009.04.001

This is chapter thirteen of the series The Human Island: A Place of Ecological Ruin. To see the previous chapter, click here. As the series grows, the complete work can be found here.

Photos from SA

I’ve remained on the quiet side, I realise. Over the festive season, I’ve been enjoying the sun and getting the most out of SA while I have the chance (probably my last year here). I expect this to continue for the next few months as well. With any hope, I’ll manage to keep my work more up to date than I have been and the next collective blog is well and truly moving. Until I have more, here’s several photos from the previous month.

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Nothing is Wasted: The Human Island (Chapter 5)

A deep, enraged bellowing came through over the radio. It was mid October, 2010, and I was a passenger in my bosses 4WD travelling along the main street of Renmark. The crowd encouraged his outrage with cheers.

What was supposed to be an informative meeting, with question time, in Griffith, upstream, had crumbled out of the public servants’ control and had become little more than an emotionally fuelled rally. Of course, to say this openly in Renmark today might be seen as act of suicide.

We parked only a few meters away from the great Murray River, in the car park alongside the local department of a national radio station. They had asked to interview my boss on the hot topic at hand – the newly releases Murray Darling Basin Plan (MDB).

Stepping out of the car, the air was absolutely wonderful. Being an Adelaide boy, it’s not often I feel an air so humid and comfortably warm. At home, it’s cold and wet or hot and dry.

Renmark, Nov 2010

Around a year earlier, I had been standing more or less where I was currently. Through the frequent visits over the past year, I had witnessed an amazing change to this beautiful town.

I guess the locals, walking the street day after day may not have noticed it so much. However, I was amazed by the health of the grass. Compared to the bone-dry dust of a year ago, the end of a decade long drought, the riverside parks were fluorescent green. The air was fragrant with flora and energising.

It would be easy to let yesterday’s nightmare fade out of mind on the streets of Renmark on this day and feel it unjust that the government would want to take the good times away from you. It wouldn’t be as easy, however, to hold this illusion once you began travelling out of town again.

There was less rhythm to the farming lands this season. Some had planted earlier than others. On more than a few plots, fruit trees were being pulled up. It all seemed confused and unsure of itself. The effects of the Big Dry were by no means over.

The more temporal wetlands looked more like islands of desert surrounded by healthy scrub.
The monitoring site, half an hour north of Renmark, was in bloom.

In every respect, life along the Murray Darling Basin had gone from hardship to confused contrast – and all because of water.

Going back a couple centuries, before western intrusion on the Australian landscape, this river system was a different place. From the highlands of the Great Dividing Range, various small creeks wound down on to the western plains of the southern border region of Queensland and throughout New South Wales. Eventually, the river system reached the Murray River – a river the marks most of Victoria’s northern border and cuts a zigzagged path from the Riverland region to Morgan and then south to Lake Alexandrina and the Coorong.

The Murray Darling river system, provides a corridor path through outback New South Wales and the mid eastern region of South Australia which would otherwise rely solely on the infrequent and sporadic showers that occasionally overcame the land shadow effect. Clearly, regions like the Chowilla floodplain, rich with biodiversity, would simply not exist, but be just as arid as the dry neighbouring region, where it not for this large movement of water.
The Chowilla floodplain nowadays is recognised as containing 4 animals of national significance and 51 plant and animal species of state significance. So rich is it with life, that it is recognised as a Ramsar Wetland [4].

The possibilities of natural harvest; the agricultural potential; the eco-tourism potential of such a staggeringly beautiful region; all of these things cannot be, and have not been, ignored by humanity. For all this and much more, the water is not only the life blood of the region, but also real world income.

Before the European appearance, contrary to the booming voices over the radio, none of this water was wasted. It snaked through the environment in constant flux. In times of high flow, the banks would be broken, allowing water, maybe once every few years, to travel to the more arid floodplains at greater distance from the main flow, bringing with it nutrients and minerals that would see the hardy environment through the next few years of drought. Because of such fluctuations, the Murray Darling region is dynamic and efficient at exploiting the good times.

