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close this bookPerception of Desertification (UNU, 1980, 134 pages)
View the document1. The context of studies into the perception of desertification
View the document2. Desertification in the dry zone of Sri Lanka M. U. A. Tennakoon
View the document3. Perception of desertification on the southern great plains a preliminary enquiry
View the document4. Perception of desertification in the murray mallee of southern Australia
View the document5. Perception of increasing salinity associated with the irrigation of the murray valley in south Australia
View the document6. Summary and conclusions: the role of perception in the desertification process
View the documentOther UNU publications

1. The context of studies into the perception of desertification

R. L. Heathcote

Most studies of desertification acknowledge the role of human activity in affecting and often initiating the process. That human activity is in response to a variety of decisions on, and systems of, resource management. An understanding of those decisions should therefore help explain the role of human activity in the desertification process-in effect help to explain why resource management in this case seems to be leading to resource deterioration, if not destruction. The aim of this monograph therefore is to provide studies of resource management in four areas where desertification is said to be occurring and to try to document the role of perception of desertification in the decision-making on resource management. In this way it is meant to provide evidence of the methods by which studies of environmental perception can illustrate the human role in the desertification process.

This first chapter provides the context for these studies within the broad research activity in environmental perception, and the final chapter attempts a general summary of the findings from the four studies and suggests specific lessons which might be borne in mind by decisionmakers attempting to mitigate the impact of desertification in the study areas as well as lessons which have a more general relevance.

The Behavioural Revolution and Environmental Perception Research

Since the mid-1960s the so-called "behavioural revolution" in geography has produced studies focused upon the ways in which information about the environment is acquired, interpreted, and used in human decision-making. Two broad avenues of enquiry appear to have opened up as a result of this revolution. One, carrying on from the prior quantitative revolution, has led to studies of human spatial behaviour and attempted explanations of the patterns by models and theories derived from physics and mathematics (Abler, Adams, and Gould 1971; Chorley and Haggett 1967). The other avenue has led to studies of human perception of the environment, seeing in expressed attitudes, knowledge, and motives the keys to the understanding of human activity in the environment (Brookfield 1969; Saarinen 1974). The search for relevant data crossed into the field of psychology and met psychologists emerging from their laboratories to tackle the more complex environments of the "real" world outside. The result has been studies of sensory stimuli on a new and broader scale-studies in fact of environmental psychology (Craik 1970; Ittelsoneta. 1974).

The complex of research resulting from this inter. disciplinary effort has provided three themes which appear to be particularly relevant to the perception of desertification. First is the concern for the historical and sociological context of the perceptions. The management of resources has been shown to have a long and varied history, one in which the contemporary "climates of opinion," philosophies, and cultural viewpoints have played significant roles (Buttimer 1974; Glacken 1967; Tuan 1974). The second theme has been the recognition of the role of images in the decision-making process. Decisions appear to be made in response in part to an "image" of the environment which may differ appreciably between decision-makers and from the "reality" as interpreted by others (Downs and Stea 1973; Lynch 1960). Such images have been shown to be relevant to the understanding of environmental management and planning (Saarinen 1976).

The third theme has been a concern for human perception of, and adjustment to, natural hazards. Here, a considerable body of empirical and theoretical data has been accumulating over the last 20 years and is currently being consolidated in various publications (White 1974; Burton, Kates, and White 1978; Burton and Whyte [in press] ). These studies are particularly relevant to the problem of desertification since they have shown that the natural hazards exist at the interface between the natural event system (rainfall data, wind speed, river level, etc.} and human activity (agriculture, buildings, canal systems, etc.). Further, they have demonstrated that the impact of the hazard and the human adjustments to it depend in part upon the perception of the hazard by the people at risk. All the evidence from the studies of desertification so far published seems to indicate that the phenomena of desertif ication reflect a very similar interface between natural events and human activity. Therefore the hypotheses, techniques, and even some of the findings from the natural hazards studies may be directly relevant to any attempt to understand human appraisal of and reaction to desertification.

The Problem Defined: The Role of Environmental Perception in the Desertification Process

In the context of these prior studies and with particular reference to the three themes noted above, the four case studies reported here were designed to try to establish the role of environmental perception in the desertification process. The studies posed three basic questions:

1 ) What are the perceptions of desertification, do they vary, and if so, how and why?

2) Do the perceptions of desertification affect reactions to it, and if so, how and why?

3) Does an understanding of the perception of desertification provide any lessons for the mitigation of the deleterious effects of the process?

These three questions should be borne in mind during consideration of the following chapters. The concluding chapter will attempt to provide some general answers.

The Method

The four studies had common aims-the three basic questions noted above - and a common general methodology. This methodology incorporated both structured" and unstructured field interviews with a wide range of resource managers (from primary managers- farmers and graziers-to researchers and bureaucrats); documentation of desertification from official statistics, air photographs, and field evidence; and archival study of past production and land-settlement trends. The emphasis on these methods and sources varied in content from study to study due to time constraints and to the availability and relevance of the data. The intention throughout, however, was to obtain a wide spectrum of data both to provide a balanced overview and to avoid some of the problems and criticisms of the original nature hazards research voiced in Downs 1970, Waddell 1977, an White 1974 (180-184).

As defined by Dregne desertification implies: "impoverish ment of arid, semi-arid and some subhumid ecosystems by the combined impact of man's activities and drought" (Dregne 1977, 324). Thus a process of interaction bet ween a natural event system (drought) and a human activity system (resource use) which creates resources can also create a hazard-an environmental stress situation-e.g., desertification (Fig. 1.1). Most studies of desertification have concerned themselves sooner or later with soil erosion seeing this as an index of the relationships between climate water balances, and biotic forms on one side and human land use systems on the other. In three of the following studies the main emphasis is upon the perception of soil erosion as a surrogate for the broader impact of desertifica; tion; in the fourth study the emphasis is upon perception of surface water salinity -another aspect of the desertification process. Three of the studies were concerned with the developed world (Australia and the USA), while the fourth was set in the developing world (Sri Lanka). Each study therefore has a specific aim and spatial-temporal context. Together they may offer evidence of the significance of environmental perception in the desertification process and some ideas on how that perception may be used to mitigate desertification.

FIG.1.1. Model of the Interaction between Natural Events and Human Activity Note The location of the desertification process is indicated.


  1. Three of the studies made use of a modified version of the original cross-cultural field questionnaire used in the natural hazards research {White 1974,6-9). Time constraints prevented its use in the Great Plains study
  2. See for example the papers in Economic Geography 53 (4), which provide several general reviews as well as case studies of desertification.


Abler, R.; Adams, J. S.; and Gould P. 1971. Spatial organization: the geographer's view of the world. Prentice-Hall, Engiewood Cliffs, N. J. Brookfield, H. C. 1969. On the environment as perceived. In C. Board et al., eds., Progress in geography, no. 1, pp. 51-80. Arnold, London.

Burton l.; Kates, R. W.; and White G. F.1978. The environment as hazard. Oxford University Press, New York.

Burton I., and Whyte A. Environmental risk management (SCOPE 14). Wiley, New York. (In press).

Buttimer, A. 1974. Values in geography. Commission on College Geography Resource Paper no. 24, Assocn. Amer. Geogrs., Washington, D.C.

Chorley, R. J., and Haggett, P.1967. Models in geography. Methuen, London.

Craik, K. H. 1970. Environmental psychology. In K. H. Craik et al., eds., Now directions in psychology, no. 4. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.

Downs, R. M.1970. Geographic space perception: past approaches and future prospects. In C. Board et a/., eds., Progress in geography, no. 2, pp.65-108. Arnold, London.

-and Stea, D., eds. 1973. Image and environment: cognitive mapping and spatial behavior. Aldine, Chicago.

Dregne, H.1977. Desertification of arid lands, Econ. Goog. 53(4): 322-331.

Glacken, C. J. 1967. Traces on the Rhodian shore. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Ittelson, W. H. et al. 1974. An introduction to environmental psychology. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.

Lynch, K. 1960. The image of the city. M.l.T., Cambridge, Mass.

Saarinen, T. F. 1974. Environmental Perception. In 1. R. Manners and M. W. Mikesell, eds., Perspectivos on environment, pp. 252-289. Assocn. Amer. Geogrs., Washington, D.C.

-.1976. Environmental planning: perception and behavior. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Tuan, Y. F. 1974. Topophilia: a study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Waddell, E. 1977. The hazards of scientism: a review article. Human Ecology 5(1): 69-76.

White, G. F., ed. 1974. Natural hazards: local, national, global Oxford University Press, New York.

2. Desertification in the dry zone of Sri Lanka M. U. A. Tennakoon

Desertification: the Problem of Definition

As the field of desertification study is still in its infancy, problems of definition are inevitable. Most of the initial studies of desertification have been made on the arid desert margins where the ecosystems have often been changing for the worse in recent times. The outward expansion of desert characteristics is due to climatic and/or biotic changes. Among those harsh desert characteristics impinging on the adjacent arsas are: the rapid During up of already limited surface water resources accelerating aridity; the dwindling of available underground water and the deterioration of the quality of that water, often with increasing salinity; the destruction of surface soil due to wind erosion; sheet erosion following rain; increasing saltiness in surface soil; and the general deterioration of natural vegetation as well as cultivated crops. Studies made on such aspects have come to be regarded as desertification studies, and most scholars have been content with highly general definitions such as "desertification means the spread of desert-like conditions in arid and semi-arid areas due to man's influence and climatic change" (Rapp 1974). These definitions have been refined from time to time.

Definitions have often been points of conflict among scientists. In the continuing effort to further refine their definitions, some scientists have made them more rigid than necessary. Mensching and Ibrahim (1976) defined desertification as "the extent of desert-like conditions as a result of man's impact on the ecosystem of semi-arid areas." They further stated that "concentration has to be in the semi-arid zone where the interactional damages are heaviest [and] analogous changes elsewhere, for instance in the humid tropics are irrelevant [and that] one should not list every anthropogenic impact on ecosystems under desertification."

Undoubtedly, the growing field of desertification owes its origin to a series of systematic investigations made on some of the characteristics of the hot deserts expanding into the neighbouring semi-arid areas. Therefore, there need not be any dispute in giving the studies on desertification process in semi-arid areas the pride of place in the field of desertification studies. But there seems to be no compelling reason to restrict the desertification studies only to the semi-arid and desert margins. If the desert-like conditions begin to appear even in the relatively more humid areas beyond the desert margins, largely due to biotic reasons, studies on such characteristics outside semiarid areas could be treated under desertification studies.

