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TABLE 5.14. Responsibility for Public Information

Responses Percentage
State government 38
Federal government 25
Total other responses 37

a: Q: 'Whose responsibility should it be to inform the public about the salinity problem ?"

The answers to this question suggest that the residents of Adelaide rely on the governments, state and federal, for information about the salinity problem. Thus, on the one hand, the government looks for a lead from the population and responds to pressure from that direction while, on the other hand, the population is relying on the government to provide the necessary guidance. Such interaction between government and public ultimately results in decisions being taken, and these decisions will never be soundly based as long as the public has little understanding of the processes under consideration.

This lack of understanding or perception is very clearly illustrated by the pattern of response to Question 9 (Table 5.1 5).

TABLE 5.15. Irrigation and Salinity

Response Percentage
Saline effluent from irrigation  
blocks increases salinity 3
Rising watertables/salinization  
of land 6
Don't know 56
Irrelevant 35

a: Q: "Explain how irrigation is related to salinity."

TABLE 5.16. Adelaide's Alternative Water Supplies

Response Frequency
None 20
Bores 12
Catchments (existing and new) 78
Rainwater tanks 38
New dam (Chowilla) 4
Icebergs 4
Desalinization 16
Recycled sewage water 14
Irrelevant 4
Don't know 36

a: Q: What other alternative supplies for the Metropolitan Area are readily available to us ?"

Very few Adelaide residents have any conception of the relationship in question. Most frankly admitted that they did not know. Many gave totally meaningless and irrelevant explanations.

Question 10 was concerned with the public's perception of alternative water supplies (Table 5.16). The Engineering and Water Supply Department believes that there is no really viable alternative to the use of Murray water.

It is apparent that the public is much more optimistic than the officials with regard to the possibility of alternative supplies of water for South Australia.

In all of the questions dealing with the nature of the salinity problem, practically no one mentioned that the solution to the problem might well lie in New South Wales and Victoria and not in South Australia at all. Question 11 raised this issue with those sampled (Table 5.1 7).

TABLE 5.17. Political Solutions

Response Frequency
Agitate for a change in federal laws 44
Agitate for the River Murray  
Commission to be given more powers 10
Don't know 102
Irrelevant 46

a: Q: "How best can South Australia bring pressure on Victoria and New South Wales not to spoil the water supply we receive through the River Murray ?"

A sense of powerlessness is certainly evident here. The majority of respondents were unable to think of a single idea for tackling the problem. Those suggestions that were made are very vague in definition.


A great deal of the evidence presented supports Hypothesis 1. It is clear that both the irrigation farmers and the general public find great difficulty in perceiving the processes associated with salinity and salinization. In the case of the farmers this failure in perception comes about largely because they are too close to the problem and look at it very selectively. They see only those aspects of the problem that impinge on their day-to-day activities on the irrigation block. Also, they see short-term fluctuations in salinity at first hand, and these tend to mask any long-term trends which might be taking place in the district. This concern with the immediate makes the farmer liable to fail in perceiving long-term, but very important, environmental changes going on around him. Increasing salinity of the river and salinization of the land fit into this category, as does the broader process of desertification of which they are a part.

In the case of the Adelaide residents it is a matter of their being too far removed from the problem. They incorrectly perceive the problem as being largely irrelevant to them. They are not really concerned about the progressive salinization of productive, irrigated land. They should be concerned about rising salinity levels in the River Murray, but they really do not understand the nature of salinity or the threat it poses. This is very unfortunate because, in the Australian situation, political power is increasingly becoming concentrated in the metropolitan areas, and an informed and aware metropolitan population is becoming increasingly necessary as an agent which might push the decision-makers in the right direction.

Hypothesis 2

There will be a significant difference in perception of the salinity problem among the farmers, the general public, and the technical managers.