As such, from the air, the various environments and soil chemistry paints the region just as beautifully as the morning golden sun breaking through the river gums along the Murray’s bank.
Lake Alexandrina and the lower lakes, being the tail end of the terrestrial transfer of water, have probably seen the worst of a poor managed river system over the past two centuries. Some might say that it doesn’t matter for the fresh water would otherwise be lost to sea.

The Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Wetland are also recognised as Ramsar sites due to the rich diversity of wetland types (23) of the region that support an incredible array of species, many of which are threatened. These wetlands are the result of mixing waters from the Murray mouth with ocean water and many species need access to both waters as part of their life cycle [5].

Twenty five of the bird species that rely on the lower lakes are listed under international migratory conservation agreements and many species of fish rely on the wetlands for nursery environments [5]. Both migratory birds and estuary breeding fish are great long distance transferrers of nutrients. Whether the species are of direct economic value or transfer nutrients to species and ecosystems that are, areas of high biodiversity value that support these species, such as the Lower Lakes, obviously have direct and indirect economic importance globally.

Since European settlement, the frequency of flow ceasing from the Murray mouth has increased from 1% to currently 40% of the time, with the average annual flow reducing by 61%. Such restriction of flows from the Murray mouth increasingly threatens the biodiversity of the region [6]. Clearly, none of the water is wasted and never was.

A point that my boss made within the interview is a simple continuation from this realisation. When human activity enters an ecosystem, or intensifies practices, it’s a trade-off. There are no extractions of resources from an environment without an effect, because the resources most certainly would have been used by another species at some point. By using any of the water continuously, we had already begun to change the ruling factors that governed the more distant wetlands that relied on the infrequent water supply and as we increased our extraction rate, this brought change closer to the main flows and even more noticeably, to the lower lakes. A warmer and drier local environment as climate continues to change will only exacerbate the alterations of such wetlands.

As yet another farmer stood to shout at the MBD Plan’s representatives, now completely beyond all reason (one even threw a toy horse head at the representatives), I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. After a decade of drought, you would’ve thought proper water management would mean more to the Griffith community. They should have learnt that being water smart, regardless of the actual flow, ensures resilience. Sure, the local towns might be vivid green, but the land between the township and the farm paints a different picture for anyone who wishes to look. The Riverland was settled and farmed because it screamed with fertility in the many voices of the local ecosystem. Now, even when the flow is good, that ecosystem is parched. Clearly, the ecosystem that made the region what it is needs a drink.

[4] MBD commission, 2006. The Chowilla floodplain (inc. Lindsay-Wallpolla), Icon Site Environmental Management plan 2006-2007.
[5] The Coorong, and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Wetlands website: (accessed 4/11/2010)
[6] Dept. Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, 2010. Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Ramsar Wetlands Fact sheet.

This is chapter five of the series The Human Island: A Place of Ecological Ruin. To see the previous chapter, click here. As the series grows, the complete work can be found here.

h/t To Mike of WtD for letting me know of this article: Murray Murmurings: Postcards from Mildura.

Climate, Ecology and the Market – Where the hell are we heading?

I’ve spent some time recently defending scientific methodology against a committed smear campaign designed to destabilise general confidence in what is, without a doubt, the most powerful set of tools designed by our species to improve how we live (the main rebuttals are now found under the ‘Alarming Religion’ tab above). Clearly, this ‘scepticism’ as it calls itself, is not a scientific scepticism at all, for evidence does nothing to alter this groundless opposition to reason. I’ve recently begun reading Brendan Gleeson’s, Lifeboat Cities (h/t to Mike), were he defines this form of scepticism as “an aggressive distaste for new thinking, especially anything that challenges the market statue quo”. I’ve previously suggested that this form of scepticism is ideologically based myself, but now I want to take it a step further and argue that it is actually a faith of the market.

Science is all good and well when it provides innovation that can become a consumable item. Technological breakthroughs are rapidly employed into next years hottest must have items, yet many of the related concerns, such as peaking oil, application of rare earth minerals and subsequent loss in disposal, unsustainable harvest and over-production and waste, are all but entirely ignored. We’re unflinching when lining up for the latest technological upgrade, but willingly remain blinkered from our impacts.

We’re all susceptible to this market based attitude as well.

