Australian Actions to Combat Desertification and Land Degradation

National Report by Australia on Measures Taken to Support Implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
Commonwealth Intergovernmental Working Group for the UNCCD, April 2002

Domestic Initiatives to Combat Desertification (continued)

National Strategies and Programs

Australia has in place a substantial body of legislation, programs and strategies for sustainable natural resource management at national, regional, local and farm levels.

Australian governments seek consistency between policies and programs aimed at natural resource management, industry development and drought. Many initiatives link ecological, social and economic objectives through development of integrated regional approaches to resource management. A range of strategies, such as the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, agreed between the Federal and State Governments, have had significant influences on land management practices in the rural sector.

Arid areas have received particular attention through agreement on a set of National Principles and Guidelines for Rangeland Management. The National Strategy for Rangelands Management was prepared by a working group comprising representatives from key stakeholder groups, including government, industry, conservation, indigenous peoples and scientists. Rural and urban communities, industry and other interest groups provided significant input. The Strategy sets out a vision for Australia's rangelands based on the need for ecological sustainability and commercial viability of industry in the region. It identifies actions needed to protect and enhance the natural resources base that underlies most activity in the rangelands.

One of the key initiatives called upon in this strategy was the establishment of a system to monitor the trend and condition of Australia's rangelands. This initiative, being progressed through a partnership between the Federal and State governments, is known as the Australian Rangelands Information System and provides a model for other countries as they establish systems to monitor the trend and condition of their resources while simultaneously providing management orientated information to resource users.

The National Drought Policy was agreed between the Federal, State and Territory Governments in 1992. The Policy aims to encourage primary producers and other sections of rural Australia to adopt self-reliant approaches to managing for climatic variability, maintain and protect Australia's agricultural and environmental resource base during periods of extreme climate stress and ensure early recovery of agricultural and rural industries, consistent with long-term sustainable levels. A review of drought measures triggered under the National Drought Policy was initiated as a result of the intensification of Australia's drought situation in 1994-95. Subsequent developments in drought policy have strengthened the emphasis on self-reliance and focused on the importance of drought research and development of programs aimed at maintaining a sustainable farming sector and minimising the impacts of drought on the environment.

Federal State and Territory Governments have developed a National Weeds Strategy in an attempt to better coordinate control efforts by the different spheres of government and landholders in addressing nationally significant weed species. A number of weeds including Prickly Acacia (Acacia nilotica), Rubber Vine (Cryptostegia grandiflora), Mesquite (Prosopis spp), Parkinsonia (Parkinsonia aculeata) and Athel Pine (Tamarix Aphylla) are serious pests in the rangelands and have been included in the inaugural list of 20 Weeds of National Significance.

Management of total grazing pressure is of concern to rangeland pastoralists. Total grazing pressure comes from the grazing and browsing of herbivores including stock, native species and feral pests. Grazing intensity of stock can be managed through best practice grazing management, and populations of native species are regulated through natural processes. However grazing by feral animals has an enormous influence on the ecology of the rangelands. Compounding this, the management of feral pests is very difficult over extensive areas. The 1996 release of the rabbit calicivirus disease has reduced the grazing impact of this pest species with subsequent environmental benefits. Efforts are also being made to better manage feral populations of the larger ungulates such as horses and donkeys by population reduction and exclusion from watering points. A greater challenge is the management of populations of the smaller herbivores, such as goats.

Many rangeland areas contain habitat for rare, threatened and endangered species and have a significant number of endemic species or exhibit high species diversity. Biodiversity in these areas has been adversely affected by factors such as feral animals and weeds, modification of habitat by grazing, vegetation clearing and land degradation. The National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity and the recently introduced Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 are helping to address these issues.

Case Study - Australian Bird Atlas

1. Problem

Over the last 20 years there have been many changes within the Australian natural environment. Native vegetation has been cleared, coastal development has expanded, population has increased, pastoral development is changing northern Australia, and the creation of roads, dams, irrigation projects and tree-planting programs all have effects on birds and other wildlife. Biodiversity values are particularly hard to measure across the landscape, the Bird Atlas project provides and utilises data to monitor the maintenance of biodiversity values across Australia.

The first Bird Atlas, undertaken in 1977-1981, was a strongly supported, community based volunteer project coordinated by Birds Australia. The additional data from the second Atlas (1998 -2002) provides a valuable means for measuring changes to the status and distribution of bird species across the whole of Australia from a known benchmark.