From a global perspective, the desertification characteristics in areas outside the desert margins may appear to be less significant. Nevertheless, locally and regionally even outside the desert margins, such characteristics have importance to the ecosystem as a whole and on the day-to day lives of the people in particular. Desertification studies should not, therefore, end strictly where the desert margins disappear. It is with this plea that an attempt is made here to examine some of the elements of the desertification process that have emerged in recent times in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka.

The Dry Zone Environment

Sri Lanka has varying climates from semi-arid to mild temperate within its area of 70,000 km. The mild climates are in the Central Highlands and are largely due to altitudinal effects. However, it is the rainfall which largely determines the climatic variations, notably in the lowlands below 300 metres. The average annual rainfall in the island varies very widely, from about 635 mm in the northwestern and southeastern littoral belts to over 5,000 mm in the southwestern slopes of the Central Highlands (Fig. 2.1).

The Dry Zone Defined

Based on the average annual rainfall, the island is divided into three main zones (Cook 1932; de Silva 1952):

1) The Arid Zone, where the average annual rainfall is between 635 and 1,250 mm, is physically divided into two parts-the northwestern and southeastern littoral belts.

2) The Dry Zone proper, where the average annual rainfall varies between 1,250 mm and 1,900 mm.

3) The Wet Zone, which receives more than 1,900 mm of rain per year.

As subsistence agriculture is the main form of land use in both the Arid Zone and the Dry Zone proper and the farming problems in both zones are more or less similar, they have come to be generally regarded together as the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka, occupying more than two-thirds of the island. Thus, the boundary between the Arid Zone and the Dry Zone proper has not been considered an important boundary in the past.

FIG. 2.1. Sri Lanka: Rainfall Zones and Study Sites

Note: Annual rainfall isobyets are indicated in mm.

The boundary to which the greatest importance is attached is the 1,900 mm average annual isohyet separating the Dry Zone which is predominantly subsistence agricultural from the Wet Zone which is dominated by plantation agriculture.

Though the validity of using the 1,900 mm average annual rainfall line as the boundary between the Wet Zone and the Dry Zone has been questioned from time to time, this line was accepted as the suitable boundary for the purpose of this study because of its agricultural significance.

Topography, Drainage, Irrigation, and Soils of the Dry Zone

From the Central Highlands of the island, a series of mountain ranges stretches out fan-wise towards the northwestern, northern, and northeastern coasts. In the Dry Zone, immediately below the 300-metre contour, the landscape could be well described as ridge-and-valley topography. Here, the ridges are mainly high and broad; the valleys are narrow and have relatively steep slopes. This topography provides ideal dam sites for the construction of deep tanks (reservoirs) to store water for irrigation, but it restricts flat lands required for inundated paddy cultivation. Hence, there is generally a low density of tanks in that girdle of land immediately below the 300 metre contour. Though the tanks in this area are deep they are highly susceptible to gradual but constant sedimentation because of their relatively steep catchment areas. Haphazard clearing of vegetation in the upper recesses of the ridge for garden or chena (shifting} cultivation often accelerates sheet erosion on the slopes and silting of the tanks below.

Beyond this belt of prominent ridge-and-valley topography, notably in the north central regions the mountain ranges become narrow and highly dissected with broad shallow valleys transforming the ridge-and-valley topography into an undulating land. Near the northwestern, northern, and northeastern coasts the undulations in the topography become almost imperceptible.

The undulating topography provides ample sites for construction of medium and small-size tanks, blocking the ephemeral rivulets. The broad open valleys in between, being very shallow, have almost imperceptible side slopes providing ample flat land for the development of levelled paddy fields and sufficient gradient to develop a distributory channel system to conduct water from the tanks to the fields. In the Anuradhapura District alone, there are over 3,000 tanks in an area of 7,752 km2, or roughly one tank per 3 km2. Some of the tanks are so small that they run completely dry if there is no rain for about two months (Tennakoon 1974). As can be seen in Fig. 2.2, the density of tanks is perhaps the highest in the Anuradhapura District.

FIG. 2.2. Ceylon: Restoration of Irrigation Works, 1855- 1 904

Farther away from the Anuradhapura District, mostly towards the northwestern littoral belt on the Jaffna Peninsula, the density of tanks is reduced due to three main reasons:

1 ) Limitation of tank sites because the land is flat.

2) Poor stream run-off due to low rainfall and highly restricted seasonality of rainfall.

3) The rapid infiltration characteristics of the wide stretches of red-yellow latosol soils in the northwestern littoral belt from Puttalam to Elephant Pass and in the northeastern littoral belt from Kokilai Lagoon to Elephant Pass.

The density of tanks is also low in that part of the Dry Zone Iying to the east of the Central Highlands; in the immediate eastern slopes of the Central Highlands there is a very irregular relief with numerous inselberg formations, and farther away towards the eastern coast the land is very flat.

In that part of the country where the ridge-and-valley topography has given way to an undulating landscape, such as in the Anuradhapura District, where tanks have been developed by blocking the ephemeral rivulets in the valley bottoms, there is a distinct tank-field-tank pattern of land use. A stretch of Paddy fields depending on a tank upstream merges into the storage area of the tank below. The tank is followed downstream by yet another stretch of paddy fields. So the process continues down a stream until the topography becomes too flat for tank construction. In the undulating topography the major ephemeral rivulets occupy the keels of the valleys. These major rivulets are joined by small and highly seasonal tributaries that rise in the side slopes of the ridges forming very roughly a dendritic pattern (Fig. 2.3). One or two small tanks and paddy fields occupy the keels of the valleys while the ridge crests and their immediate slopes are occupied by forests or patches of highland cultivation mostly in the forms of chenas.

In the undulating landscape the tank beds and the paddy fields are mostly made up of alluvial soils (Moorman and Panabokke 1961). These alluviai soils vary from heavy clay to coarse sand in texture. The thickness of the alluvial soil layer varies from about 2 metres in the tank beds to about a few centimetres in the marginal paddy lands in the lower slopes of the ridges. The alluvial surface soils gradually give way to the reddish brown earth which dominates most parts of the slopes of the ridges. Impoverished brushwood vegetation due to repeated forest clearing for chena cultivation is mostly confined to the reddish brown earth. This shows that the change in soil distribution had, at least in the past, a significant impact on the change in land use. As will be seen below, recent action in ignorance of this reality has led to many negative effects on the whole ecosystem.

The reddish brown earths occupy by far the largest part of the north central region. The A horizon of these soils usually varies from 250 mm to 125 mm in thickness and may become alkaline in their B and C horizons. Some of these soils developed from acid to highly basic (crystalline limestones) parent materials. As this soil is less favourable for flood irrigation, soil scientists warn that if it is necessary to expand flood irrigation further, it must be essentially restricted to the brown-coloured sub-groups of reddish brown earths, which are alluvial associates (Moorman and Panabokke 1961).

Most of the summits of the ridges in the undulating terrain are covered with quartz or iron-stone gravel, which in some places has erosional remnants of granite rocks. In the regions where the undulating landscape merges with the flat land in the northwestern and northeastern littoral belts, the red-yellow latosols cover almost the entire surface of land, leaving only the stream courses with alluvial deposits. Between the latosol soil region and the seacoast are the sandy alkali or saltish soils which are highly unsuitable for grain cultivation of any form (Government of Ceylon 1968).

Tank irrigation grew out of the necessity to store water and to regulate the supply of water required in inundated paddy cultivation, which is the basis of the subsistence economy in the Dry Zone, where the total annual rainfall is insufficient and too erratic for rice cultivation. The land use pattern which it fostered in the past was strictly in conformity with the topography and drainage pattern. The tank irrigation system, in minimizing the drought losses, also formed the basis of a unique hydraulic civilization. Yet, from time to time in the past, there have been serious droughts due to the combined effects of fluctuating rainfall and man's misuse of his environment.

Vagaries of Rainfall in the Dry Zone

The total annual rainfall in the Dry Zone, when compared with most arid regions in the world, is high (635-1,900 mm) but highly seasonal. The northeast monsoon is the chief source of rain for the Dry Zone and lasts from late October or early November to late December or early January. During these two to three months, most Dry Zone stations receive 45 per cent to 50 per cent of their total annual rainfall. The rainfall during the pre-northeast monsoon period, that is, in very late September or in October, is caused largely by cyclonic activities and provides another 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the average annual rainfall. Thus about 65,per cent to 75 per cent of the rainfall is concentrated into a period less than four months long (October to early January). Some heavy rains, however, do occur during late March and early April. The seasonality of rainfall is so marked that three to four months without any rain at all is common in years of normal rain, and in lean yea*, four to five months of such continuous drought is expected in the Arid Zone.

Fig. 2.4 shows seasonal and monthly variations of rainfall in Anuradhapura in the north central region of the Dry Zone. In 1951/52, the total rainfall received during the northeast monsoon period from October to January was 783 mm, and it declined to 487 mm during the same period of 1952/53. Similarly, the total rainfall of 881 mm in the October-January period of 1954/55 decreased almost by half to 440 mm during the same period of 1955/56.

Apart from the variability of seasonal rainfall from year to year, there are significant monthly variations within a single October-January season (Table 2.1)

FIG 2.4. Anuradhapura: Monthly Rainfall Fluctuation, 1951 -55

Source: Anuredhopure Monthly Rainfall Records 1951-60, Department of Meteorology, Colombo.
Note: Monthly rainfall values are plotted sequentially from January 1951 to January 1956.

During this period, notably from October to December, any month can bring the lowest and the highest rainfall of the season in a span of three or four years. Heaviest concentrations may occur in October followed by weak rains during the rest of the season, and the situation may reverse in the next season (compare 1953/54 with 1954/55). Further. more, as happened in 1951/52, the weak October rains develop into very heavy rain storms in November which are followed by extremely poor rains in December. Because of the high variability of seasonal rain experienced in the Dry Zone, if a reasonably high amount of rain is not received in October, the chance of receiving adequate rain remains an uncertainty until the tail end of the northeast monsoon is reached in early January of the following year.

