Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts home page

About us | Contact us | Publications

header imagesheader imagesheader images

Publications archive - International Activities and Commitments


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Australia's report to the UNCSD - 1995

Implementation of Agenda 21
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1995
ISBN 0 6444 3152 0

Desertification and Drought

Chapter 12 of Agenda 21


Desertification is defined in Agenda 21 as land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities. Some 70 per cent of Australia's land area falls into these zones.

Australia's rangelands are defined by a combination of climatic, vegetation and land use parameters. They are generally native grasslands, shrublands and woodlands which cover a large proportion of the arid and semi-arid regions, and also include tropical savannah woodland. The majority of the Australian mainland, particularly the arid and semi-arid zones, is rangeland.

Currently, the major land use of rangeland areas is extensive pastoralism (mostly sheep in the south and cattle to the north). They support other industries such as mining and tourism which also make an important contribution to Australia's economy. The rangelands are significant to Aboriginal communities and contain nationally and internationally significant conservation areas.

While estimates vary, a significant proportion of these areas has suffered degradation which has had ecological, social and economic consequences. Introduced animals, for example rabbits, continue to degrade the environment. As well fire patterns have changed. Soils have been depleted, plant communities have changed and some species have been lost.

The focus of Agenda 21 is on developing countries. This was confirmed by a subsequent decision of the United Nations to develop an International Convention addressing Desertification, particularly in Africa. After two years of international negotiations, the Desertification Convention was open for signature in October 1994.

By comparison with other countries, Australia's rangelands are sparsely populated and have been used for grazing for a relatively short time. However, in many cases, our management problems have the same source - the management of agricultural systems without due regard to natural resource management consequences. Australia's experience in tackling land degradation may be useful in helping other countries address their resource management problems. Australian experience and skills is varied and includes the development of strategies, plans and programs (at the local, regional and national levels), as well as scientific and technical expertise in a range of areas relevant to ecologically sustainable resource use.

In Australia, drought and climatic variability is an integral part of the agricultural operating environment and is not confined to arid and semi-arid zones. The National Drought Policy has been developed to meet the needs of all of the agricultural sector and is an integral part of Australia's sustainable agriculture policy. It has, therefore, been covered in the Chapter on Agriculture.

Australian rangelands: a national strategy for their management

Australian rangelands are made up of a diverse array of environments and ecosystems shaped by strong climatic and geological forces. The climate is unpredictable and the scale of management (for both conservation and production purposes) is immense.

Almost all the industries and communities based on rangelands are heavily reliant on available natural resources for their survival and prosperity, which raises the issue of whether rangelands are being managed in an ecologically sustainable way. This means developing ways of using those natural resources so that they contribute to long-term economic goals and to Australia's well-being, while maintaining and where possible enhancing ecological systems and protecting biodiversity.

Recognising that economic, environmental and social issues were emerging in several rangelands regions, Australia initiated a process to develop a national strategy, including an action plan, for the ecologically sustainable use and conservation of Australia's rangelands. State and Federal Ministers responsible for agriculture, resource management and the environment established a working group to oversight this process. Development of this strategy provides an important opportunity for rangeland users, interest groups and the wider community to build their views, knowledge and experience into a national strategy.

The proposed national strategy for rangeland management will guide government and community decisions on the development of rangeland policies and programs into the future. The strategy will be integrated with and complement the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development and a range of related policies and plans designed to foster ESD. Consultation with interested parties and the broader community has taken place through the release of a discussion paper canvassing issues relevant to rangelands, and the hosting of workshops throughout rural and urban Australia . At this stage it is expected that a draft strategy will be available for public comment towards the end of 1995, with a final strategy and action plan endorsed by First Ministers of Federal and State/Territory Governments in 1996.

Underpinning the development of the strategy are a number of key principles which are to guide the working group in its task. These principles are as follows:

Managing for production activities

Rangelands are sparsely populated areas in Australia, a country where about 75% of the people live within 50km of the coast. Pastoralism predominates, with the gross value of production of meat and wool from these areas approaching A$1 billion each year. More than 65% of this is exported. Mining and tourism in rangeland areas are also economically important, but compared to pastoralism their impacts are more localised.