The difference in perception between the irrigation farmers and the Adelaide residents has already been discussed. Both groups have very limited perception of the salinity problem and all its ramifications. In general the farmer's level of awareness is much greater than that of the Adelaide resident, who is very ignorant of all that pertains to the problem; but, nevertheless, the farmer's awareness is very channelled and limited, and relates particularly to his day to-day experience on the irrigation block. Ample evidence to support this view has already been presented, and further analysis of these differences will not be undertaken here.

There is again a problem of perception with respect to the technical managers and officials who are involved in the management of the salinity problem. Representatives of the Engineering and Water Supply Department, the Department of Agriculture, and the Renmark Irrigation Trust were interviewed, but this was an unstructured interview without the use of a questionnaire. Consequently, no systematic analysis of their responses is possible; instead the general impressions gained will be related to the perceptions of the other two groups.

In the first place, there is by no means agreement among the officials and technical managers with respect to the nature of the salinity problem, or with respect to the range of solutions available. Despite extensive reports on the problem, there is still a great deal of disagreement about how serious the problem is. As Holmes (1971, 38) suggests, because water quality depends so markedly upon discharge, it has proved difficult to demonstrate unambiguously a deterioration of water quality over a time scale of tens of years. There is, however, general agreement that any significant increase in river salinity would result in a serious effect on productivity of irrigated agriculture along the river, and in serious repercussions for metropolitan users, both domestic and industrial. Among the officials there is, in general, a much greater awareness of these dangers than there is among the farmers themselves and the residents of Adelaide. Callinan and Webster (1971, 233) suggest that present production loss because of salinity is in the order of $4.2 million per annum, and they predict that it will rise to $16.7 million within 50 years.

The official viewpoint often suffers from a too-intimate involvement with the problem. The Gutteridge, Haskins, and Davey (1970) Murray Valley Salinity Investigation was a case in point. People involved in the planning of engineering works for water supply impoundments, irrigation projects, and water engineering in general are often too close to the physical details of geology, hydrology, and construction for them to place their efforts in an overall perspective. The Gutteridge Report proposed a number of measures which, while they would undoubtedly alleviate the salinity problem, have proved to be largely unacceptable because of their environmental and aesthetic implications, important considerations which the report neglected. The government had commissioned the consultants Gutteridge, Haskins, and Davey because they were regarded as the top experts in the field. Yet their perception failed too. It was a restricted perception just as was that of the farmers. The perceptions and attitudes of environmental experts are an area which needs to be researched in some detail.

The Engineering and Water Supply Department is at present pinning much of its hope on the establishment of more evaporation basins some distance from the river, but some of the personnel from within that department as well as some of the advisers from the Department of Agriculture have severe reservations about this as an ultimate solution. They point out that it is, at best, a short-term solution. The proposed evaporation basins, remote as they are, are still geologically related to the river, and eventually the effluent pumped into the basins will find its way back to the river.

There is some evidence that the technical managers are sometimes happy with measures that are solutions in appearance only. For example, the Renmark Irrigation Trust has pointed out in a submission to the Engineering and Water Supply Department that, because of highly saline soils, the present system of collecting the effluent from the irrigation blocks in caissons and pumping it to the Dishers Creek evaporation basin results in water seeping back to the river which is more highly saline than if it had simply been pumped directly into the river. However, the Engineering and Water Supply Department preferred the system involving the evaporation basin apparently because it looked as though some effective measures were being taken.

Thus it is that the official perception of the problem is not always accurate. The officials, even though they may be expert in a particular field, are nevertheless subject to their own biases and to political and social pressure. All of these stresses, as well as the manner in which they are articulated to the officials, influence the ways in which the officials or technical managers see the problem at hand. It is certainly true that the South Australian technical managers are just beginning to get away from a very narrow, technical orientation focused primarily upon the "technological fix," and to take into account broader social and environmental issues.

Thus it can- be said that all three groups, the farmers, the Adelaide residents, and the technical managers have varying perceptions of the salinity problem. These varying perceptions reflect the immediate experience of the three groups, as well as the varying stresses and pressures, social and political, to which they are subject. This has been far from a systematic analysis of the differences, and more research needs to be conducted in this area.