Like the total seasonal rainfall, the total annual rainfall varies very widely. During the period 1931-60, it varied from 736 mm to 1,777 mm in Anuradhapura City; this is not far from the conventional boundary of 1,250 mm that separates the Arid Zone from the Dry Zone proper (Fig. 2.1). Added to the high variability is the periodical failure of rainfall. Very roughly, every 20 years there have been major droughts following two or three successive northeast monsoon failures. Thus, in the north central region of the Dry Zone there were major droughts in the periods 193335, 1954-56, and 1973-76. The 1954-56 drought was nationally significant because it affected almost the entire DrY Zone, while the 1973-76 drought was localized in the western half of the north central Dry Zone. Between these major droughts, several minor droughts occurred, but most of them went unobserved by the officials because of their highly localized nature. Generally, there is a drought once in every 4-5 years at a given locality. Such seasonal, annual, and periodical rainfall variabilities show that rainfall in the Dry Zone is highly unpredictable.

TABLE 2.1. October-January Rainfall: Anuradhapura, 1951/52-1955/56

      ( Rainfall in mm) Total
Year October November December January October-January
1951/52 191 335 66 191 783
1952/53 180 122 114 71 487
1953/54 439 142 208 168 957
1954/55 216 135 378 152 881
1955/56 145 168 66 61 440

In most parts of the tropical monsoon lands, high intensities of rainfall have been observed (Mohr 1944; Brookfield and Hart 1966; Jackson 1977). A fall of 25.4 mm in 20 minutes and another fall of 75 mm in 60 minutes in December 1951 as well as a rainfall of 25.4 mm in 8 minutes in December 1955 have been recorded in the Dry Zone Agricultural Research Station at Maha lliuppallama, near Anuradhapura (Farmer 1957). Because of these high intensities, in some years the bulk of the total annual rainfall occurs just within a few days. For instance, 598.7 mm out of a total of 1,354.6 mm of rain received at Anuradhapura in 1942 occurred within a few days of December that year. Similarly, more than one-third of the total annual rainfall of 1957 was received at the same station within three weeks of December of that year. The important thing here is not the high volume of rain but the intensity and potential damage of the precipitation in terms of surface soil compaction, restriction of percolation, and sheet erosion on steep gradients.

In addition to the problem of accentuated run off and the resultant loss of rain water directly, there is an indirect but important source of water loss, namely, evapo-transpiration (Fig. 2.5). The average temperature in the Dry Zone does not fall below 27°C. As shown in Table 2.2, for at least four to five months of the year the day temperature reaches 32 C, resulting in extremely high evaporation, notably during the hottest months of March-April and June-August. In addition to the high temperatures there are the dry winds which sweep across the Dry Zone accelerating the evaporation, particularly during the rainless months from May to September. During this period, streams as well as a majority of the tanks remain dry and parched.) l It is only during the two rainy periods-from October to December and in April-that the total amount of moisture lost through evaporation is less than the total amount of

FIG.2.5. Anuradhapura: Rainfall and Evaporation

Source: Anuradhapura Monthly Roinfall Records 1931- 40, 1941-50, and 1951-60, Department of Meteorology, Colombo; Nachchaduwa Daily and Monthly Evaporation Record 1957, Hydrology Division, Department of irrigation, Colombo rain received in the Dry Zone (Fig. 2.5). Thus, in years of rainfall failures during these two seasons, severe and prolonged moisture deficiencies are inevitable.

TABLE 2.2. Mean Maximum Monthly Temperature, Anuradhapura, 1965

Month Temp. °C Month Temp. °C
January 28.6 July 32.7
February 30.7 August 32.2
March 33.2 September 30.6
April 33.3 October 31.8
May 30.6 November 29.9
June 32.3 December 28.5

Recycling of groundwater is a measure successfully adopted in the Jaffna Peninsula to supplement the surface losses as well as the deficiencies of seasonal rainfall often experienced in agriculture and domestic use of water. The Jaffna Peninsula in the north has large underground water storages in its limestone bedrock. Such acquifers are limited in the rest of the Dry Zone (Government of Ceylon 1969), although some scholars have argued that there is potential for the harnessing of groundwater in several parts of the Dry Zone (Fernando 1973; Madduma Bandara 1974).

The groundwater levels remain artificially high near the tanks and the ephemeral rivulets, but steadily decline with the drying up of these tanks and streams. In the Dry Zone, wells dug in the homestead gardens near the village tanks have higher water levels than those at some distance from the tanks, notably during the rainy seasons. With the advance of the dry seasons, the water levels decline steadily away from the tanks and wells often dry up completely. Finally, at the height of the drought, when the village tanks dry up, the water levels in those wells in the immediate neighbourhood decline steadily and sometimes run totally dry. In years of severe droughts even deepening of these wells down to the hard rock base and sometimes into the rock (often 6 to 10 metres and occasionally beyond) does not provide the minimum domestic water requirements of the community. The stress situation of water scarcity is such that people are then forced to open up temporary wells in the dry tank beds. Water shortage in one of the study sites-Etaweeragollewa-was so acute in 1976 that as many as 14 temporary wells were dug in the village tank bed. During the time of the field work in this village it was revealed that these wells could barely meet the domestic water requirements of about 400 people in 90 households and an estimated 300 cattle. This amply demonstrates how scarce is water, which is the most valuable resource in the Dry Zone.

Man-made Problems in the Dry Zone

Irrigated paddy cultivation forms the backbone of the Dry Zone economy. Hitherto, it has been shown that both suitable land for irrigated paddy cultivation and irrigation water are highly limited in the Dry Zone. Terrain and soil characteristics limit the land suitable for irrigated paddy. Problems associated with insufficient rainfall and poor groundwater limit the irrigation water. Therefore, given that agricultural labour is adequately available for the successful cultivation of irrigated paddy water and suitable land are the other important but scarce inputs in the Dry.

Zone and must be used as economically as possible. Serious problems are bound to occur in misallocating one or both of these inputs in the course of development.

The Early Noglact of the Dry Zona

The ancient irrigation works testify that the economic importance of water had been fully identified in the past. Its successful use paved the way for the emergence of a highly developed hydraulic civilization in the Dry Zone (Gunawardane 1971). This civilization began to collapse by about the thirteenth century (Roberts 1972), and the Dry Zone remained desolate until the beginning of the twentieth century.

However, the Dry Zone was not completely abandoned. A few settlers remained and eked out a living from limited patches of deteriorating paddy fields under poorly maintained tanks as well as from chena cultivation in the vast jungle that surrounded the villages. If a breached tank was irreparable it was abandoned and the villagers settled under a nearby tank in operation (Arumugam 1957). The dependence of a settlement on a tank was so great that it has been often said that a tank means a village and a village means a tank (levers 1899; Arumugam 1957; Tennakoon 1974). From the accounts of Robert Knox (1681) and Tennent (1859) it is clearly evident that those who remained in the Dry Zone had been reduced to a group of diseased and poverty-stricken peasants. A disease called parangi (yaws) and endemic malaria kept the mortality rate high (Roberts 1972).

During the first century of British administration of the island, no significant effort was made to develop the Dry Zone, even though the need to develop it had been voiced by some British officials in the island from time to time (Horton 1833;Bennet 1843;Tennent 1859;Skinner 1891. In fact, the rigid land policy that the British adopted was detrimental to the development of the Dry Zone (Farm 1957; Roberts 1972; Tennakoon 1972).

The neglect of the Dry Zone during the early British administration can be well seen in the demographic characteristics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As can be seen in Table 2.3, the population of 6,031 in the Polonnaruwa District in 1891 has fallen to 5,808 in 1901. There is a similar drop in population in the same district from 1921 to 1931. In the North Central Province the population density of 6 persons per km2 in 1871 increased to 9 persons per km2 only after 60 years in 1931.

Redevelopment Efforts in the Dry Zone

From the time of World War I it became necessary to redevelop the Dry Zone for several reasons:

1) Though the population in the Dry Zone declined during the early British administration, there was a rapid increase of population in the Wet Zone as the British made a concerted effort to develop plantation agriculture, while food production in the Dry Zone did not progress due to its neglect.

2) Increasing food prices and irregularities in shipping during World War I strained the balance of trade of the island's economy and also threatened the regularity of food supplies.

3) There was an urgent need to establish new settlements to relieve the mounting population pressure in the Wet Zone.

TABLE 2.3. Population of the North Central Province (Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Districts), 1871 -1931


Census Year

Division 1871 1881 1891 1901 1911 1921 1931
Anuradhapura 58,000 61,049 69,302 73,302 79,498 88,289 89,454
District (7) (8) (9) (9) (10) (11) (11)
Polonnaruwa 4,779 5,119 6,031 5,808 6,778 8,236 7,907
District (1) (1) (2) (1) (2) (2) (2)
North Central 62,779 66,168 75,333 79,110 86,276 96,525 97,361
Province (6) (6) (7) (7) (8) (8) (9)

Source: Census of the Island of Ceylon 1871, Vol. 1 (Colombo: Government Printer 1873) and L. J. D. Turner, Report of the Census of Ceylon 1931, Vol. 1 (Coiombo: Statistical Office 1931 i. Also see B. H. Farmer, Pioneer Peasant Colonization in Ceylon, London: Oxford Press 1957.

Note: Population per km2 in parentheses.

These led to two major developments in the Dry Zone. First were the village expansion programmes introduced to the existing villages, notably under the Land Commission of 1927; peasants were allowed to purchase or lease lands suitable for irrigated paddy cultivation or highlands in extents varying from 1 to 5 acres (0.4-2.0 ha) so that production could be increased as quickly as possible. Second was the establishment of government-aided peasant colonization schemes in the Dry Zone, mostly to encourage the migration of the landless people of the Wet Zone.

During the early phase of the colonization schemes the progress was extremely slow. Therefore, it was necessary to offer more and more incentives to attract the colonists from the Wet Zone to settle in the Dry Zone. In addition to the provision of a developed 5-acre (2.0 ha) block of irrigated paddy, 2 to 3 acres (0.8-1.2 ha) of highland with a "type-plan" (standard) cottage and irrigation water free of charge as well as financial assistance to purchase basic materials were provided by the state to the selected settlers (Farmer 1957;Tennakoon 1972). However, by about 1950, the peasant colonization became such a success that it increased the demand for land in the Dry Zone and motivate the landless peasants in the Wet Zone to move on their own into the Dry Zone. By 1953 there were about 90,000 colonists in the Dry Zone (Farmer 1957) and there were over 5,000 squatters, labourers, and boutique keepers who were largely dependent on the colonies. In the 1960s the demand for land in colonization schemes became so high that the 5-acre irrigated paddy allotments of the 1940s had to be reduced to 2-acre allotments to provide lands for the increasing number of applicants.

By the end of the 1940s there emerged two distinct types of rural settlements in the Dry Zone-the traditional rural settlements often known as the purana (old) villages and the peasant colonization schemes.