About 10% of Australia's sheep flock and around half the country's beef cattle herd are carried in these regions. There are around 4 000 holdings in the rangelands so holdings are large with, for example, sheep properties averaging 15 000 to 24 000 hectares and cattle properties 20 000 to over 400 000 hectares in some areas. Stocking rates are relatively low, but overall grazing pressure is increased in some regions by significant numbers of native and introduced herbivores.

An important aspect of rangeland areas, which has implications for management generally (ie in relation to both production and conservation objectives) is the vast size of the area - measures need to be low cost and applicable over broad regions. Another key consideration is that of uncertainty. In the case of production-oriented activities this encompasses not only the climatic factors and other events (eg fire), but also economic and market factors. These aspects need to been taken into account in the development of policies, plans and programs for rangelands areas.

Integrating policies and plans

In Australia, attention is given to ensuring consistency between measures aimed at natural resource management and an associated set of policies and programs for industry development/adjustment and drought; the latter includes the Rural Adjustment Scheme, the National Drought Policy , the Rural Commodities Access Program and the Agrifood Strategy and Agribusiness Program. Further details are provided in theChapter on Agriculture.

Increasingly, Governments are focusing on the development of regional approaches which concentrate on a particular geographic region (eg a major water catchment) and seek to develop an integrated approach to resource management in a way which is linked to the broader economic and social goals of that region. Integrating various policies and programs, referred to above, into a broad regional framework is a key element of regional initiatives.

Planning at all levels is important and is fundamental to the National Landcare Program . A hierarchy of planning processes (at the local/property, regional and national level) provide a basis for a cooperative approach to identifying problems, allocating responsibilities, and coordinating action.

At the local or farm level, planning on a whole property basis is increasingly being recognised as a crucial requirement for managing sustainability and raising the management skill level of farmers and graziers. Funds are made available under the NLP to support activities designed to foster local or property management planning. Important elements of farm planning are property layout and integrated management of stock, crops, soil, water, vegetation and other resources for their productive and conservation values. Other elements are personal goals, financial and business aspects of management and risk factors associated with climatic or market variability.

More information on regional approaches and Landcare is provided in the Chapter onLand Resources.

Dealing with uncertainty

In managing for drought, Australian research effort covers a range of areas, from the development of improved climate forecast systems to strategies to enhance farmers' financial viability. One project, 'DroughtPlan', which is a cooperative effort between graziers, pastoralists, extension officers and researchers, aims to develop risk management strategies to deal with droughts which are a recurring part of life in the industry across the continent. It includes a number of phases covering data gathering and analysis, development of activities and tools to manage risk, and follow-up on those tools to ensure that they are appropriate and usable.

Substantial progress has also been made in recent years into climate prediction techniques by a number of government and research organisations, particularly in relation to long term forecasting. Advances have also been made in management technologies, with the development of a variety of software packages to assist landholders identify options and analyse outcomes associated with various management strategies.

A number of Australian agencies are working to ensure that the best possible information is available for land management, and to provide forecasts of the effects of climatic conditions on pasture availability. A wide range of technologies are combined to provide this information:

The approach may have general application, beyond Australia, assuming appropriate indicators are available. For example, in parts of Africa, sea surface temperatures may be more applicable than the El Nino effect and research is being done on assessing the usefulness of sea surface temperatures from global models for climate prediction. Other inputs, such as satellite imagery and vegetation condition estimates, are available world- wide.

The importance of monitoring land degradation

Assessing trends in resource quantity and quality and judging whether progress is being made is important for individual landholders and for governments. Action is being taken on three aspects of monitoring: the development of appropriate indicators of sustainability; the assessment of current policies and programs to determine if progress is being made towards achieving ecologically sustainable resource use; and development of tools to be used by landholders in assessing the effect of their own practices on resources.

An important element is the development of techniques to measure and monitor degradation, including those which identify human-induced from natural changes. Australia has considerable skills in this, particularly in relation to very large areas.

