A Touch of History

By Des Menz posted in the series on LANDSCAPE AND BIODIVERSITY

Part 2

South Australia is a region that is most likely to be impacted the greatest in continental Australia by accelerated Climate Change. Much of the state is arid, much is desert, and significant declines in rainfall are now occurring as shown by long-term trends. Changes in all parts of the Australian landscape have been brought about by anthropogenic (i.e. human related) activities, and not merely because of natural phenomena. 

  • In South Australia what are the incremental effects of landscape change?
  • Is the state’s future too bound up in its past (i.e. an agri-economy that has its roots in the 19th century) if sudden future changes are necessary in the way that natural resources are "used" and managed?
  • Will the state's rural economy be overwhelmingly shaped by limited options in the future?

These questions are all about sustainability, so let's start at the beginning. 

Change … It’s all Around Us

Enormous changes have been wrought on the landscape since the arrival of European settlers and the establishment of the colony of South Australia in 1836. All that has happened since those early years to the present day has been a result of a general disregard of the environment that evolved over millions of years. The ignorance of the early settlers and the consequences of their actions is understandable today, for they knew little of the flora, fauna, and the fragility of the landscape. The abundance they saw had evolved over tens of thousands of years, and in some aspects millions of years. It was there to be conquered.

The use of fire by the original inhabitants of the land - the Aboriginals - for at least 40,000 years, and maybe longer, most certainly would have altered the environment in subtle and incremental, but irreversible, ways. The fire-stick, the tool favoured by Aboriginals to establish and maintain grassland habitat to attract animals for hunting and food, played its part in increments in changing vegetation systems, and in turn, landscapes. Tim Flannery has described this in some depth in his book "The Future Eaters".

But it is the white man - the European descendant mostly - who, in the space of just 170 years or so, has had as great an impact - if not more - than the Aboriginals had during their many thousands of years of occupation with their use of the "firestick" that altered the landscape forever. 

In South Australia, the impacts started in 1836 with the declaration of the colony, and they are continuing today. The depletion of natural resources, particularly scant vegetative cover, is a grim tale of the conquest of humans over other living systems. It is a tale forged in the never-ending struggle for survival and profit, and has its roots in the competition between the colonial states in the 19th century (with their anachronistic borders), and the indomitable quest to "develop".

South Australia is given the unwelcome title of being the driest state in the driest continent on Earth. About 75% of the state now receives an average annual rainfall of less than 200mm - this is desert status. About 4% of the area receives more than 500mm annually, compared with 30% for the rest of Australia. The state is very dry indeed.

Of critical importance is the downward trend in recent decades of rainfall in many areas of the state. Large parts of the rest of the continent (particularly the southern parts) had been in the grip of drought for up to 10 years in the first decade of the 21 st century. Relief only arrived in 2009-10. 

However, South Australia is getting drier, and although the main source of water for Adelaide is the Murray River, the river is in a parlous condition and the future quality and quantity of water is at risk of deterioration. Why is this? Because the squabbling continues about how much water should stay in the river system and how much should be taken out. This topic is further explored in the Waters & Rivers theme.

Critical Times

As of writing (July 2011), there are critical times for South Australia (and Adelaide) just around the corner - unless a new paradigm emerges. The Climate Change Adaptation Framework strongly alludes to this. 

UPDATE :  This report was released in August 2012. Here it is.

As it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, participants in the agricultural sector today continue to experience a sequence of good years followed by not-so-good years - a boom-bust cycle. Each cycle coincides with climatic variability, natural events, or economic circumstances beyond the control of producers.

The erasing of vegetation from the landscape has had profound effects on biodiversity. The impact of massive contractions of flora and fauna, together with extinctions of some species, have resulted in continuing threats to plants and animals today.

None of what has happened in the past 170 years has supported the sustainability of natural systems. Evidence abounds of the decline of the natural resource base, of too much being taken from what remains, of wrong policies taking precedence over long term vision and action, of an acceptance that what exists now will remain unchanged forever, of a people struggling to come to terms with the hand that nature is now dealing out.

Important Questions

Here are the important questions again that were described on the opening page 

  • What is the fate for South Australia? 
  • What are the emerging critical issues confronting its people? 
  • Will its inhabitants learn from history? 
  • Will they be able to adapt rather than try to control nature? 
  • How can a population of just 1.64 million (as of 2012) - of which 1.26 million live in the greater Adelaide area - survive and prosper under a set of circumstances that appear to be turning against them? 
  • Will rural communities be able to adapt and thrive? 
  • Does local government have the capacity to confront the big issues? 
  • Will the institutions of government and the private sector have the capability or the will to change course rapidly when the time comes?

These are just a few of the big questions that need to be confronted.

And so, let's move on to Part 3 ... Lost Connections

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