During the last two decades these settlements have grown in population and have brought marginal lands under cultivation. The opening up of new lands for irrigated agriculture was highly restricted by law in the colonization schemes but not in the villages. In fact village expansion was an avowed policy of the government. The policy of expansion of cultivated lands undoubtedly has improved the living conditions of the peasants and contributed in some measure towards the domestic food production. However, on the negative side is the mismanagement of available land and water in the Dry Zone. How both these resources are mismanaged can well be seen when one closely examines the spatial organization of human activities of these settlements.

FIG. 2.6. Schematic Diagram of a Typical Dry Zone

Note: Insert (B) shows the general pattern of village boundaries and land use zones.

Spatial Organization of Villages in the Dry Zone

Despite individual variations, most villages conform to a basic pattern of land use which is shown schematically in Fig. 2.6. Zone 1 is the tank itself. Zones 2 and 3 are paddy fields, and the main difference between them is that paddy lands within Zone 2 are the oldest (therefore called "Old Fields") while those in Zone 3 are the blocks of land (hence called "Field Blocks") developed mostly after 1935. Individual holdings are relatively large. Zone 4 is an open "Parkland" that separates the Field Blocks in Zone 3 from the Forest in Zone 5. Attempts to expand the paddy fields from the outer periphery of Field Blocks into the Parkland, that is from Zone 3 to Zone 4, have often ended in failure. The binding constraints are the limited availability of water in the tank and the difficulties in gravity-guided irrigation because the Parkland's elevations are almost imperceptibly higher than those of the adjacent Field Blocks. The Forest Zone, which is the largest of all zones, occupies the upper slopes and the crests of the ridges, while the tanks, Old Fields, and most parts of the Field Blocks occupy the keels of the valleys of the ridge-and-valley topography.

The proportionate zonal distribution of land differs significantly according to village. However, a detailed study of land use in 15 villages in the north central Dry Zone carried out by the Central Bank of Ceylon in 1974 suggested general ratios (Central Bank 1975). About 8 per cent of the total land area in a village is occupied by the water-spread area of the village tank; another 13 per cent of the land is in the Old Fields and the Field Block, almost in equal areas. Homestead gardens situated at or near one end of the tank bund (in the Parkland) occupy another 10 per cent of the land, while the remaining Parkland and the Forest Zone (where no irrigation is possible) occupy nearly 68 per cent of the land area in a ratio from 1:1 to 1:2 respectively. It is important to note that on the average only about one-eighth of the total village area is irrigated and over one-third but less than half of the village extent is under some form of forest (excluding Parkland vegetation). In fact, owing to extensive chena cultivation the present vegetation in the Forest Zone has been reduced to a scrub similar to that of the East African brushwood.

Spatial Organization of Colonization Schemes

More or less the same elements of the village land use pattern are present in a colonization scheme although there are variations in detail. Just as in a village, the tank is the heart of the colonization scheme, and without it the settlement would be impossible. Unlike the villages, however, the irrigated paddy fields are not compact zones immediately below the tank bund. They extend several miles downstream, often in detached blocks of fields popularly known as "tracts." These tracts are separated by "reservation lands" along streams, distributory channels, cart tracks, and footpaths. The reservations are roughly comparable to the Parkland in villages, though they are discontinuous. The colonization settlement sites take a linear pattern often along the main canals as opposed to the nucleated settlements near tanks in the villages. The forest on the upper slopes does not strictly form a part of a nearby colonization scheme. Often, such forests fall within the boundaries of neighbouring villages but overall control belongs to the central government. Colonization schemes often lack their own forests because they are recent "imposed" settlements amidst older villages. However, the forests bordering the colonization schemes are earmarked for future possible developments (e.g., settlement expansion, community buildings) of the colonies. This forest is, in fact, being used by the colonists in the same way that villagers use the village forest.


3. Perception of desertification on the southern great plains a preliminary enquiry

R. L. Heathcote


The Great Plains of North America was the location of the most spectacular, and certainly one of the most publicized, examples of rapid desertification in world history -namely, the "Dust Bowi" of the 1930s. With increasing intensity through most of the decade of the 1930s, deterioration of the semi-arid ecosystem from continued drought and massive wind-induced soil erosion brought crop failures and livestock deaths to a rural community already suffering from the global economic recession which had begun in 1929. The resultant environmental deterioration and rural depopulation led to major innovations in resource management in the region -mainly stimulated by large external government subsidies, and had global implications through the stimulus it provided to research into the conservation of natural resources.

Despite the innovations, government inputs, and research, however, the area continues to show the effects of desertification. The world map (admittedly on a small scale) classes the whole of the Great Plains as having either moderate or severe desertification,~ the severe areas including most of the original Dust Bowl (Dregne 1977). One aspect of desertification-namely, soil erosion-is currently still regarded as a major problem in the area, damaging on average (1936-75) 5 million acres (2,023,430 ha) per year (Lyres 1976, 27) and in 1977 affecting over 7 million acres (2,832,800 ha).

It is the aim of this report to examine the perception of the desertification hazard in the Great Plains since the 1930s, with particular reference to the original Dust Bowi area. Specifically the report attempts to explain how the perceptions of the desertification hazard on the Great Plains may have contributed towards the apparent failure of official measures to mitigate the desertification process.

The Role of Perception

Evidence of variations in human perception of the environment and the significance of such variations in resource management has been accumulating rapidly over the last decade (Glacken 1967; Saarinen 1969 and 1976; Tuan 1974). Of particular relevance to this report has been research into the perception of environmental stresses, mainly natural hazards (White 1974; Burton, Kates, and White 1978), and drought in particular (Heathcote 1969; Saarinen 1966; Warrick 1975). These studies provide general models of the process by which perceptions of stress evolve and some indication of the range of adjustments to be expected.

Using these studies it is possible to hypothesize a range of potential "perceivers" of the hazard of desertification defined according to their proximity in space and time to the hazard and their expected general motivations- whether private or (in the case of officials) public. Bearing in mind the history of Great Plains land settlement-the displacement of indigenous groups by alien intruders (basically from a more humid environment) whose sequence of intensifying land use developed over space and time in a context of laissez faire economics-a matrix of the potential perceivers can be suggested (Fig. 3.1). This report will pay particular attention to the perceptions of the local private resource managers (the farmers) and the regional to national public resource managers (the officials), and to some extent the academics. Lack of information precludes all but a brief reference to the other perceivers noted in this matrix.

Such a matrix and the significance of the implicit differences of potential attitudes and behaviours for land settlement and general resource management in the USA have been recently recognized by historians and officilidom. Two examples must suffice here. Goetzmann suggested that by ca.1850 the motives for, and interpretation of, the explorations of the American West (including the Great Plains) showed "clashing themes." These reflected localism vs. nationalism or, as the case may be, internationaiism; practicality vs. theory; science vs. common sense; private interests vs. broad public policy; settlers vs. soldiers; and soldiers in turn vs. politicians; white men vs. Indians; East vs. West; and in the broadest sense a clash of contrasting images of the West vastly oversimplified-the Garden (meaning a belief in the economic potential of the West) and the Desert (meaning the belief that the West was a land of scarcity was a fundamental ambiguity in American culture-an unavoidable consequence of attempting the rapid conquest of an underdeveloped continent. [Goetzmann 1 966, 305]

FIG. 3.1. Perception Matrix of Resource Management for the Great Plains

This variety was implied also in the Report of the US Public Land Law Review Commission on the future administration of the Public Domain (US 1970). In planning for the maximum benefit of the general public, it provided a categorization of six different "publics" whose legitimate interests would need to be safeguarded. The six were:

- the national pub/le: all citizens, as taxpayers, consumers, and ultimate owners of the public lands . . .

- the regional public: those who live and work on or near the vast public lands . . .

- the Federal Government as sovereign: . .. to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare . . .

- the Federal Government as proprietor: . . . a Iandowner that seeks to manage its property according to much the same set of principles as any other landowner . . .

-state and local government: . . . have responsibility for the health, safety, and welfare of their constituents . . .

- the users of pub/ic /ends and resources: . . . users, including those seeking economic gain and those seeking recreation or other non economic benefits.[US 1970, 6]

In this latter framework this investigation can only hope to offer some evidence of federal government and local user perceptions.

FIG. 3.2. Definitions of the "Dust Bowl"

Desertification: Process, Indices, and History on the Southern Great Plains

As defined by Dregne desertification implies: "impoverishment of arid, semi arid and sub humid ecosystems by the combined impact of man's activities and drought" (quoted in Mabbutt 1978, 252). Thus a process of interaction between a natural event system (drought) and a human activity system, which creates resources, can also lead to an environmental stress situation-basically the same model as used for definitions of natural hazards (see Fig. 1.1, chapter 1). Most studies of desertification have concerned themselves sooner or later with soil erosion-seeing this as an index of the relationships between climate, water balances, and biotic forms on one side and human land use systems on the other. As an index this is particularly relevant to the desertification process in the southern Great Plains, and this report therefore will be concerned mainly with perception of soil erosion as a surrogate for the broader concept of desertification.

Despite the considerable evidence of wind erosion compiled by James C. Malin for the central Great Plains from 18501900 (Malin 1946), the threat of massive erosion was only generally recognized in the 1930s with the appearance of the "Dust Bowl."

Appearance of the Dust Bowl

The name "Dust Bowl" was coined by an Associated Press reporter from the eastern USA who had been commissioned to write up the apparent rural crisis in the southern Great Plains. The first of three articles for the Washington, D.C., Evening Star on 15 April 1935 was headed "If it rains . . . these three little words rule life in Dust Bowl of US." The article appeared simultaneously in the Santa Fe New Mexican as "Survey of Nation's Dust Bowl made by representative of the Associated Press" (Floyd 1950,17-18). The reporter's definition was: "Roughly, it takes in the western third of Kansas, Southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle and Northeastern New Mexico" (Floyd 1950, 17n). His description was of an area ravaged by drought, dust storms, and massive soil erosion, with associated social and economic distress. By 1937, the main official summary of the extent and impact of soil erosion in the southern Great Plains was of 20 counties "in the heart of the so-called 'dust bowl' " (Joel 1937, 4). Cartographic definitions of the limits, however, have been relatively few (Johnson 1947) and the two most recent studies (Borchert 1971; Bowden 1977) did not provide any map of the area discussed. Fig. 3.2 therefore is a composite indication of several definitions recognizing that if defined in terms of an area where soil erosion is active the precise limits will vary from year to year. For the purposes of this report therefore, the Dust

Bowl is defined as that area recognized on this map by at least one authority.

