Our life support systems of climate, water and ecological services are in collective crisis

Feb 27, 2024
Earth day Concept

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt. We must educate and act urgently on these problems.

The continuing decline of the life support system of ecosystem services and biodiversity is a crisis needing urgent, collective action. At stake is food production and many other benefits for health and life itself.

Just as we are now deeply concerned about tipping points in climate change which will make it impossible to control, ecological tipping points are being described in some of the world’s regions. In Australia a Government study defines about 100 ecological communities, where assemblages of species in a particular habitat are listed as threatened, endangered or critically endangered or are currently at risk. But this is likely to be a massive underestimate.

Currently the Acting Treasurer has requested the Productivity Commission to undertake an inquiry into the reform progress of Australia’s water resources (National Water Reform 2024).

The Commonwealth Water Act (2007) requires Governments to ensure water extraction does not compromise ecosystems which depend on freshwater flows and are vital for food production and the health and survival of humans and all species.

Water for survival has been termed Environmental Water. As our climate becomes progressively hotter and drier, environmental water for ecosystems will need an increasing share of the total available water.

The fundamental problem is that Governments, commerce, media and much of humanity fail to understand the complexity of ecosystems, their increasing fragility and the impacts of their decimation.

This is patently obvious in the ongoing debate over management of the Murray Darling River where communities regard environmental water obtained from buybacks as damaging to their communities’ economy.

This debate is the basis for poor administrative progress and health of the Murray Darling River over 20 years. Currently many water scientists believe the river is dying because of a lack of environmental water to maintain its ecological services within the river and in its banks and the adjacent vegetation and flood plains.

The Wentworth Group of scientists has asked “Are Murray-Darling Basin rivers getting the water they need to stay healthy?”

The Wentworth Group evaluated environmental water requirements against actual river flows measured at stream gauges in rivers. They assessed 72 science-based environmental flow requirements from 1979 to 2022.

The study found that only 31% of the Basin’s environmental water requirements assessed were achieved in the past 43 years. In the decade commencing in 2012, only 26% were achieved, demonstrating an overall declining trend.

This poor performance has been based mainly on reports to government by consultancies. A recent study from Adelaide University developed and applied a new economic quality assessment framework used in health research. Of the studies examined, 65 were on the economic consequences of water recovered. Almost half of these were low-quality studies, mainly by consultancies but also by think tanks and government departments. The low-quality studies were more likely to overestimate negative impacts on the economy and community from buying water back for the environment.

This is yet another example of the increasing concerns about reports by consultancies particularly the Big 4 some of which have conflicts of interest and a philosophy of economic progress but little consideration of life support systems. Hopefully the current “Senate Inquiry into management and assurance of integrity by consulting services” will shine some light on the size of the problem.

Returning to an understanding of the importance and complexity of ecosystems, soil is fundamental as our life support system, food production.

Soil consists of species of bacteria, fungi, viruses, nematodes, mites, worms and insects to maintain its ecological structure and service. In fact soil is estimated to consist of two thirds of all species on the planet. Pollinators, birds and animals are included in this ecological service to control pests and enhance productivity.

If listening systems are placed in the soil one can hear the constant cacophony made by these creatures as they break down organic material to components which can be absorbed through the roots of growing plants.

Clearly soil needs to retain its health by receiving organic matter to break down to service the needs of plants but in much farming today it is replaced by fertiliser to maintain and increase crop yields. The living soil deteriorates and is more easily blown or washed away by the increasing extreme storms of climate change.

Each of us possesses our own ecological system in our bowel, the bacteria and enzymes in our small intestine split apart ingested foods so the constituents can be absorbed into the body. The system is known as your microbiome. Some patients with inflammatory bowel diseases resistant to conventional treatment can be treated successfully with a “poo-transplant”- the patient takes an oral dose of faecal material from a healthy patient. Some soils lacking ecological life because of overcropping can only be restored by soil transplant when healthy soil is spread over dead soil.

Healthy ecological systems operate like circular economies and are therefore sustainable, but as yet we don’t entertain such economic systems.

The task before the Australian government is to recognise we are dependent on all other nations to reduce emissions. Because this is unlikely to occur soon, global heating will progressively damage ecosystems and food production will fall.

We can however reduce other ecologically damaging agents for which we are responsible, pesticides. herbicides and fertilisers, all impacting on the thousand of species in the soil.

In this respect it is a tragedy that land clearing continues together with the many other government failures on biodiversity conservation due to the cumulative impacts particularly from zoning and developments.

Political resistance to measures protecting soil should be anticipated. In 2020, the EC produced a paper “Reinforcing Europe’s resilience: halting biodiversity loss and building a healthy and sustainable food system” which paved the way for reduction in such chemicals usage. Resulting Legislation has caused a farming revolt because land will be less productive.

The Australian government commenced this journey with the National Soil Action Plan. The EC experience indicates that the introduction of such measures in Australia requires extensive education on the need for income supplement for farmers. Government will need to decide how they can deliver such education in a milieu of likely obstruction from the National Party and others. Surely the Universities must have a role in this, particularly those with a rural presence.

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