At another environmental blog that I’ve previously criticised, I found myself in an argument with a few celebrated followers (all have written guest posts for that blog) over efficiency. It fizzled out, however one of the others left it by suggesting that efficiency in the future will probably be determined by market cost of power supply. Another soon after added that I’m simply not aware of the immense nuclear power supply available. Even coffee-table conservationists are capable of falling for faith of the market (obviously coupling these two replies suggests a continuous complacency and inefficiency  in human endeavours).

It’s clear that the markets won’t save us from our actions. How long before we need to start mining the rubbish tip as the only remaining areas of known rare earth mineral deposits? How stupid it is to have to waste effort/money to recollect mined and disposed  of materials! Likewise repair is not seen as a consumable (too often rehabilitation efforts are the result of interest groups, private land holders and the barest amount of state interest and funding) and as long as we think in such terms, we will continue to undermine degrade resources and ecosystems.

Being greedy little consumers has not only lead to many social and personal health issues that are largely ignored in the general public (eg. spend more on eating and then more on trying to burn the fat and then more again on medical assistance) but also a global crisis, where almost all ecosystems are rapidly degrading.

Beyond the obvious problem with the current market place mantra (ie. growth is paramount, yet impossible with limited resources and in other ways limited by the pace of renewable resources) it is also, in truth, counter-innovative and counter-intuitive (opposed to popular misconception). If our increasing understanding challenges the structure of the market, you find resistance to this new understanding. I remember Naomi Oreskes once commenting that CFC use / Ozone depletion was challenged, but only for a short time as transition to alternative technologies were cheap and easy – it wasn’t very disruptive to the market.

There are no cheap and easy (or consumable) transitions capable of addressing the host of problems facing the coming century and it isn’t too difficult to see that the entire basis of the current market ideology is at threat. Mindless consumerism and overwhelming waste simply cannot continue if we are to persist at currently population levels with the same standard of living.

Here’s another example of what I’m saying, which I’ve used previously. Basically, many of the points raised by science and argued against by the self-titled ‘climate sceptics’,  could warrant genuine concern and action even without mentioning anthropogenic climate change (ACC) at all – commentators have long seen the non-ACC warning signs of these subjects for many decades. Here’s a few;

We need to decarbonise our energy supply.

The hydrocarbons that make up fossil fuel are wonderful materials that have done far more than simply motivated pistons. The products of fossil oil are all around us, most notably, the plastics, rubber, paints and glues. If you make a conscious effort to be mindful of all the plastics around you (you’re very likely to even be wearing some, from the soles under your feet to the buttons on your otherwise 100% cotton top) it’s staggering just how many items came from fossil oil and when we’re done with them, we all too often throw them in plastic bags and into a plastic bin. Fossil oil is near peak production, after which, the price of it will ever increase and at some point (maybe a century from now) supply and demand will have pushed price of fossil oil based items out of the price range of most people – think about what that will mean for a vast amount products current surrounding you.

Coal is incredibly important in steel production for coke. We needed over 500 million tonnes of coal for 2008 steel production, if we lost this resource, the only option would be to use charcoal, requiring vast plantations (see more here). Yet, we burn it in dirty power stations, confident that the supply will outlast every living human today and leave huge clumps of steel out to erode and dissolve back into the land.

Natural gas is currently used to produce fertilisers and feeds millions. Personally, I feel that we pollute with nitrogen fertilisers and can do things better. I see gas turbines being a good transition power supply and our best option of energy supply to fuel change.

We need to increase conservation efforts and rehabilitate landscapes.

From top soil protection, water conditioning, to storm front and flood protection, landscapes with rich biodiversity provide food and water security and protect populations from the worst of nature’s fury. There is also a growing realisation (in truth, rediscovery) of the amazing importance of utilising ecological services in agricultural practices. Vast corridors increase resilience, which also allows for sustainable harvest. (while also potentially addressing the above points). Not to mention how wonderful it is to hike through native landscapes, especially when the wild flowers are out or you chance upon some little seen animal going about its business. This goes for wetlands and coastal regions as well, which provide nursery grounds for many economically valuable species, provide storm surge protection and beautiful environments where you can take off your shoes and stole long the beach, or swim among an amazing and unusual ecosystem.