Both Floyd's thesis (1950) and Johnson's popular account (1947) date the beginning of the Dust Bowl era with the onset of drought in 1932, which was followed by a rapid escalation in the frequency and magnitude of dust storms. Pressures to increase production of livestock and crops came from the declining market prices of the Depression; such pressures encouraged over-stocking of rangelands and continuous tillage-the one reduced the vegetation buffer and the other broke down soil texture in the drought conditions. By May 1934 dust had fallen on Washington, D.C., and at the peak in the winter of 1935-36 claims were made that 50 million acres (20,234,300 ha) were "mobile" {Martin 1939,447). From 1934 to 1938 out-migration of destitute farm families and massive official relief measures resulted. By World War I I the threat of drought had been reduced, market prices had improved, and the Dust Bowl era was assumed to have ended.

Since the end of World War II, two periods of drought -the 1950s and mid-1970s-have produced increased rates of soil erosion and fears for a new Dust Bowl. The trends of erosion as noted on Fig.3.3 may reflect improved coverage of the Soil Conservation Service reports over time, but the relative changes are generally indicative of trends.

In addition, although not considered in this report, note should be made of a further type of desertification, namely, the salinization of soil in the northern Great Plains. Discovered in the early 1950s, the phenomenon has only been the subject of research since 1969, but a recent report has suggested that the occurrences are mainly upon soils on glacial till over impervious marine shales. They began to be noticed 40 years after the first cultivation and 20 years after the introduction of summer fallow allowed the buildup of subterranean water and a rise of the water tables. The areas which cannot be cultivated are expanding at a rate of 2-10 per cent per year (Ferguson, Brown, and Miller 1972).

Characteristics of the Perceivers

The Officials: the Role of Government

In the United States the historical role of national government and its agencies seems to fall into three categories: real estate agent, welfare agent, and steward of the national resources. Measures and policies initiated in the Congress and Senate have been administered by the bureaucrats, while increasingly over time specialist advice has been sought from, and volunteered by, scientific "experts," some in the pay of government, others independently financed.

FIG. 3.3. Area Annually Eroded on the Great Plains, 1935-77

TABLE 3.1. Public Lands in the Great Piains States, cat 1968

State Total Area in
Millions of Acres
(thousand km2)
Public Lands in
Millions of Acres
(thousand km )
Public Lands as
% of State Area
Colorado 66.5(269.1) 23.2(93.9) 34.8
Kansas 52.5(212.5) 0 05(0.2) 0.1
Montana 93.3(377.6) 25.3(102.4) 27.1
Nebraska 49.0(198.3) 0.4(1.6) 0.9
New Mexico 77.8(314.8) 25.2(102) 32.4
North Dakota 44.5(180.1) 0.5(2) 1.1
Oklahoma 44.1(178.5) 0.4(1.6) 0.9
South Dakota 48,9(197.9) 1.7(6.9) 3.4
Texas 168.(680.7) 0.8(3.2) 0.5
Wyoming 62.3(252.1) 29.5(119.4) 47.3
Total 707.1(2,861.6) 107.0(433.2) 15.1

Source: US 1970. 331.

As real estate agent (realtor!, particularly since the mid nineteenth century, the federal government land policies as codified in legislation, imprinted on the land by the official surveys, and administered by the bureaucracies have attempted to dispose of the public domain to the citizenry for their relatively unrestricted use once title was granted (Gates 1968). For 85 per cent of the Great Plains states the process of disposal has been completed and for six of the ten states less than 4 per cent of their area remains in federal control (Table 3.1). For the other four states, however, at least 25 per cent is still public lands for which the federal government has direct responsibility.

Despite the hopes that settlers would be self-sufficient, initially state but from the 1930s increasingly federal governments have had to provide disaster relief for regions of the nation. Prior to the Dust Bowl, such welfare activity on the Great Plains had been required at times when extensive crop failures (from climatic causes and insect pests such as grasshoppers) coincided with depressed market prices for farm produce. In the 1870s and 1890s, regional disasters were evident in eastern Colorado, the Dakotas, Kansas, and Nebraska (Fite 1966; Schlebecker 1953). The reaction of the state governments was basically to attempt to provide sufficient support to enable the settlers to hang on until conditions (climatic or economic) improved-in other words help was provided on the assumption that the status quo ante could be reachieved. This provision of public monies for private purses was a complex operation on a sliding scale of assumed need and is relatively unresearched as well as beyond the scope of this report. Suffice it to say that most of the relief measures later practiced by the federal government in the twentieth century had been used to some degree by the state governments in the nineteenth century. The difference was that federal aid increasingly aimed at prophylactic rather than than merely rehabilitative efforts.

Twentieth-century federal disaster relief to the Great Plains seems to have begun in 1918-19and 1921-22when payments of $5 million and $3.5 million for seed to drought-stricken farmers were made. Payments for storm and hail damage to crops began in the 1920s and the first major large area regional loan scheme was begun in 1931 (LPC 1935, 33-35). In this context the Dust Bowl stress brought mainly an increase in the scale of federal aid- President Roosevelt asked Congress for $375 million in June 1934. As noted above, however, in addition to the traditional "carry on" assistance (special unemployment relief schemes, purchase of starving livestock, and provision of emergency stock feed), the period saw the beginning of prophylactic measures (provision for repurchase of badly eroded lands for federally controlled rehabilitation and subsidies for specific soil conservation activities).

This massive infusion of federal funds was the beginning of continuous, as opposed to the earlier intermittent, federal interference in the resource management systems of the Plains. In effect, as Borchert has shown, since the 1930s general incomes in the Great Plains have been maintained in the good seasons by the produce of the land and in the bad seasons, principally in droughts, by government subsidies of various kinds (Borchert 1971,14). In part this increasing official concern and participation has come from a concern for the welfare of the regional population; in part, however, it comes from a concern for the future of the resources of the Great Plains, and in this sense exemplifies the government's role as steward of the national resources.

Official policies of resource conservation were initiated outside the Great Plains proper, but there is no doubt that the Dust Bowl stimulated federal action; in particular, the Soil Conservation Service was created in 1935 to attempt to cope with water erosion in the southern Piedmont and wind erosion on the Plains. As part of their conservation policies, governments became increasingly involved in actual resource management, being forced to advocate tillage systems, crop types, and varieties in an effort to reduce the risk of erosion and, as we shall see, in the 19;0s the threat of environmental pollution.

Subsequent concern was for over-production of farm produce in the 1950s and 1960s A supposed world food shortage in the mid-1970s brought government intervention to first reduce and then stimulate agricultural production by controls on farm prices and production itself. On my brief field trip through the old Dust Bowl area in May 1978 (Fig. 3.4), one of the most memorable impressions was of the office of the Agricultural Stabiiization and Conservation Service in Wallace County, Kansas. On the last day on which options could be finalized for the next harvest, it was crowded with farmers discussing with officials the acreages of the various crops they would be allowed to grow and the guaranteed price they would receive. A blackboard in the office was covered with figures -the guaranteed prices of the various crops for each year from 1962 onwards. The atmosphere, although earnest, was almost that of a gambling casino with the officials turning a roulette wheel of crop combinations.

The Officials: the Mechanisms of Government

Though the outcomes may be as chancy, the mechanisms of government are apparently more complex than the roulette wheel. The complex interplay of departmental responsibilities, particularly in the 1930s with the rapid multiplication of disaster relief and conservation agencies |creating a bewildering "alphabet soup" of their acronyms [NPTV 1978] ), led to inefficiencies of overlapping and often duplicated activity (Hargreaves 1976; Wooten 1965). While reorganization improved general efficiency there is still evidence of differences in resource management policies between federal departments, e.g., over the administration of public grazing lands between the Bureau of Land Management, as part of the Department of the Interior, and the Forestry Service, as part of the Department of Agriculture (US 1977). Interviews with Forestry Service officers in eastern Colorado in 1978 showed that they considered their system of controls to prevent over-stocking superior to those of the Bureau in the adjacent county (Trekell 1978).

FIG. 3.4. Field Trip Itinerary, May 1978

At the top of the hierarchy of government, however, the decision-making system appears to have been somewhat simpler. A recent study suggested that from the 1950s to the 1970s the federal farm policy agenda committee of 4 members ("the farm bloc in Congress, the farm organizations, the Land Grant Colleges, and the Department of Agriculture") effectively channelled federal policies towards production controls and price supports: "They might not be able to bring about the enactment of everything they put on the agenda, but they were pretty effective in keeping off those items they didn't want considered" (Paarlberg 1970,3). In the 1970s, however, the situation changed and the control of this "agricultural establishment"had been eroded, supposedly by the reduced political power of the farm vote (from declining farm population,; increasing public concern for non-establishment groups, i.e., minorities; the growth of the agri-business at the expense of the family farm image; and the weariness of the general public with issues "unresolved after a third of a century" (Paarlberg 1970, 4). That this change may have affected attitudes on soil erosion, particularly its relevance to pollution problems, will be suggested later.


But policies created by the executive arm of government have to be administered by the servants of the government -the bureaucrats-and their perceptions both of their role and the job in hand may be significant influences on the fate of official policies. The rise of bureaucracies is a global phenomenon associated with the increasing complexity of modern societies, but a direct relationship between bureaucracy and agriculture has been hypothesized. From his study, particularly of agriculture in the USA in the nineteenth century, Schlebecker concluded that: "the rise of an efficient bureaucracy and an increasingly rapid technological innovation in agriculture occurred about the same time" (Schlebecker 1977, 641). Until the federal agricultural relief and conservation programmes of the 1930s, most of the bureaucrats were neither aware of nor officially concerned about desertification. Thereafter, however, they became a significant link between the executive and the farmers and stockmen.


Most contemporary governments have access to a body of personnel who research specific problems as the background for executive decision-making. In the USA, as part of the land settlement policy (Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890) a portion of the sales of public lands financed agricultural colleges which were to improve agriculture through scientific research (Gates 1968). Paralleling these "land grant" colleges were the state agricultural experiment stations resulting from the 1887 Hatch Act. The importance of these state colleges and experiment stations in stimulating and conditioning official perceptions of agricultural resource management on the Great Plains cannot be over-estimated. Their personnel and publications formed the core of the informed scientific opinion on the resources of the region from the 1870s onwards. Of particular importance in their educational role has been the system of county extension agents whose job it is to liaise between farmers and scientists, passing ideas, experience, and problems to and fro. Such agents-part bureaucrats, part researchers-are a vital link in the communication system between government and governed.