Hypothesis 3

In accordance with the general findings of a wide range of research into the perception of hazards, farmers will be found to adopt a rationalizing stance in the face of the threat from salinity, will discount the bad side effects of any ameliorative measures tried, and will tend to rely on the government for solutions.

Research on the perception of natural hazards has shown that, faced with the inevitability of a hazard, people tend to rationalize their situation even to the point of denying that the hazard exists (White 1974). Farmers subject to frequent flooding have been heard to say: "We don't have floods here, only high water."

There is some evidence to suggest that a similar rationalizing process occurs in the way the irrigation farmer deals with the threat of salinity. A number of farmers from the sample were prepared and able to detail the effects of salinity on their properties, but when confronted with a later question which asks simply, "Is salinity a problem on your property at present? " they denied that it was a problem (Table 5.18). There is a basic inconsistency here.

TABLE 5.18. Salinity on the Property

Response Murray Bridge/Mypolonga Loxton/%Renmark
YES 10 36
NO 17 64
Total 27 101

a: Q: "Is salinity a problem on your property at present ?"

In terms of percentages, the responses of both groups are identical here. The vast majority (63 per cent in each case) deny that salinity is a problem. This is despite the fact that, in Question 3, 62 per cent of the irrigators from Murray Bridge/Mypolonga and 30 per cent of the irrigators from Loxton/Renmark specified some adverse effects on their own properties. The pattern for the Loxton/Renmark district has not altered, but that for the Murray Bridge/ Mypolonga district is radically different. It is difficult to find any reasonable explanation for this difference. It may be that in the Murray Bridge/Mypolonga district, where the farmer has to face high salinities most of the time, the urge to rationalize is much stronger. In the other district, the farmer only has periodic moments of crisis, and these are not enough to cause him to adopt elaborate rationalizations. But this is mere supposition. More research needs to be conducted in this area.

It is interesting to note that in replying to the second part of Question 7, a number of those who had replied in the negative to the first part (8 in Murray Bridge/Mypolonga; 30 in Loxton/Renmark) then went on to detail the effects of salinity on their various crops. This sort of inconsistent thinking is typical of the rationalizing process.

One of the big drawbacks associated with the rationalizing process stems from the refusal to admit that there is a problem. If the farmer is not prepared to admit that salinity is a problem, he will not be prepared to adopt any preventative measures. This is certainly indicated in the answers to Question 6 (Table 5.19).

It is clear that a significant percentage of farmers in both districts are taking no measures to alleviate the salinity problem. Again they are looking at the problem purely from their own standpoint.

There is a surprising amount of ignorance on the part of the farmers with respect to measures being adopted by the state government. This could again be a reflection of the same rationalizing process. The irrigation farmer is bound to be skeptical about measures taken to solve a problem which, as far as he is concerned, is non existent. Thus, in both districts, a large percentage of respondents claimed that the state government is doing nothing about the problem. In answering this question many of those interviewed made it very clear that they thought it a government responsibility to deal with the problem. Many expressed the view that what little contribution they could make as individuals would be insignificant. This is certainly an understandable viewpoint, but it betrays a failure to perceive the relationship shown in Fig. 5.5 where a small. reduction in salinity means a large reduction in impact. It is essential that farmers see the significance of this, or more and more of them will refuse to become involved on the grounds that they feel powerless in the face of such a large and complex problem.