The CSIRO conducts a number of research and demonstration programs aimed at measuring and predicting changes in soil and vegetation properties in rangelands. Traditionally, land condition has been difficult to measure in arid rangelands because of highly variable rainfall, diverse landscapes and problems with sampling large areas. Using satellite imagery, CSIRO scientists have developed a technique for measuring land condition at the landscape scale.

The technique, known as the 'grazing gradient method', is based on the fact that animals do not graze large arid zone paddocks evenly. Generally, grazing intensity decreases with increasing distance from water. By comparing satellite images of areas with different grazing pressures before and after rainfall, it is possible to detect patterns which are specifically related to land degradation. Areas which have suffered permanent grazing damage do not respond to rainfall as well as areas which have been lightly grazed.

In cooperation with the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory, the method has been used to assess an area of some 40 000 square kilometres of central Australia. Work is now under way to adapt these techniques to other rangelands areas.

Meeting conservation objectives

The rangelands contain significant conservation, heritage and indigenous cultural values. For example, Australia is one of the most important countries in the world from a biodiversity perspective, containing a wide array of ecosystems. In particular, the rangelands contain over half of Australia's species of endangered mammals, more than a third of the species of threatened birds, and about half of its threatened plant species.

Biodiversity in the rangelands has been affected by factors such as feral predators, exotic plants and modification of habitat by grazing and vegetation clearing. These factors, as well as historical conditions and external forces affecting the rangelands, have also contributed to land degradation, which may be manifested as salinisation, soil erosion or weed invasion. The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, the draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity, the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australian Species and Ecological Communities Threatened by Extinction, and the proposed National Strategy for Rangeland Management , address these concerns.

Economic costs limit the range of conservation values able to be placed in Australia's various state and national conservation reserve systems (such costs include those associated with acquisition and management of land, as well as opportunity costs where multiple use is restricted and resources are no longer available for development). A number of additional measures are being investigated, however, to enhance and assist conservation management outside reserves, including sympathetic management of land adjacent to reserves. Some reserves such as the regional reserves in South Australia, are being established to ensure that environmental objectives are achieved, while still meeting economic needs.

Water is a critical resource in the rangelands. Improved management of water resources is occurring by bore capping and piping; this saves water, allows more effective use of watering points to spread grazing pressure, and reduces the impact of an unnatural water supply on feral animal populations and plant biodiversity. The Feral Pests Program and Vertebrate Pest Program and proposed National Weeds Strategy, are working to increase the effectiveness of the current control work undertaken by pastoralists.

The cultural value of rangelands for indigenous people has been recognised by the hand-back of title to land ownership for areas including conservation reserves, by national and most State Governments.

The past has shown that management methods used in higher rainfall areas of Australia are not applicable to the rangelands. A greater emphasis on proactive, long term planning is needed, including integrating ecosystem management with land administration, enhancing information flow between researchers and users, consideration of alternative land uses, and programmed monitoring and review of resource use.

Australia is increasingly meeting its conservation objectives using a regional approach, based on natural boundaries, and involving not only government but resource owners/managers and other parts of the community.

The needs of indigenous people

Increasing attention is being directed towards providing for the special needs of indigenous people, at the broader policy as well as the program level. Indigenous groups, principally Aboriginal people, now own or control some 15% of the land area of Australia with the largest proportion being in rangeland areas. As this is likely to increase under the Native Title Act 1993, the use and management of Aboriginal lands is becoming increasingly important as a national issue.

In Australia, cooperative research between indigenous people of the arid lands and ecologists has demonstrated that the integration of traditional knowledge with ecological research can lead to improved land management and conservation of natural resources. These principles have been applied to the management of Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, owned by the Anangu, the region's Aboriginal traditional custodians, and managed jointly by them and the Australian Nature Conservation Agency. In practice this results in the restoration of traditional land management practices (eg patch burning techniques) as well as broadening the bases of flora and fauna research management.

Under the National Landcare Program (NLP) , Aboriginal communities, along with Landcare groups and similar community organisations, may be directly funded for local projects. In 1994-5 some 27 NLP projects specifically relating to Aboriginal resource use amounting to A$1.1 million were funded. In addition, a number of projects received funding under the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative - a major regional initiative involving a river system which crosses four States.

