Forests form buffer against water crisis: findings of new international report

Published 10 July 2018
Paddle boat on Murray River in South Australia A paddle boat on the Murray River in South Australia.

Australia has traded its natural capital for economic growth to the detriment of the ecological integrity essential to the country’s very survival, says a Southern Cross University environmental economist who has contributed to an international report investigating the link between forests, water, climate and people.

Professor Caroline Sullivan is a member of United Nations-supported Global Forest Expert Panel on Forests and Water, part of the International Union of Forest Research Institutions (IUFRO), which has today released its Forest and Water on a Changing Planet: Vulnerability, Adaptation and Governance Opportunities. A Global Assessment Report.

“This international effort to highlight the interlinkages between forests, water, people and climate is very timely, given the pressures we now face on both human society and natural ecosystems,” said Professor Sullivan. 

“For example, here in Australia, we are facing water shortages, massive loss of biodiversity, rising incidence of floods and droughts, and loss of economic capital and human wellbeing.”

More than 50 scientists from 20 countries contributed to this major assessment. This interdisciplinary panel is made up of experts in forestry, hydrology, meteorology, soil sciences, ecology, physics, chemistry, economics and political science.

Water security is key to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet, increasingly the world is facing water shortages. The link between forests and climate is regularly considered in decision-making, whereas that between forests and water remains under-represented.

The Murray Darling basin is mentioned in the report.

The case of the Murray Darling basin … is one example of a continuous and still unresolved conflict over ecological water allocations. The basin covers over 1 million km2 (14% of Australia’s landmass) and contains over 30,000 wetlands. However, the introduction of strict water allocation rules in response to threats to the basin’s capacity to cater to an increasing demand for water met with resistance from farmers depending on irrigation. Meanwhile, many areas of the floodplain forests of iconic Red Gums continue to decline. Conflicts between land and water users remain, and many forest, and former wetland, areas are consumed by bushfires that occur increasingly every year.

“For the last 200 years we have traded off our natural capital to achieve economic growth and, just like other nations, we have failed to realise that the maintenance of a certain level of ecological integrity is essential to our very survival,” said Professor Sullivan.

“On a global scale we are at a tipping point where changes in the way we do things have to be made. This situation is now referred to as the New Normal, which recognises that in a world with a human population of more than 7 billion, pressures we face today are not the same as those we faced in the past.”

Professor Caroline Sullivan is an Environmental Economist with more than 25 years of experience in working in this interdisciplinary water/forest/land-cover/climate and policy space, and is the only representative from Australia involved in this effort.

Southern Cross University is a member of IUFRO. Other members of the Forest and Water Expert Panel are based in universities and research institutions from the USA, Canada, UK, Germany, China, Japan, Indonesia, Nepal, South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Austria.

According to the findings of this report, the kind of operational changes that we need to consider would include:

  • Reversing land clearing (to reduce carbon emissions and protect biodiversity)
  • Stopping soil mining (by ensuring soil health through a more biodynamic approach to farming)
  • Reducing the area of hard surfaces in flood plains (to increase water infiltration and reduce flooding)
  • Increasing vegetative cover at the landscape scale (encouraging land surface cooling, reducing the erosive effect of rainfall, especially in the tropics and subtropics, increasing infiltration to soils and groundwater)
  • Recognising the long-distance effects that land clearing can have on rainfall  (for example, removal of vegetation on the East Coast of Australia is likely to reduce rainfall levels experienced further west)
  • At the political and economic level, we need to provide policies to bring about a redistribution of the benefits from the use of natural assets of the nation (eg, incentive schemes for landholders, increased royalty payments for extractive industries)
  • At the macroeconomic scale, we need to integrate accounting for environmental change into economic accounts (ie, reorganising our macroeconomic systems to recognise the real differences between the loss of the stock of environmental assets, and the generation of the flow of income from them).

“The time to put private benefit before public good is over,” Professor Sullivan said.

“Without a change in the way our production systems are managed and rewarded, we will, within decades, be faced with a future where conflict over scarce environmental resources will become an inevitability. The economic benefits from short-term political decision-making will not secure a safe human future. It is essential that we move beyond the temptations of immediate gain, to ensure that the lucky country that we all love will continue to survive for future generations of Australians.”

Media contact: Sharlene King 0429 661 349 or scumedia@scu.edu.au