TABLE 5.19 Salinity Mitigation

Responses (Personal) Frequency
Murray Bridge/M
Watering at night or other suitable times 6 6
Maintenance of drainage facilities 3 26
Irrigate using less water more often 3 13
Irrigate using more water less often 1 5
Addition of gypsim/lime to soil 2  
Introduction of salt tolerant plants 1 5
Change method of irrigation 1 30
Nothing 11 32
Response (State Government)    
  MB/M L/R
Supplying water on demand 2 6
Resiting of evaporation basins 1 4
Investigating means of reducing seepage 1  
Improve drainage system - 42
Nothing 15 48
Don't know 7 3

a, Q: "What measures have been taken to alleviate the salinity problem in this area: la) by you ? (b) by the State Government ? "

Ignorance of government activities was further amplified in the answers to Question 9. The answers are not detailed here, but suffice it to say that the roles of the two departments were badly confused.

The presently used techniques for controlling salinity levels, particularly the siting of evaporation basins on the river flood-plain have drawn much criticism from conservation bodies such as the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia. These evaporation basins result in the destruction of large areas of native vegetation along with the habitats of native birds and animals. In the answers to Question 10 there is no evidence of any awareness of such negative effects {Table 5.20).

TABLE 5.20, Mitigation Side-effects

Response Murray Bridge/Mypolonga Loxton/Renmark
Yes 4 22
No 15 47
Don't know 8 31

a: Q: "Do the presently used techniques for controlling/overcoming the salinity problem have any bad effects associated with them ?"

The majority of the respondents claimed that they were not aware of any bad effects. Of those who replied yes, very few (6 in all) mentioned the broader environmental effects such as those mentioned above. Most were content to mention small onfarm side-effects.

The available evidence seems to suggest that irrigation farmers in the face of the salinity problem do indeed adopt a rationalizing stance which prevents them facing up fully to the problem, which tends to make them rely blindly on the government's finding a solution, and which tends to make them blind to some of the more serious and widespread environmental side-effects associated with measures adopted to counter the salinity problem. The evidence as marshalled here is largely circumstantial. More rigorous and exhaustive research needs to be undertaken in this area.

General Conclusion

In a very real sense the salinity problem can be seen as part of the process of desertification in South Australia. Increasing levels of salinity are posing real threats to the productivity and viability of the irrigated land along the River Murray, and are posing a long-term threat to the viability of the city of Adelaide which is so dependent upon the River Murray for its water supply.

This investigation has been concerned with the human dimensions of this problem. In many parts of the world the process of desertification has been shown to be more related to human causes than to natural processes. The River Murray salinity problem certainly fits this pattern. The problem has appeared so complex and difficult to conceptualize that, until recently, it has been largely ignored. Callinan and Webster t1971, 240) suggest two alternative approaches which can be adopted with respect to salinity. The first is to simpy ignore it as long as possible. This has been the approach that has been adopted up until very recently. The other approach is to regard salt as a major determining factor in our environment and to plan land use accordingly. We have not yet come this far. We persist with irrigated farmland in areas totally unsuited to such activities.

It is clear that physical solutions to the salinity problem can be found. However, it is argued here, and this is a logical conclusion from the above discussion and presentation of evidence, that the persistence and increasing threat from salinity in South Australia stems from a human tension between the irrigation farmers on the one hand and the

Adelaide residents on the other. The irrigation farmers are not really interested in the problems of Adelaide's water supply, and have no great awareness of the effects they are having on it. The Adelaide residents are not really interested in the increasing salinization and threat to livelihood of the irrigation farmers. For that matter they are not even aware of the threat, and have only the most elementary notion of what salinity is. Thus the irrigation farmer fails to perceive the urban problem, and the urban dweller fails to perceive the farmer's problem.

The end result is that many avenues for effective action are closed. The farmer concentrates on his day-to-day activities and ignores the problems he may be causing further downstream. The urban dweller uses all his political power and his numbers to convince the government to make the provision of better-looking water the first priority with respect to the allocation of funds.