In addition to the above and in part coordinating their activities is a regional research organization-the Great Plains Agricultural Council. This was formed in 1946 from the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Great Plains Councils formed in the Dust Bowl era, 1937 and 1938, respectively, to coordinate state and federal aid programmes and to stimulate research into agricultural problems. Membership of the Council includes representafives of the Federal Department of Agriculture, agricultural experiment stations, and universities and land grant colleges of the Plains. Its annual meetings and seminars have provided a major source of documented information on both official and academic perception of desertification problems as the reference list to this report shows.

The Farmers

As a broad generalization it is probably true that there have been many more academic studies of the perceptions of urban residents than of the perceptions of farmers and stockmen. Interviewing farmers on-farm is a timeconsuming and expensive exercise, especially in semi-arid areas where rural population densities are often less than 2 per square mile (0.8 per square km). Yet despite the increasing role of government policies the latter are the basic decision-makers whose collective decisions could transform a "desert" into a "garden" and vice versa. Sufficient studies have been made, however, to indicate that the attitudes of farmers and stock men vary greatly across space and over time (Anderson, Dillon, and Hardaker 1977; Bennett 1969; Kraenzel 1955). Although this report did not involve a systematic field interview programme, documentary evidence, both explicit and implicit, was sufficient to support the impression gained from the limited field interviews with farmers and officials that farmers' perceptions differed significantly from those of the officials. Any attempt to understand the continued threat
of desertification on the Plains needs therefore to be aware of these differences and if possible understand their origins and rationale.

Other Perceivers

Although limitations of time and opportunity prevented adequate investigation, two other groups of perceivers could be shown to hold specific attitudes to the desertification process in the Great Plains.


First were the various local and regional"promotion" agencies, institutions and even individuals (often realtors or newspaper editors) whose interest it was to maintain the image of their area as a thriving and, if possible, expanding society to which further settlers and capital would be attracted. The role of promotional activity in the history of the Great Plains land settlement has been well documented (Emmons 1971; Nash Smith 1957). Not surprisingly, the adverse publicity of the Dust Bowl era was resented by such promotional interests. Joel commented in his major report on the soil erosion in the Dust Bowl area in 1937:

Probably one of the chief reasons why the full seriousness of the damage and menace of wind erosion has not been fully and generally realized is the natural hesitancy of newspapers and authorities in localities affected to make free statement of existing conditions because of the possibility of resulting adverse local publicity. [Joel 1937, 3]

As an example the editor of the Dalhart Texan

sought to warn his readers [in 1933 ] that the sand dunes west of town were signs of a plague that threatened to envelop and destroy the town. He lost a thousand dollars worth of advertising in a week. [ Johnson 1947, 171-172]

Such promotional interests do not wish to know, or rather do not wish to let be known, the problems facing their area.


Part of the local resentment in the 1930s stemmed from the wide publicity given to the Dust Bowi phenomena by both the official sources and the national press (who were quick to exploit the sensational qualities of the events). This publicity helped create what might be tentatively identified as the general public's image of the Dust Bowl. This image may be hypothesized to have been constructed from on the one hand a prior body of regional literature about the Great Plains-the classic novels of Aldrich, Cather, Ferber,

Gartin, and Rolvaag (Semple 1933,486-490) which stressed the distinctive environment and the associated stresses of blizzard, tornado, drought, and isolation. This was comple mented by novels (Steinbeck 1939), semi documentary poems (Macleish 1938|, and folk songs (Curtin 1976) about the specific impact of the Dust Bowl, along with sensational news reports such as Walter Davenport's "Land Where Our Children Die" in Collier's Weekly (8 September 1937), and the official propaganda film The Plow That Broke the Plains in 1936 (Floyd 1950,158-159). On the other side of the coin, heroic sagas of the triumph of man over the adversities of the Plains environment, such as Robert D. Lusk's "The Life and Death of 470 Acres" (a farm in South Dakota) in the Saturday Evening Post of 13 August 1938 provided an alternative view.

Whether the general public now has an adverse image of the Great Plains is difficult to document, but if the city sign on the outskirts of Guymon (which was the location of the first newspaper article defining the Dust Bowl) is any guide, the local promotors appear to think they need to defend themselves (Plate 3.1).

Perception of Soil Erosion in the Great Plains

The Official View


Prior to the Dust Bowl era there were two scientific studies in the USA of wind erosion, and that of Udden in 1896 "reported 160 to 126,000 tons per cubic mile of dust and indicated that an average of 850 million tons of dust were being carried 1,440 miles each year in the Western United States " (Woodruff 1975, 147). Yet the official reaction
seems to have been to see this as a geological phenomenon rather than a social problem, for the only official publication on wind erosion prior to the 1930s was listed in a recent review as Bulletin No. 68 of the Bureau of Soils on The Movement of Soil Material by Wind with a Bibliography of Eolian Geology by S. C. Stuntz and E. E. Free published in 1911 (Woodruff 1975).

The Dust Bowl brought a rapid reappraisal of the soil erosion phenomenon in official circles. The official report in 1936 of the committee set up by the president to investigate the situation (RGPC 1936) considered that the main reason for the regional distress on the Great Plains was the combination of a recurrence of a natural cycle of droughts and the overstocking and rapid plough up of natural grassland by farmers anxious to harvest greater volumes of livestock and crops when prices were falling. The result was livestock deterioration, crop failure, and soil erosion which, over the period 1934 to 1936, had created a natural disaster requiring massive federal intervention.

The report referred to a survey of soil erosion in the heart of the Dust Bowl which had claimed that over 20,000 square miles (51,800 km2) or 80 per cent of the area was affected by erosion. The survey further claimed that
most of the land suitable for cultivation has now been broken and over half of the 1936 cropland would need to be put back to native vegetation to prevent further erosion. The erosion situation here was seen as only part of what was considered to be a very serious national problem. [ Joel 1937]

The problem was seen as a loss of productivity (immediately by crops blown out or buried, subsequently by loss of productive top soil and exposure of less fertile sub-soil or the sifting out of finer soil particles and creation of coarser textured, less drought-resistant soils). In addition, direct property damage by sand drifts and sand blasting, the interruption of communication systems by land (road and rail blockages by drifts) and air (by dust storms), and the adverse effects on human health from excessive dust inhalation were cited as serious societal problems.

While all aspects were seen as justification for official action, the main emphasis at least until the 1970s was upon action to reduce the physical damage to farmland and the assumed loss of production from erosion. In the 1970s, however, the justification for official soil conservation measures was broadened because of the implications of the legislation on air and water pollution, particularly the 1972 Water Pollution Control Act (Public Law 92-500). Section 208 of this act required states to develop a planning process for implementing non-point-source pollution control by 1979. Non-point-source pollution of water bodies ;is mainly by airborne dust particles, and most Great Plains states are currently drawing up plans to meet the federal requirements (Hagen and Woodruff 1973), although the greatest concern is (not surprisingly) in the central and southern Plains (Davis 1977, 46). This current action reinforces previous concern for the implications of the 1970 amendments to the Clean Air Act (Public Law 91604) which set standards for allowable air pollution throughout the USA. A soil scientist in eastern Colorado -on the fringe of the old Dust Bowl-noted that if for no other reason "the use of a conservation mulch [e.g., stubble mulch] may be necessary on most cropland to meet the legal restraints placed on air pollution from soil erosion by . . . the Clean Air Act"(Smika 1976, 81-82). Researchers at the Wind Erosion Laboratory, Manhattan, Kansas, had commented in 1972 that in the Great Plains "we cannot now meet air-quality criteria for particulates; hence, we must do a better job of controlling soil blowing than we have in the past" (Woodruff and Hagen 1972,257). Rural air pollution from soil erosion on the Great Plains now appears to be as serious a problem as the urban air pollution which was the stimulus for the original legislation (Oehme 1972). Penalties for non-compliance with soil conservation schemes may in the future be enforced by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency!


Contemporary scientific thought, which is generally echoed by official publications, sees soil erosion by wind as a function of wind speed at the ground surface and the extent to which the surface soil is vulnerable to movement. Wind speeds of 8-9 mph (12.8-14.4 kph) or more at 6 inches (15 cm) above ground level are thought sufficient to transport soil (Hayes 1972; Skidmore and Woodruff 1968). The vulnerability of soil to movement by wind increases with increasing soil dryness, decreasing particle size (particles over 0.84 mm are not considered to be erodable by wind), and increasing surface looseness and smoothness. Mitigation measures therefore have attempted to reduce wind speeds by physical barriers and to reduce soil vulnerability by manipulation of soil moisture, particle size, texture, and surface geometries.

The immediate official response to the erosion conditions of the Dust Bowl was to subsidize emergency anti-erosion measures-mainly listing or deep ploughing of blowing fields to bring moister clods to the surface. Empirical knowledge, whether from farmers or local official scientists such as H. H. Finnell, Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Goodwell, Oklahoma, was applied, and in one case the wind's power was channelled to destroy the dunes previously created (Johnson 1947, 246). After rains attempts were made to reseed the eroded sandier lands. Action was pragmatic, experimental, and hurried. In the words of a soils scientist who took part in the operations, "We tried everything" (Bailey 1978).

Theoretical study of wind erosion received a substantial boost from the Dust Bowl conditions but a review of research suggests that from 1935 to 1938 the main concern was still for the emergency in-event situation, and only Finnell's 1935 guidelines were available (Woodruff 1975, 148). World War II saw little new research, but in 1947 a Wind Erosion Laboratory was set up at Kansas State University.

The research project's primary purposes at the beginning, and continuing during the intervening years, were to study the mechanics of erosion of soil by wind, delineate factors with major influences on erosion, and devise and develop methods to control wind erosion. [Woodruff 1975,148]

Among the new staff was a soil scientist from Canada, W. S Chepil, who was to make a significant contribution both to scientific knowledge and official perception of the soil erosion problem.