We need to reduce the need for personal vehicles.

This should be self evident. Still; there are close to 7 billion people now… Think about peak hour traffic! As mentioned above, peaking oil will only make it more expensive to own a vehicle. Arguably, it also is detrimental to our health – not only with the pollution, but also our fitness level. I could write an essay on this alone, but shouldn’t need to. On the creation of the personal internal combustion engine vehicle, it quickly became a status symbol. It simply will not fit on an earth populated by up to 9 billion of us and so we need to remove it from it’s mantel!

Addressing these few points alone dramatically question how we work, where we live, how we consume and dispose. They are valid concerns on their own right, but will also go a long way to curbing ACC. However, even when we offer the above arguments, we find the same resistance as we do when we take the ACC approach. This is because the questions raised put the current market design under threat. It’s far from a bleak world ahead if we ask these questions and neuter the current market mantra. In fact innovative thinking could lead to a vastly improved standard of living for the entire of humanity as well as leading to one that is persistently rich in biodiversity. This is why I suggest the market faith is counter-innovative and counter-intuitive and is little more than self-serving. This is not an attack on capitalism or a plug for communism as some readers might assume, but rather  I’m highlighting that no system of human activity that we currently employ appropriately values each and every component of the system – the most devalued are those outside human lifespan (a tendency to assume it always was and will be) and ecological services (which don’t sit in your doorway until you provide a tip). This has to change.

You sometimes hear more radical greenies refer to our species as being a cancer of the earth. Now, of course I do not agree with this statement – we are but one species trying to persist as best we know how, exactly like every other. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that our current market base is like a form of tumour. On one side we have resources, on the other, us. In the past, we worked in small groups to produce numerous capillaries between the two.

This was efficient, but weak and susceptible to outside influences. Over time, we began to trade, thereby creating networks improving efficiency again. Eventually this network became an entity on it’s own that sat between us and the resources – this is the market. Almost everything flows though it to us. We seem sure that if it swells and grows, then we’re healthy, but this is certainly not the case.

If we produce enough food to feed the entire human population (as we do) but more than half living in perpetual hunger, there is something fundamentally wrong with our approach. If basic healthcare isn’t provided to each and every person (or, as we saw recently in the US, people who cannot afford proper medical care for their family angrily opposing universal healthcare), then something is fundamentally wrong with our approach. If our grandchildren will not know the diversity of life that we grew up with, then there is something fundamentally wrong with our approach. If we need to spend trillions globally on water and food security to replace lost ecological services, then there is something disastrously wrong with our approach.

Good governance has taken the backseat as some gluttonous growth blindly steers us onward to an unknown but concerning future. Simply questioning this growth results in angry resistance. But what does such resistance aim to protect, because it certainly is not humanity? We need to start asking the hard questions and trying to work out how best to take back the steering wheel.

Water Security and Old World Ego

When entertaining the unjustified “scepticism” of climate science, it’s not uncommon to suddenly realise that the other party has led you far from the pool of reason, where it becomes easy to be disheartened. Luckily, this band of reason-deniers is only small and on returning to the realms of science, the wealth of evidence and understanding is recharging – even if the reality can be quite concerning.

A recent paper by Vörösmarty et al (2010) regarding water security, is a real eye opener on yet another issue on our doorstep that is not gaining enough attention. For the first  time at a global scale, the team analysed the various stressors on fresh water systems, considering the impact on both human populations and biodiversity.

The outlook isn’t a pretty one and if current attitudes prevail, it is a needlessly difficult future ahead.

Around 80% of the world’s population face high level treats to water security and as is usually the way, the situation is worse for biodiversity, which is too often overlooked.

On Monday, I explained why I believed the de-salination plant at the end of the Murray Darling System was a bad idea. However, this attitude of ignoring potential cures in favour of quick fixes seems to be all too common in developed nations. The authors comment on affluent nations tending to choose to treat water downstream than to protect water quality upstream.

Developing nations face greater hardship, being without comparative wealth available for water security investment. As many of the fresh water systems travel across country boarders, management is made more difficult – and again, ecological flows will remain the lowest priority.

