Desalination devastation

River MurrayIt has been dry here lately, and my lawn is a series of green circles where the water from the sprinklers falls. At the edge of the spray's reach, the grass goes from green to grey in the width of a pencil, as if someone had drawn round it with a compass.

This lawn is at the top of a limestone cliff overlooking the River Murray, at Waikerie in South Australia. From my patch of European growth, I can see the gentle curve of the earth against the sky. The pea-soup river sweeps across in indolent curves, waters still and warm. The gums are grey and the soil is pink or rusty red, and dry, dry, dry.

Near the horizon, on the rise of a sand hill, I can see another patch of deep green where the orange trees and the grapes and the stone fruit are grown; irrigated, like my lawn, with the warm, rank water of the river.

When the river is low, that water can be salty enough to wither the leaves on the vines. No one drinks it. It has, after all, already drained and watered a fifth of the continent ...

The story of the Murray River, named more than 150 years ago for some otherwise long-forgotten colonial secretary, is a fair metaphor for Europeans in this foreign, bright land, and our uneasiness with it. These river towns would not exist were it not for Victorian engineering, and the pride people took in turning the dry 'waste' of this continent to a use they could understand. It was a time of hope and confidence in a new yet ancient land.

Yet today the engineering feats to which we are wedded seem not so much a testimony to our power as to our continued foreignness. In a land where water is everything, the Murray River is our only major watercourse. It is in fact many rivers, draining a vast basin that covers most of the fertile parts of the continent.

There is a history of the river, written by Ernestine Hill in 1958. It is called Water into Gold. She begins her book thus: 'Here is the beginning of a great story, the transfiguration of a continent by irrigation science ... the radiant twin cities of Mildura and Renmark, the Garden Colony in that lucky horseshoe of Murray River that unites two Australian States, will always be our first national shrine to irrigation science.'

A shrine to science. Miss Hill goes on to describe the Chaffey brothers, who developed Mildura and Renmark, as 'apostles of irrigation'. The water they pumped on to the land was a benediction, bringing civilisation to the dusty and hostile Mallee wastes.

Today, the Murray is a harnessed beast, its flow regulated by locks and weirs. But for the flip side of our grasp on this seemingly indifferent continent, you must look under the soil. There you will find another mute and insidious testimony to our manipulation of the landscape. The holy water is rising to meet us, and it threatens to drown us.

I have over my desk a contour map. It shows, not the rises and falls of this flat landscape, but fluctuations of the salty ground water under our feet. The irrigated areas and the towns they surround are resting on man-made water mountains, built out of the water that drains off the orchards and down the gutters of the main street.

Ground water underlies much of this continent. It is, in fact, the inland sea that the explorers searched for, but like so much about this country, it is hidden.

Before European settlement, it lay at least 25 metres below the surface. Now, thanks to the clearing of trees, even in non-irrigated areas it rises to within a few metres of the surface, bringing with it the salts that lie in the ancient landscape. Once the water is within two metres of the surface, crops suffer and the trees begin to die ...

We have no way to express the loss except in figures, and they are graphic enough. If salinity is not tackled, within our lifetimes it could reduce as much as half the fertile land in the Murray-Darling Basin to waste.

The economic implications are enormous. Already large chunks of New South Wales and Victoria have been virtually abandoned, left to 'saline agriculture'. The scientists are still trying to work out what that means. The irony is immense. Just as our grasp on this foreign land seemed firmest, we find the water turning upon us, and the agriculture and economics that bind us to the land thrown into disarray ...

It may be that this semi-desert country should never have been settled, as some radical conservationists now suggest, yet it would be wrong to say that the people do not belong here ... There are stories of struggle, of carrying on in spite of fruit that didn't sell or couldn't be transported, of grandmothers and women in labor being rescued from floods, and of the days when a trip to Adelaide took a week over a dirt road delineated with pot holes.

Hard to say these people don't belong, and too easy from the city to be self-righteous and simplistic about the heritage of the engineers, when we all rely on the food basket they have brought forth.

We cannot retreat. Our ties to the land may be recent, expressed in terms of dollars and engineering and full of crime and paradox, but nevertheless we are bonded. And so we stand under this blue sky, within our green circles, struggling with the rising tide.

Margaret SimonsMargaret Simons' recent work includes The Content Makers: Understanding the Future of the Australian Media and Faith, Money and Power: What the Religious Revival Means for Politics.



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Existing comments

A great essay. However all this political 'hoo hah' about the great rivers and what is going to be done ... never have I heard that nature demands floods at 'God's' pleasure. In particular the case of the vanishing lakes at the Murray Mouth. Their volume depends on floods and not a normal rainfall. What has happened since the last great flood of 1956?

First the Menindie Lakes scheme. Then the last of the Snowy Dams at Talbingo.
As well as weirs and dams along the Murray and its tributaries. Finally the monstrosity of the cotton growing water retention in Queensland. Therefore, everything has been done to deprive the Murray of its natural bath of flood waters. Unless all these waters being held back are released, diminishing lakes and salinity will be the order of the day forever.

philip herringer | 30 April 2008  

The history of the Murray is a foretaste of what could happen to every river system in Australia that is not blessed by the presence of a State capital at its mouth; here in Queensland, the Mary River is to be pointlessly devastated by construction of a dam at Traveston Crossing so that Brisbane residents can continue to hose their concrete driveways each afternoon, and I note that the Victorian (not ACT!) Brumbies want to suck more water from the Goulburn to discharge into Port Phillip Bay.

State borders should be modified, so that South Australia would include the entire Murray-Darling system. NSW would then really be Newcastle-Sydney-Wollongong, because that’s the part of that State of which Carr-Iemma et al have any awareness, Vic would be the coastal strip from Kiama to east of the Coorong, Qld would be the coastal strip from Port Stephens to Noosa.

Here’s a URL to a letter in the SMH, the author of which turned out to be my brother. Sometimes he surprises me ... click here

David Arthur | 30 April 2008  

We have had such high agricultural outputs for so long in the Murray Darling basin, but that time has finished now. It needs to be rested and restored naturally. It is NOT rice and cotton that is consuming so much water, but livestock. Mostly is goes to dairy cattle and their crops. The amount of water needed for one glass of milk is up to 4000 glasses! We need to think again about the amount of milk we consume and especially export. We can't keep drying up and destroying our country for economic growth! We need to find other industries to support our economy, and reduce livestock industries.

Vivienne | 30 April 2008  

David Arthur is spot on the Murray Darling basin should be an economic and political state, current borders are the obstacle to a healthy future for the basin. The Goulburn is going the same way as the Murray, no concern for the health of the overall catchment, so there is another 11% of flow taken from the Murray.

Jonah Bones | 02 May 2008  

We have one of the driest continents yet we have one of the biggest exports of dairy and red meat. We can't just exploit our finite resources for revenue! We need to just feed ourselves and become a technology based country, not agricultural.

Bob | 12 September 2008  

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