In 1960 the work of Chepil and his colleagues at the laboratory gained international recognition with the publication of the Food and Agriculture Organization's report "Soil erosion by wind and measures for its control on agricultural lands" (FAO 1960) which drew largely on their experiences. By that stage the droughts of the 1950s had tested prior experience and the methods of erosion mitigation (in terms of the two major variables noted at the beginning of this section) were noted as:

FIG.3.5. The Desertification Process in the Great Plains


4. Perception of desertification in the murray mallee of southern Australia

R. L. Heathcote

Desertification in Australia

The extent and severity of desertification in Australia has been documented in several recent publications. The Commonwealth government provided a national report and a case study of a pastoral district in semi-arid Western Australia for the UN Conference on Desertification in 1977 (Australia 1977;Williams,Suijendorp,andWilcox 1977). In 1978 a special edition of Search (the journal of the Australian and New Zeaiand Association for the Advancement of Science} was devoted to desertification in Australia, with articles by a variety of scientists (Condon 1978; Freer 1978; Mabbutt 1978a; Mulcahy 1978; Pels 1978; M. Williams 1978; O. B. Williams 1978). A further overall review of the problem was published by the Water Research Foundation of Australia (Mabbutt 1978b), and in the same year a national report on soil erosion in Australia appeared (D.E.H.C.D. 1978) and the South Australian government published its proposals to cope with the salinity problems of the River Murray (S.A.E.W.S.1978).

These reports provide evidence of the historical and spatial extent of desertification and provide some information on the cost to the Australian community. Thus the cost of national soil conservation measures was estimated to be $675 million over the period to the year 2000, and the South Australian plans to cope with the River Murray salinity envisaged expenditure of $23.1 million. These cash figures do not include the costs of production losses or relief and rehabilitation costs of the drought which is usually associated with an acceleration of the desertification process, costs which have been variously estimated as from about $9 million to $100 million per year (Heathcote 19791. While there is some debate on the actual monetary cost of desertification in Australia, there can be no doubt that the total is considerable. There can also be no doubt that this cost in money is supplemented by less tangible costs from the social disruption and psychological stresses associated with the erosion of what may be termed a national heritage-the physical landscape of Australia. Both the retreat of rural settlement from parts of the margins of the Australian arid zone and the thinning out of the densities of rural settlement (for reasons which included the effects of desertification) have caused hardship and stress which often have gone unchronicled.

This report therefore attempts to explain why a resource rich, commercially oriented developed nation such as Australia can provide the anomaly of successful resource development alongside evidence of a deteriorating environment. The study is oriented to one of the national problem areas-the Murray Mailee of southern Australia- where the history of land settlement and the associated environmental problems have been reasonably well documented and where a field study of resource managers' attitudes to the risks of resource management was recently completed. Whlie conclusions from the study must be related basically to the area of investigation, l believe there are sufficient parallels and similarities with other areas of Australia to make the general points move widely applicable.

The Murray Mallee: The History of Land Settlement and Desertification'

One of the most notorious examples of desertification in Australia is the Murray Mallee area, astride the South Australian-Victorian border (Fig. 4.1). At the time of first European settlement it was an undulating country of generally parallel east-west Quaternary sand masses separated by intervening flats and plains. The soils varied from coarse brown to white sands in the highest rises to red-brown clay loams on the plains between. Most soils were alkaline, well drained, but low in nitrogen and phosphorous and occasionally deficient in trace elements. In some of the plains the calcrete bedrock was exposed. Rainfall, mainly in the winter season (May-October!, decreased across the area from c. 340 mm in the southwest to 260 mm in the northeast, and the risk of crop failure from drought ranged from 43 per cent to c. 70 per cent along the same gradient (Table 4 1). With potential evaporation c. 2,500 mm and the extensive sandy soils, permanent surface water was absent and watercourses were rare, although scattered low points in the plains occasionally held brackish water after rains. The native vegetation was dominated by mallee-the collective name given to eucalypt species forming shrubby multi-branched trees 2-12 metres in height which, in dense stands, covered all but the poorest of the higher sand rises and parts of the plains. On the rises a heath association including hummock grasses (Triodia spp.) thinned the mallee cover, while on the plains open grasslands dotted by taller eucalypts and native pines (Callitris spp.) broke the otherwise continuous mallee canopy with its herbaceous understorey.

FIG. 4.1. The Murray Mallee: General Physical Setting

Source: Atlas of Australian Soils, Sheet 1, Canberra, 1960.

Despite the paucity of records there is sufficient evidence to suggest that aboriginal groups moved through the area, particularly after rains had left some surface water on the plains and in the occasional rock crevices, hunting grey and red kangaroos, small rodents, emus, and Mallee fowl. Moving in from the relatively densely populated Murray River frontages, they appear to have fired parts of the mallee as part of their hunting technology, and some of the open grasslands of the plains may have been fire-induced and maintained. Apart from these possible effects and the few campsites (little more than hearths, fired bones, and scattered worked-stone chips), there was little apparent evidence of their occupation, and the first white explorers thought they were exploring uninhabited country (Harris 1 970).

Initial European exploration found the waterless scrubs unattractive, and occupation by whites was initially temporary-pastoralists moving their flocks and herds in from the permanently watered Murray River frontages to the grasslands, like the aborigines only when some surface water was apparent. From the 1840s through the 1850s and 1860s such use was scattered in space and intermittent in time. Underground water of variable quality was discovered and some pastoral stations became permanent bases, but droughts and the arrival of rabbits in the1870 seriously reduced the available feed supplies and pastoralists suffered significant losses.

TABLE 4.1 Field Survey Site Characteristics, Murray Mallee

Low Risk Sites High Risk Sites
A. Physical Characteristics:
Annual rainfall (mm) 340 320 274 267
Growing season rainfall (mm)a 212 196 172 152
Drought risk (%)b 43 ca.43 ca.67 ca.70
B. Respondents:
1 ) Sample
-N 66 52 63 82  
-% of site farmers ca.33 ca.33 ca.33 ca.66  
2) Tenure:
Owner 87 84 83 85
Tenant 2 2 2 4
Sharefarmer 11 8 10 9
Other 0 6 5 2
100% 100% 100% 100
3) Age:
Under 30 13 21 13 9
30- 50 44 34 66 53
51-70 40 38 19 33
Over 70 3 7 2 5
100% 100% 100% 100
4) Size of farm: ac (ha)
Less than 1,000 (405) 26 23 3 1
1,000-1,999 (405-810) 45 28 16 0
2,000-5,999 (810-2,430) 29 47 52 93
Over 6,000 (over 2,430) 0 2 28 6
100% 100% 100% 100
5) Drought experience:
None 3 2 8 5
One (1967) 11 18 22 12
Two (1959& 1967) 38 25 27 34
Three or more        
(1944/5,1959, 1967) 48 55 43 50
1 00% 1 00% 1 00% 1 00

a. Rainfall in period April to October.
b. the number of years in a hundred in which the growing season of continuously effective rainfall is less than five months. After Trumble 1948, with estimates for Victorian sites from Hannay 1965.
c. Data from field surveys 1971-72.

Prior to the 1880s agricultural land use had not been attempted in the mallee. Apart from reservations about the fertility of the soil and the shortage of water, a major problem was the cost of land clearance, since the multi branched mallee was expensive to cut down and regrowth continued indefinitely unless the roots were grubbed out. By the late 1880s, however, a combination of innovations in agricultural technology, the occupation of the remaining relatively attractive agricultural country in South Australia and Victoria, and reverses from drought on the northern fringes of the agricultural lands in South Australia (Meinig 1962) encouraged a renewed interest in the Mallee. Technological innovation significantly reduced the labour costs in land clearance and agriculture:

1) "Mallee rollers" (often old steam boilers, or tree trunks, pulled by 6-8 horses) knocked down the scrub faster and cheaper than a team of axemen, and the dead trees were eventually burned.

2) Stump-jump ploughs developed in South Australia in 1876, jigged through the stumps, the plough shares kicking up over stones or uncleared roots.

3) The grain crops were harvested by various types of mechanical "headers" developed locally from the 1880s onwards, the grain heads being chopped off,

FIG.4.2. The Murray Mallee: General Settlement Patterns

Source: Official records and Atlas of Australian Resources, Canberra, 1959.leaving the long-strawed stubble to provide a hot burn to kill off the mallee regrowth.

4) More drought-resistant wheat varieties began to appear, more suitable to the lower rainfall country. Early maturing varieties had been developed in South Australia in the 1860s and American hybrids provided further genes for local official and private innovations in the 1880s.

These events led to renewed official surveys of the mallee country and a reappraisal of the agricultural potential. The result was legislation to open up the better soils for agricultural settlement from about 1900 onwards, and a chequerboard pattern of roads, railways, grainfields, homesteads, and townsites began to be imposed upon the landscape (Fig. 4.2). Land was surveyed, road alignments cleared, and government railways built. Farmers moved in, began to clear the scrub, build homesteads, perhaps got their first income from sale of mallee roots for domestic fuel to the cities, reaped their first crops and carted them to the rail sidings for export. From the outset, this was commercial market-oriented development. Clearance of "new" land for settlement was seen both as meeting a demand from immigrants for land as a home and as meeting an international market demand for increased grain supplies. The pattern, modified in detail but basically similar in components, was repeated throughout the Murray Mallee over the period from 1900 to 1930.

Expansion of grain farming over this period was further assisted by the discovery and application of superphosphates to improve the fertility of the poorer soils and by offical South Australian government sponsorship of American "dry farming" techniques from 1906 onwards. By this method bare fallowing over a cat 10-month period was used to conserve and thus, in theory, add one season's rainfall to the next for a wheat crop every two years. Despite periodic droughts the cropped area inceased and population densities built up to peaks in the 1930s (Fig. 4.3). The apparent conquest of the "wilderness" was seen as a triumph of human ingenuity backed by official land settlement policies and transport systems.

FIG. 4.3.Trends in the Land Settlement of the Northern Murray Mallee, 1860-1970

From the 1930s, however, the process of desertification became evident. With market prices falling, the area under production (which implied also the area under fallow) was increased and the droughts and high winds of the 1930s and 1944-45 in particular reactivated the Quaternary dune systems. Crops were sand-blasted or blown away, fields lost their topsoil, north-south roads across the dunes were repeatedly buried under mobile drifts, irrigation canals filled in, railways were blocked, and farm equipment and occasionally barns and houses were buried. As bankrupt farmers walked off their properties, the similarity to the Dust Bowl in the United States was not lost on the state government officials.

As in the United States, a massive governmental response was initiated. The Marginal Lands Scheme (which operated over the period 1939 to 1961) provided Commonwealth funds (some $4 million) to buy out bankrupt or what were thought to be uneconomic farms. These were then subdivided to provide the surviving neighbouring properties with extra land to increase returns and encourage a shift in resource use from monoculture of cereals to mixed farming with sheep being grazed on rotation pastures and stubbles. In addition, the state governments wrote off some farmers' debts-which meant in some cases retailers got only one shilling in the pound (5 per cent) on their outstanding bills! -and granted carry-on loans to others.