“We remain off-pace for meeting the Millennium Development Goals for basic sanitation services, a testament to the lack of societal resolve, when one considers that a century of engineering know-how is available and returns on investment in facilities are high.” -Vörösmarty et al (2010)

As with various biodiversity targets, such as the No Species Loss for SA, and over a decade of discussions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we continue to fall well short of the necessary targets (see here for an article on unmet biodiversity targets).

We know it’s not a case of understanding, because the science has long built compelling arguments as to why we should protect ecosystems and natural resources.

We know it’s not really a case, as some try to scare us into believing, that it will hurt economies, for as Adelady recently put it in a comment to another post, “Any quality economist can show that any society that works productively to a specific purpose can make that process financially profitable for those who engage in it.”

What we have is a situation that I discussed in my previous post. It’s simply one of the bad habits from our past which we have brought with us into the modern world. Developed nations are either the old world colonisers or the new world colonial nations, based on western principles. There is a lingering naivety that our actions are just, masterful and without consequence.

As I’ve said before, I do not believe that denial of the scientific evidences to our various environmental impacts is one of the stages of grief. It is part of a persistent ego associated with outdated paradigms. We seem unwilling to collectively accept our past follies, clean up the mess we’ve made and ask how we could do things better.

Until this occurs, we will continue to ignore the warnings signs that modern science has discovered and in doing so, continue to watch increasing extinction rates, an amplifying greenhouse effect / climate change, land degradation, depleted oceans and ever increasing threats to food and water security. I only hope that we’re smacked out of this stupor long before the reality of these projections kick in.

*Update: Here’s a relevant quote from a post at;

“Pakistan’s two large reservoirs, Mangla and Tarbela, which store Indus River water for the country’s vast irrigation network, are losing roughly 1 percent of their storage capacity each year as they fill with silt from deforested watersheds.

How I think the Murray Darling system should be managed

Back in May, I discussed how I believe the Murray Darling System should be managed. The short hand of this is that I believe it should be an objective, at the federal level, that treats this major water way much like the budget; with projections made of expect flows over the coming year, the governing body delivers to each dependant sector how much water can be used, which is then distributed amount that sectors management body amongst the water users.

That this water way fuels the lives of millions of people across four states and one territory (arguably without it, SA wouldn’t be much of a state), but is almost entirely governed at regional levels is absurd. The only thing more absurd is SA’s interest in compensating a bad situation with a de-salination plant.

The Lower Lakes of the Murray mouth are at best fragmented pools, further upstream environmental managers usually have to decide which wetlands are going to be inundated over others and we see the solution as providing expensive water to the Adelaide and Mt Lofty region?

Coupled with the idea I spoke about back in May, it seems to me that best option, if de-salination is required, would be to set up the process on the eastern coast line to assist the natural recharge process. This process could be largely if not entirely powered by renewable sources because intermittent recharge wouldn’t matter – that’s how the system natural works anyway! When we have times of good flow, we can either (or both) divert the water or power to local requirements. Again, this is not a state problem, neither should be the solution be state orientated.

Water security is already an issue in Australia, and it is a situation that will only get worse over the coming decades. Compulsory water tanks in Adelaide is about as useless and needlessly expensive to the tail-end users of the Murray Darling system as a local de-salination plant under current management systems (especially when residential use is relatively small). It’s like installing an expensive water filter on a purified water supply while ignoring your ailing water tank falling to pieces outside. Downstream life is made more expensive by poor management across the entire system.

The states involved in this issue have made a clear point that they are unwilling to be useful in addressing the problem.

We must make the noise.

The Murray Darling should be managed as a whole, regardless of boarders, with all sectors aware of this relationship. Assisted recharge at the source, exploiting renewable energy, is the only way that we can save a systems that feeds  half of Australia (many gigalitres more than a few generations ago). The expense of over-exploitation needs to be shared across this system. The solution needs to be shared by everyone who relies on the Murray Darling.

