OPINION PIECE: Dam Shame We're Not Looking to the Future

It is a statement of fact that, for food producers’ purposes, we can improve our soils more quickly and cheaply than we can build dams. Dams are expensive and in the end our farmers pay through the high water charges necessary to help recover the capital costs.

Dams also have an environmental cost. Changing Mother Nature’s water course has significant adverse impacts on our environment as well as fauna and flora both upstream and downstream. It’s ironic that Barnaby Joyce still seeks political opportunity by declaring dams are the answer to drought while simultaneously declaring war on carp in our rivers. The proliferation of this exotic fish species is in large part, one of the environmental consequences of building catchment dams. Sadly, Joyce’s narrative lives on in his replacement David Littleproud. Thankfully, the majority are more enlightened.

That’s not to say water projects aren’t important. They are. The former Labor Government invested in them.  But they must stack up, both environmentally and economically. They’re not always the solution.

I have had many opportunities to visit and speak with farmers and scientists who are advocating for and embracing holistic farming practices. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, every situation and bio-region is different.  But while the circumstances vary, the key focus is always soil health; increasing soil carbon and organic matter levels.

The benefits of doing so are many and obvious. Amongst them, more nutrition for the food and pastures we grow and an improvement in the capacity of our soils to hold moisture.

Indeed, our scientists tell us that increasing soil carbon by one per cent across 10 hectares will enable the soil to hold 2.5 million litres of water (enough water to fill an Olympic swimming pool). Along with cell grazing, the planting of trees, the shaping of the landscape, the greater utilisation of composts and reducing the use of inorganic fertilizers, this is the foundation of a meaningful and successful drought policy. Of course, it is also productivity enhancing.

For our farmers the climate is becoming more challenging and will continue to do so. For sustainable food production purposes, dams are a 19th Century solution to a 21st Century problem. But if we want more farmers following and embracing the latest science they’ll need some encouragement and guidance from government. So we first need a government prepared to acknowledge climate change is a problem and to accept the advice of the experts.

Given Minister Littleproud’s recent climate change comments on the ABC’s Q&A program, we should not hold our collective breath.

This opinion piece was first published in the Newcastle Herald on Friday, 17 August 2018.

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