The White Death

Common salt is composed of sodium and chlorine of which, it seems, there was plenty locked up in compounds within the basalt rock that formed most of the Earth’s crust as our world cooled from a chemical soup over 3.5 billion years ago. Years of weathering, erosion and corrosion then produced the salt that readily dissolved into masses of water that flowed over and settled, as oceans, in the low-lying areas.

Tiny salt particles have, ever since, been blown from the sea directly onto coastal and adjacent regions of land or have been lifted into the upper atmosphere where they then fall everywhere with rain. Over aeons of time, in dry areas unflushed by regular rainfall, the soil has become sprinkled with minute salt particles extending to a considerable depth.

Unique vegetation has evolved in Western Australia which created a natural “equilibrium” or balance that maintains the ground-water level (water-table) at a depth beyond the salt zone. Native deep-rooted, perennial plants are highly efficient absorbers of moisture, allowing very little rainfall to seep down into the water-table. Native trees have two root systems which absorb both surface and deep groundwater. These are just part of an undisturbed eco-system that produced stability for millions of years.

The clearing of native vegetation and trees for farming and grazing has produced vast areas of shallow-rooted annual crops and pasture which use far less water. Most rainfall now percolates down into the groundwater which raises the level of the water-table. Similarly, in irrigation areas the applied water mostly filters down and lifts the level. As the water-table climbs it dissolves increasing amounts of salt within the soil profile until maximum salinity is concentrated at, or near, the soil surface. Capitalism’s profit-motivated “economic efficiencies” in the timber industry has introduced the disaster of “clearfelling”. Bulldozers uprooting trees, wrecking the understorey, wildlife habitat, soil structure and complete eco-system of vast areas of forest, simply magnifies the problem still further.

The impact of a rising water-table and dryland salinity has far-reaching effects long before the ultimate “White Death” of a lifeless, shining white desert studded with dead trees, is created. Saline water with four feet of the soil surface reduces plant growth. From this point there is a loss of agriculture production, destruction of bush vegetation and native habitat leading to loss of wildlife and biodiversity. Drainage from the soil causes salinity of waterways which affect streams, rivers and water resources in dams and reservoirs . . . eventually making the water unusable. Water plants, aquatic life (frogs, fish, water birds, turtles etc), algae, microbes and invertebrates are destroyed. Rising concentrations of salt damages the soil structure and will corrode the foundations of all infrastructure causing buildings, roads, footpaths, railways, bridges and sewage pipes etc to crumble. Rising water-table also makes land more prone to waterlogging and flooding. The social impact is enormous.

The worst-affected Australian state is Western Australia with 70 percent of total salinity problems. In 1902 the clearing of native vegetation was suspected of causing salinity. This was proved in 1909 and verified in 1924. Despite this knowledge land-clearing increased. The echoes of past capitalist politicians here are heard today when President Bush states, “I am more concerned with the economy than with ecology”, when referring to global warming . . . itself another major factor in the salinity equation.

Seventy-five percent of natural bush in the south-west has been cleared for agriculture of which 10 percent is now salt-affected, which has reduced crops by 50 percent. Over 80 percent of resource water there is salty to some degree and groundwater rises 20-150 cms annually. If allowed to continue 30 percent of farmland will be wiped out, 30,000 kms of road and railway and 27 towns will be ruined by shallow water-table by the year 2050. Many mammals, reptiles, insects, aquatic life and 450 endemic plant species will be lost from one of the most biodiverse areas of the world.

In 1985 a new State government department, CALM (Conservation And Land Management), was created. Syd Shea was appointed executive director. CALM pursued a simple policy of managing the forests for the benefit of the timber industry. Clearfelling was adopted on a grand scale and still continues today. In November 1999 Syd Shea accepted a new post created in the Premier’s office—”Head of Combating Salinity”. This is tantamount to putting a serial arsonist in charge of the Fire Service. Shea is now involved organising “carbon credits” and uses his “ecological expertise” in cracking deals for big corporations.

High technology is being used to acquire facts and statistics on salinity but the shocking details are not being publicised. The information written here was extracted from various official sources. The remedy to salinity is basically simple, groundwater levels need to be reduced (discharged) and rainfall needs to be used more efficiently to prevent recharge. Large areas of farmland need to be revegetated and forest should be allowed to regenerate. Additional proposed engineering and horticultural remedies should be applied immediately.

Capitalism, based upon cost/profit/jobs, which causes these problems, is not equipped to respond to simple need. Balance-sheet profit has always ignored the cost of environmental destruction, which never appeared on the debit pages of the ledger. Landowners are reluctant to lose portions of their land to non-income-producing native vegetation, despite their chance of losing the lot if their unsustainable farming methods do not change. So billions of dollars will be spent over many years on a strategy of compromise. The hunt is on for salt-tolerant fish and plants to farm, alternative deep-rooted crops and pasture and long-term cash-crops of plantation trees to supply the timber industry. It is hoped many areas can be contained and eventually some areas of salinity reversed, other regions are already doomed. But only a socialist society based upon unrestricted need has any chance of lasting success. Speed the day when such political awareness amongst the vast majority of the population will exist.

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