Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dryland Salinity in Australia

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You may already be familiar with the term salinity which means salt content. Soil salinity refers to the concentration of soluble salts in the soil. The problems of salinity pose a great threat to the environment.

Throughout the world, there are areas of naturally saline soil and water in which salinity has always limited its use, and Australia is no exception, in fact, salt has played an essential part in the shaping of our landscape as we know it today.

The native Australian vegetation evolved to be salt-tolerant. Many of the woodland species, for example, have deep roots and a high demand for water. Whilst the system was in balance, the salt stayed put. But when European farming arrived and replaced the natives with crop and pasture plants that have shorter roots and need less water, the inevitable happened. With every fall of rain, unused water leaks down to the water table, raising it, and bringing the salt up with it. That process continues today, and the volumes of water and salt are vast.

The term 'dryland salinity' strikes fear into the hearts of many Australian farmers. Some call it the white death because it conjures up images of lifeless, shining deserts studded with dead trees. Fears of the white death seem justified. Dryland salinity currently affects about 1.5 million hectares of land, mostly in southern Australia and causes damage totalling $70 million each year.

Where does it occur?

Dryland salinity is widespread across Australias agricultural landscape, but it is worst in the medium-to-low rainfall areas of southern Australia. Salinity hot-spots include the Liverpool plains of northern New South Wales, the Yass River valley around Canberra, the upper southeast of South Australia, Kangaroo Island, the Victorian mallee and Western Australias wheatbelt.

This last is the worst affected authorities there estimate that 1.8 million hectares in the region currently suffer from salinity. Worse still, they think that this area could double within the next 15 to 5 years if no action is taken. In all, a staggering 6 million hectares are at risk of becoming saline in Western Australia.

On the eastern side of the continent, about 100,000 hectares of Australias most important catchment, the Murray-Darling basin, are afflicted. Scientists predict that this could increase to a million hectares by the year 2010. The concentration of salt in the Murray River itself is on the rise, with serious implications for Adelaides water supply, as well as that of many towns and farms in the Murray-Darling basin.

The table shows the estimated number of hectares of Australian farm land affected by salt in 1996, and the number of hectares that could be affected if no solutions are found.

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