2. Location/landscapes/land uses

So far over 255 000 surveys have been carried out in 130,000 different locations covering 99% of the 1° blocks across Australia. Surveys have been carried out in remote locations, from ocean vessels and specific monitoring carried out at internationally recognised Ramsar sites. An intensive survey component (involving the completion of habitat forms) has also been carried out, particularly in grazing and extensive cropping areas (eg. wheat/sheep country), providing us with further information on the interaction between birds, and land use.

3. Social Information

The project has encouraged community interest in bird watching and facilitates community education in biodiversity monitoring.

4. What was done

The Bird Atlas utilises volunteers to collect information on the distribution, abundance and habitat requirements of birds. They also collect more specific information on threatened and exotic bird species, habitats, breeding and land use.

The data collected enables us to:

  • collect and analyse data on the distribution and relative abundance of Australia's bird species (including rare and threatened;
  • compare the distribution and abundance of bird species over a 20 year period;
  • investigate the effect of tree planting and revegetation programs on birds; and
  • to explore relationships between birds and land management practices and changes in habitat;
  • examine regional and seasonal variation in the occurrence of bird species.

The first Atlas of Australian Birds project documented the distribution and relative abundance of Australia bird species between 1977 and 1981, including historical bird records from a variety of sources. It formed the largest environmental mapping project ever to have been carried out in Australia. More than twenty years later, the need to refresh our knowledge of bird distributions led to the new bird Atlas project. On completion of the new atlas project, 55 000 bird surveys have been carried out, with nearly 4 300 000 bird sightings and 759 bird species recorded.

Birds Australia is currently comparing the two atlases. They are mapping bird species distributions, past and present, to study and quantify any changes over time and to examine whether patterns of change are consistent across different regions.

5. Who was involved

Over 7000 volunteers including state and regionally based bird clubs, naturalist clubs, landholders and other interest groups from the Australian community carried out 255,000 surveys and submitted 4.3 million bird records.

Government agencies, researchers, schools and the community in a wide range of conservation planning and land management applications use the information collected through the Atlas extensively.

The Commonwealth Government, and all Australia's state governments, have fully supported the project and will use its results to help with conservation planning in the future. Information from the Atlas project will help identify Australia's Important Bird Areas as part of a worldwide conservation program headed by BirdLife International.

6. Value of outcomes for ecologically sustainable natural resource management

The Bird Atlas assists us in the conservation and management of Australian birds by:

  • documenting the distribution and relative abundance of birds across the Australian continent;
  • identifying broad changes in the distribution of bird species by comparing the data collecting in the first atlas project with those in the new one;
  • recording detailed data on occurrence of threatened species as listed by the Commonwealth and State Governments;
  • recording the habitat affinities of bird species;
  • providing information to assist in directing and evaluating the re-vegetation activities funded through Bushcare to maximise conservation benefits; and
  • using birds as a surrogate for biodiversity by establishing a long-term, community based on-ground monitoring program to monitor maintenance of bird populations across a range of land-uses.

The Bird Atlas data enables us to see trends in the distribution of birds and in some cases use birds as indicators, such as for the presence of particular food resources. It enables us to identify hotspots of bird diversity and core areas that need to be protected, as well as danger areas where birds are in decline from various threatening processes. All of this information provides an essential framework for directing and evaluating the activities funded through the Bushcare Program.

Governments have invested in a range of natural resource and environmental management programs to address the issues involved in the sustainable use of our natural resource base. The principal Federal Government vehicle is the Natural Heritage Trust. Since 1996 $1.4 billion has been invested in the Trust and related programs for more than 11 900 projects. A further $1 billion has been committed to extend the Trust for the next five years. The extension of the Trust will be delivered through four programs; Landcare, Bushcare, Rivercare and Coastcare.

The Trust is administered through partnerships between the Federal, State and Territory Governments with the bulk of funding distributed through annual grants. The Trust has focussed on encouraging communities to address the underlying problems of land degradation, rather than just the symptoms, and to form partnerships and support networks to help build capacity in land managers to undertake the tasks required. Australia's community based partnership approach, the landcare movement, has proven effective in empowering communities to address the environmental and sustainable agriculture problems facing them.