The future does not look bright for the irrigation farmer. In an uncertain economic climate, and in the face of rising salinity levels and increasing demand for good water from metropolitan Adelaide, his future looks decidedly shaky. If this scenario is allowed to develop, irrigated lands will eventually be abandoned and farmers will lose a way of life. Such a process could be described as "political desertification," that is, desertification born out of political conflict between two separate interest groups. Although salinization might be blamed, the ultimate cause would be a political decision reached as the outcome of tension and conflict between interest groups within the society. If one were then to investigate why such tension went unresolved, it would ultimately come down to a failure in perception, a failure on the part of each group to see the whole problem with all its ramifications, a failure to see that ons's own interest can depend on the welfare of others.

It is to be hoped that such a scenario does not develop in South Australia, although there are indications that we are some way along the road towards it. The only way in which a more hopeful scenario will develop is if people are sufficiently informed about the salinity problem and all its ramifications -physical, social, economic, and environmental -so that they can adequately perceive where their own limited activities fit into the scheme of things. Education for true perception is just as important as the construction of new evaporation basins. The old philosophy of the experts planning for the people just does not work with a problem so complex and so difficult to perceive as the salinity problem. The people must understand the problem, and the evidence presented here suggests that, at the moment, this is not the case.


Salinity Investigations


1. Description of Holding

Total area under irrigation: hectares.
Areas of Various Crops Method of Irrigation

2. In what year did you first begin working your property?

3. Some recent reports on the River Murray suggest that salinity is the major problem associated with the management of the river. How has the salinity problem affected:

(a) You?
(b) Your district?
(c) Districts further upstream (Murray Bridge/Mypolonga) or downstream (Loxton/Renmark)?

4. What do you think are the major causes of the salinity problem?

5. Is the salinity problem getting better or worse in your district?

(a) better
(b) worse
(c) static
(d) fluctuating
(e) don't know

6. What measures (if any) have been taken to alleviate the salinity problem in this area:

(a) by you as an individual?
(b) by the State Government?

7. Is salinity a problem on your property at present?

(a) yes
(b) no
If so, on what crop(s) is its effect more pronounced?

8. Which of the following sources have you relied on most for information about salinity?

(a) Advertisements in newspapers/journals
(b) Department of Agriculture
(c) Engineering and water Supply Department
(d) Neighbours and other farmers
(e) Newspaper articles
(f) Radio/Television
(g) Stock and Station Agents

9. What is the role of the Department of Agriculture and the Engineering and Water Supply Department with regard to the salinity problem?

Department of Agriculture E. & W.S. Department

10. Do the presently used techniques for controlling/ overcoming the salinity problem have any bad effects associated with them ?

(a) yes
(b) no

If so, what are they?

11. Further comments?


Salinity/Water Quality Investigations

Serial No. informant:

1. Which one of the following descriptions do you think is appropriate for describing the quality of Adelaide's water?

(a) very good
(b) good
(c) acceptable
(d) poor
(e) very poor

2. Which one of the following descriptions most influenced your quality grade for Question 1 ?

(a) colour
(b) hardness
(c) smell
(d) taste
(e) salinity

3. What problems do you know affect the water supply from the River Murray? Name as many as you can.

4. What effect is the River Murray salinity having on the Adelaide metropolitan area?

5. Will filtration help us to reduce salinity?
Yes No

6. What actions are currently being taken to reduce salinity levels in the River Murrav ?

7. If you were in charge of spending Government funds on improvements in water management for South Australia, how would you list these options in order of priority?

(a) Salinity in the Upper Murray
(b) Filtration of the Adelaide water supply
(c) Extension of sewerage in Adelaide
(d) Construction of additional reservoirs and/or dams
(e) Reduction of water pollution other than salinity

8. Whose responsibility should it be to inform the public about the salinity problem?

(a) press
(b) conservation groups
(c) schools
(d) T.V.
(e) State Government
(f) Federal Government
(g) Local Government
(h) individuals
(i) agriculturalists

9. Explain how irrigation is related to salinity.

10. Apart from the River Murray water what other alternative supplies are available for metropolitan Adelaide?

11. How best can South Australia bring pressure on Victoria and New South Wales not to spoil the water supply we receive through the River Murray ?


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