Farming Closer to Home: a suggestion of the future of agriculture

The age of the farmer has increased in recent years, the family farm is on the decline and the Australian federal government is undertaking initiatives to encourage youth back to rural industries (ABS and There are a wide range of reasons why people are moving away from the farm. The attitude is often that Australia is a boom-or-bust nation and with climate change, this mentality is likely to exacerbate the pull away from the land. As oil becomes more expense, both local agriculture and foreign imports will become increasingly expensive (cheers to Mike for pointing out this article out that suggests that the age of cheap oil will end within 5 – 20 years from now). With all this in mind, why would many young people look at a career in agriculture with lots  of guaranteed jobs going in the city – plus of the benefits of an energetic city life?

With business-as-usual practices, what the hell am I likely to witness as an old man? The images that come to mind worry me.

To carry on from the Innovation is Key series, I believe that the future of farming will have to be one that is better integrated with major populations. To explain this idea, I’ll use a local example.

To the north of the city of Adelaide, there is an ever decreasing patch of once agricultural land in the suburb of Northfield. As discussed in parts 14 and 15 of the Innovation series, by stimulating multi-purpose higher density living in key regions, we could lessen the tendency and impact of urban sprawl. Over maybe the past 15 years, the remaining agricultural land in Northfield has slow began to be consumed by sprawl. This is clearly visible in the noticeable difference in housing (new housing) in Northgate, Oakden and Walkley heights (in the map below). To the north west there is industry along Grand Junction road (red region). To the south, there are two fairly typical commercial regions (in green).

Click the google image to see a larger version

If infrastructure investments were made in one, both or between these two commercial regions that provided quality apartments and town houses, a wide range or modern services and facilities, a good, relatively cheap network of rail to the CBD and other TOD regions and a limitation of vehicle access (and need for personal vehicles), as fuel becomes increasingly expensive, people will be drawn to live in these regions to maintain their lifestyle and access to services. As this land is left, we again can claim much of this land for agriculture and native rehabilitation (including for open space enjoyment, species resilience to change, sustainable harvest and storm event protection). To the north east is another region well worth investing in development; Modbury. Here, there is already is a wide range of services – including a hospital and the Adelaide O’Bahn bus route. Further development here will also provide extra incentive for people to move out of the Northfield and surrounding region (yellow).

Not only would this mean that it is possible to be a farmer who can enjoy a city lifestyle (attracts the younger generations), but it also allows a great amount of wealth of knowledge between farms and both high schools and universities. It wouldn’t be impractical to be a self supported university student living and studying within a metropolitan setting, but also enjoying practical lessons out on a working farm or native vegetation (ie. biological / ecological / bio-prospecting etc) – all without need for a personal vehicle (indeed in many cases a bicycle would be enough). School holiday jobs on the farm are also feasible – further diversifying work experiences for new generations. Fresh produce can be grown within 25km of major commercial and living regions. Electrification of rail services also means that both fuels and alternative vehicle technology is not required (energy generation can be addressed separately) – meaning a more rapid response and adaptation to a low carbon emission future.

It is possible to envision much of this north east region being condensed and diversified as much of this region is residential sprawl that will get increasingly expensive to maintain over the coming decades. The same could be said for many regions of the southern sprawl. Oaklands park / Brighton and Noarlunga are two good southern regions for TOD investments. The east and west are probably less clear cut; I’d suggest Glenelg, Semaphore, Burnside and Magill. By encouraging a reduction in the many northern regions and on the  east, it is possible that the yellow region could be stretch much further around.

Obviously soil contaminants will play a role, which hasn’t been looked into in this piece. For instance, there are a number of petrol stations in the yellow region which would pose a problem. I suggest that the industry along Grand Junction road (red region that continues on to the west) should continue as industrial land. There are a number of options for rehabilitating contaminated land that is reclaimed. All I’ll say at this point is that if addressed appropriately, it doesn’t need to pose a major problem and could ultimately help establish regions where we utilise ecological services for pollutant management (such as phytoremediation).

Such changes would give the Adelaide population the greatest resilience to peaking oil and increasing food costs. It will also lead to a diversification local industries, greater open space  services, much greater species protection, and much greater adaptive potential to climate change and would stimulated local economy – all with technology that already exists. It’s more about doing things differently rather than restriction. It would also assist an industry in trouble – agriculture – and help younger generations have both the tech-savvy city life, while also a deeper connection with the natural world. No bad thing.