The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality in Australia builds on work established under the Natural Heritage Trust, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, State/Territory salinity strategies and the COAG Water Agreement.

Dryland salinity and associated water quality are recognised to be among Australia's most severe natural resource degradation problems. The Action Plan aims to motivate and enable regional communities for coordinated and targeted action to prevent, stabilise and reverse trends in dryland salinity and improve water quality and secure reliable allocations for human uses, industry and the environment.

Progress is being made in discussions currently being held with State governments regarding implementation of the Action Plan, with particular attention being given to providing institutional arrangements that will allow effective regional level planning and action. Bilateral Agreements are currently being negotiated between the Commonwealth and State or Territory Governments, with four such agreements already in place. Several foundation projects are currently underway. Funding of $1.4 billion over seven years will be provided by the Commonwealth and the States, principally to undertake targeted action in 21 highly affected priority regions.

There is concerted action to improve the health of Australia's river and groundwater systems. The Federal, State and Territory Governments, through COAG, have agreed on a reform framework to achieve efficient and sustainable management of Australia's water industry. This is supported by action at the regional level, such as agreements on water use and catchment management in the Murray-Darling Basin, and a $32 million initiative to improve efficiency of water use in the Great Artesian Basin by capping bores and replacement of open bore drains with piping, and complementary changes in water user attitudes.

Case Study - Murray-Darling Basin Initiative

1. Problem

The development of water, land and other environmental resources of the Murray-Darling Basin has created numerous economic and social benefits. However, the use of these resources has also caused significant environmental degradation. Over-allocation of water, the regulation of rivers and the removal of native vegetation has created many environmental problems including increasing land and water salinisation and the loss of important riverine, wetland and floodplain habitats and their associated ecosystems. These environmental issues are being addressed as part of the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative.

2. Location/landscapes/landuses

The Murray-Darling Basin covers 1,061,469 km2, which is equivalent to 14% of Australia's land area. The Basin is Australia's most important agricultural region, supporting approximately 75% of Australia's irrigated agriculture, and accounting for 41% of the nations gross value of agricultural production. The Basin's natural resources are also rich in biodiversity and cultural heritage values. A number of the Basin's wetlands are recognized under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. The Murray-Darling Basin is also home to icon species including the Murray cod and Murray crayfish.

3. Social information

The 1996 census reported a Basin population of almost 2 million, which was 10.95% of Australia's total population. The Basin is administered by five State/Territory governments, the Commonwealth, and more than 200 local governments. These governments manage the resources of the Basin in partnership with catchment organisations, landcare groups and numerous other community organisations.

4. What was done

The Murray-Darling Basin Initiative is the name given to the partnership between the governments and the community to give effect to the 1992 Murray-Darling Basin Agreement. The Agreement aims to promote and co-ordinate effective planning and management for the equitable, efficient and sustainable use of the water, land and other environmental resources of the Murray-Darling Basin.

In response to the declining health of the Murray-Darling system, the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative has produced a number of key actions including:

  • The cap on water diversions in the Basin, which was seen as an essential first step in establishing management systems to achieve healthy rivers and sustainable consumptive uses;
  • Environmental flows to improve the ecological condition of the River Murray. The Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council has directed the release, for public comment and further analysis, of three environmental flow scenarios, the return of 350, 750 and 1500 gigalitres of water to the River Murray;
  • The Sustainable Rivers Audit, a broad river health assessment tool that will assist in identifying the effectiveness of current river management initiatives; and
  • Integrated Catchment Management in the Basin complementing other Commonwealth and state Programs including the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality and the Natural Heritage Trust. The Initiative has produced a number of linked strategies, including the Basin Salinity Management Strategy and the Native Fish Strategy, which include specific actions and targets to improve the health of the Murray-Darling Basin's natural resources.

5. Who was involved?

The entire Basin community is involved in the Initiative. The Initiative is a partnership between the Basin governments and the community.

6. Value of outcomes for ecologically sustainable natural resource management

The Murray-Darling Basin Initiative contributes towards ecologically sustainable natural resource management by:

  • Using an integrated catchment management approach for assessing and improving the health of the Basin's natural resources;
  • Targeted investment in on-ground actions and research that will result in improvements in the ecological health of the entire system; and
  • Creating a partnership approach to the management of the Basin's natural resources, which is inclusive of the entire Basin community, and encourages governments to work together for a common goal.