The special needs of indigenous groups to develop sustainable management of resources are also recognised through the Aboriginal Rural Resources Initiative (ARRI). The ARRI is investigating and supporting development projects in Aboriginal communities based on the use and management of rural resources. In recent years certain groups of Aboriginal people have gained ownership of large areas of rangeland, and in many cases are considering pastoral enterprises in their move towards economic independence. Given the fragile nature of these areas, it is important for them to have access to information from new developments in research and extension in the commercial pastoral industry and other commercial enterprises, as well as the interaction between these commercial options and cultural uses.

The goals of Aboriginal people living in the rangelands can vary substantially. The program acknowledges that Aboriginal goals can be very different from those of non-Aboriginal land users and that, without the support and commitment of Aboriginal communities, projects may be seen as being imposed from outside and objectives may not be met.

The ARRI program is brokering relationships between scientific and technical agencies and Aboriginal people, enhancing advice and training opportunities where few have existed in the past. The incorporation of advice, training and financial support into the locally developed community planning processes is helping to make ARRI rural development projects more likely to provide the results that Aboriginal people themselves are seeking. In 1993-94, activities employing 270 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people received support through projects worth about A$3 million.

Further attention to the special needs of Aboriginal groups is being given consideration through the Aboriginal Rural Advisory Committee recently established by the Federal Government. This Committee is currently developing an Aboriginal Rural Industry Strategy. The Strategy is the first step in an evolutionary process in achieving greater participation in and benefits from indigenous involvement in rural industries. It addresses the key issues for the current and future indigenous landowners and residents, plus indigenous people who seek to participate in a broad range of mainstream rural industries and other land-based activities.

Australia's international policy

On 14 October 1994, Australia signed the Desertification Convention in Paris and now needs to decide on ratification. That decision will be made in consultation with the Governments of Australian States and Territories and interested industry and community groups. Australia is well placed to meet the commitments in the Convention, as it has a number of relevant plans or programs either in place (egLandcare ), or in the process of being developed (eg the proposed National Strategy for Rangeland Management ).

The Australian Government already supports various programs in Africa, addressing aspects of desertification and drought mitigation. At the Convention signing ceremony, Australia announced a further contribution to the Urgent Action for Africa Resolution. There are three parts to this contribution.

Australia will contribute up to A$250 000 through the United Nations Development Program over three years for the provision of Australian consultancy services for combating desertification. This money will be available to selected African states for technical assistance and advice in setting up their national action programs consistent with the Desertification Convention.

In addition, Australia plans to undertake, through its Bureau of Meteorology, a joint feasibility study with the World Meteorological Organisation for the establishment of a network linking the two drought monitoring centres in Nairobi and Harare with the African centre of meteorological applications for development in Niamey.

Finally, Australia is investigating means of initiating a research program on the ecological problems facing arid and semi-arid regions. The aim is to produce a set of principles to guide the development of national action programs for specific countries.

Australia, with its knowledge and experience of rangeland management outlined earlier in this chapter, should be able to make a significant contribution to assisting developing countries address desertification problems. Australia's potential contribution could take a number of forms, drawing on our experience in developing strategies and programs to address land degradation, as well as our technological expertise. Australia recently produced, for international distribution, a booklet entitled 'Australian Initiatives to Combat Desertification' which indicates the services that Australian businesses and government agencies can provide to assist countries with their land degradation problems.

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) supports collaborative research projects between Australian scientists and scientists in developing countries. Research projects are directed at identifying technologies for reducing desertification. Current activities include saltbush management in saline rangelands of Pakistan and the use of remote sensing to study soil degradation in transition zones of Botswana. Australia is also supporting the international research program on desertification initiated by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) by providing A$280 000 through ACIAR. These funds will support cooperative work between ICRISAT and CSIRO on the use of plant growth modelling to manage climatic risk in marginal cropping areas.

see also: Case Study - National Drought Policy

For further information contact:

Department of Primary Industries and Energy