This structural organization of the farm production system was paralleled by intensified official research activity, aimed at providing skills in controlling soil erosion, crop rotations to build up soil fertility and structure and reduce plant diseases, drought-resistant crop varieties, and hardy grasses to colonize the mobile sands. These innovations, combined with favourable (drought-free) seasons and high market prices in the 1950s,enabled a rapid recovery of the farmers' fortunes and an apparent control of the main desertification process. Such was the transformation that by 1965 confidence in the Northern Mallee had reached a new peak. Such was the general optimism that one commentator concluded in 1965 that "we can say that there is a satisfactory answer to the main (technical) problems and that production can and will be raised by at least 50 per cent within the next decade." Drift had been largely controlled and cereal and sheep production were increasing rapidly. Land values doubled in some areas between 1962 and 1966. [Potter et a/. 1973,104]

TABLE 4.2. Soil Erosion and Land Clearance in the South Australian Murray Mallee, 1970s



(000 ha) %
A. Soil Erosion
Total area in use 1,858.7 100  
1) Area susceptible to erosion 405.3 21.8  
2) Area where urgent and drastictreatment is required 20.0 1.1  
  Total Area Area Cleared of

(000 ha)
Natural Vegetation
(ha) %
B. Land Clearance
1) Murray Mallee Study Area:
County Alfred 370.8 344.8 93
County Chandos 398.7 292.0 73
2) South Australia:
Settled Area 15,989.1 11,744.7 74
State Area 98,438.1 ( 11,744.7) (12)

a. Williams 1978.
b. S.A.I.D.C. 1976.
c. The S.A.I.D.C. 1976 report only covered the area within the proclaimed hundreds l= 16% of state), which is the main settled area of the state. Hence the figures for clearance for State Area are estimates.

Such enthusiasm led to further clearance of mallee under government scrub-clearance subsidies and a temporary reversal of the decline in cropped area (Fig. 4.3).

The enthusiasm, however, was to be short-lived. Droughts in 1966-67 and 1970-71, together with government quotas on wheat production from 1969 to 1972 and falling prices for grains and wool in the early 1970s, renewed fears of a depression, and dust storms gave evidence of renewed desertification.

By the end of the 1970s the future of the area was again in doubt. Wind erosion was active, and while urgent soil conservation measures were needed on only cat 1 per cent of the South Australian area, a fifth of the area (ca. 22 per cent) was likely to erode if farm management was neglected (Table 4.2) and concern over illegal clearance of areas supposedly reserved (because of the erosion potential) had led to proposals to tighten up existing soil conservation legislation (S.A.I.D.C. 1976, 24).

In South Australia, as part of a policy of decentralization, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries has begun to review the research needs of the state's primary industries. Significantly the first of such reviews was on the Murray Mallee (Fawcett 1978). In Victoria, the Land Conservation Council (set up in 1970 to advise the State Minister of Lands on appropriate use of Crown lands) has just completed revision of an earlier report on the Mallee area in which the problems of indiscriminate land clearance were outlined (V.L.C.C. 1976). Official concern and action continues, therefore, despite the earlier belief that the problems of the area had been met.

Research Method and Study Sites

To attempt to understand the role, if any, of human perception of resource management in the continued threat of desertification in the Mallee, the results of a recently completed field study of local attitudes to resource management were reexamined in association with archival search of recent official decision-making, media coverage of conditions in the area, and interviews with relevant officials. Because of the complexity of the definition of desertification, the surrogate of "soil erosion" was used here as in chapter 3. Thus attitudes and actions with regard to soil erosion have been culled from a variety of sources for consideration here.

The original field study involved interviews with 263 farmers and 31 non-farmers living in the area, in four separate sites chosen to provide a spectrum of drought risk and including areas in both states (Table 4.1). Thus the environmental gradient and possible political contrasts in land settlement and management policies were seen as variables. The field questionnaire, based upon that used in the international natural hazards studies (White 1974, 6-101,was designed to allow variables such as education, family responsibility, and experience on farm to be tested in relation to attitudes on resource management.

The detailed physical characteristics of the four sites are illustrated in Figs. 4.4 and 4.5 and Table 4.3. Although the general comments on the Murray Mallee apply, the history of land settlement of each site varies in detail. The Pinnaroo site was surveyed for agriculture in 1904 with additions to the south in the 1920s, the railway arrived in 1906, and agricultural occupation was mainly completed by 1914. The Murrayville site was surveyed and occupied soon after 1906, the railway from Ouyen arrived in 1908, and again most farms were occupied by 1914. The northern sites were developed later. The Paruna site was occupied partially by settlers from the Murray River after 1906, but most farms date from the arrival of the railway in 1914. The Millewa site was the last to be occupied, the railway from Redcliffs reaching Werrimull by 1923 and Morkalla by 1925. Because of inadequate groundwater here, a costly and grossly inefficient system of irrigation channels had to be dug to bring River Murray water during the winter months to fill domestic and stockwater storages for the summer.

By the 1960 the family farms were still dominant (79-91 per cent of the total) and ranged in size from 400 to 1300 ha. Of the original vegetation less than 20 per cent remained on the farms. South Australian farms had a higher proportion of land in improved grazing ((lucerne, clovers, and sown grasses) than Victorian farms (45 per cent of their area compared to 9 per cent) and a correspondingly smaller area in grain crops (13 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively). Surprisingly, the area in fallow was still significant in Victoria (21 per cent) compared with South Australia (3 per cent). More livestock were carried in South Australia (an average of 1,700 sheep compared with 400 in Victoria) and incomes varied accordingly.

FIG. 4.4. Land Systems of the Fieid Survey Sites, Murray Mallee

FIG. 4.5. Cross-sections of Field Survey Sites, Murray Mailee

Source: Laut 1977b; Rowan and Downes 1963.

Grain crops provided 82 per cent of income in Victoria, with only 7 per cent from wool, whereas in South Australia the figures were 40 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively.

Before examining the perceptions of desertification in the Murray Mallee, however, it will be useful to identify the various "interested parties"-those people or institutions who had some potential motive for concern about the problem.

Characteristics of the Perceivers

The Role of Governments

Because the history of land settlement in Australia from the 1850s onwards has reflected fluctuating but always significant official land settlement policies, the governments' perceptions of the land resources have influenced actual resource use. This influence has been stronger than that in the United States and has shown greater variation because


5. Perception of increasing salinity associated with the irrigation of the murray valley in south Australia

Michael Butler


Along the River Murray Valley in South Australia (Fig. 5.1), irrigation activities have resulted in several types of environmental disruption which, while not directly life threatening, have caused reduced livelihood levels and/or change in the livelihood of farmers through deterioration of soil quality. In addition, because of the steadily increasing salinity gradient downstream, irrigators in the lower reaches of the river have been forced to use water of undesirably high salinity. There has been considerable damage to crops and orchards in irrigated areas during periods of high salinity. Highly saline water piped from Mannum to Adelaide (the capital city of South Australia) for domestic consumption has caused serious problems for industry and has affected domestic gardens. In the sense of the definition above, salinization can certainly be seen as contributing to the process of desertification in South Australia.

This paper is concerned with the human dimensions of the salinization problem in South Australia. The perception of the problem and of the range of alternatives available for the management of the problem is investigated by questionnaire survey of irrigation farmers along the Murray in South Australia, of Adelaide residents, and also of relevant government officials. The study highlights human perception as a critical variable in the desertification process. It also suggests that success in the battle against desertification can only be gained by altering perception through effective education.

The Murray Valley in South Australia

South Australia is the driest state in Australia and Australia is the driest continent in the world. Only 3 per cent of the state receives an annual rainfall over 500 mm (20 inches) while 83 per cent gets less than 250 mm (10 inches). The River Murray in South Australia is 700 km long but is the state's only major river, and a large part of South Australia relies on it wholly or partly for its water supply. Metropolitan Adelaide, the Mid-North, upper Yorke Peninsula, the industrial cities at the head of Spencer's Gulf, the upper South-East, and domestic and stock users along the river are all supplied wholly or partly from the Murray. Irrigators along the Murray Valley are totally dependent upon the river for irrigation water used on vines, trees, pastures, and vegetables. In all, the river supplies about 66 per cent of the state's consumption in an average season, but this can rise to approximately 83 per cent in a dry season (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977a).

The River Murray in South Australia is 700 km long (Fig. 5.1). The Murray Basin in South Australia is underlain by a considerable thickness of Tertiary marine limestone, which in turn is capped by fresh-water riverine and lacustrine deposits which may reach 60 metres in thickness. The surface characteristics of the basin are strongly related to a series of Pleistocene and Recent aeolian deposits laid down as a series of east-west sand dunes. These sand dunes represent the rearrangement by prevailing westerly winds of littoral deposits left by the retreating sea in Tertiary times (Sprigg 1952). This sand dune country on both sides of the river valley from the Victorian border to Murray Bridge is known as the Murray Mallee and takes its name from the eucalypt vegetation known as mallee . Much of this mallee vegetation has been cleared for agricultural purposes (see chapter 4), but remnants of it remain along roadsides and on some of the larger dunes.

Along much of its course in South Australia, the River Murray is incised into the underlying Tertiary limestone, producing vertical cliffs. The area available for intensive agricultural development is restricted to relatively narrow alluvial flats on the insides of meander bends or in the loops of abandoned meanders. The other alternative is to irrigate the sandy mallee soils at the top of the cliffs. Of the 35,000 ha of irrigation along the River Murray in South Australia, 10,000 ha are within the valley itself, and the remaining 25,000 ha are on the highland soils adjacent to the river valley (Cole 1977).

Cole (1977) divides the Murray Valley Proper in South Australia into three tracts (Fig. 5.1). Tract 1 consists of the swamps, once permanently flooded, which occupy the first 90 km of the river valley upstream from the mouth. Tract 2 is defined as the predominantly low terrace soils of the narrow river valley upstream from the swamps to Overland Corner. Tract 3 is composed of the high and low terrace soils of the river valley from Overland Corner to the Victorian border.

FIG. 5.1. Study Area in South Australia

The heavy clay soils of the reclaimed swamps of Tract 1 are high in organic matter, and while the level of irrigation management is low, they have remained productive through 80 years of irrigation. The low terrace soils of Tract 2 are saline gray clays with poor physical properties and are subject to flooding. Consequently, agricultural use is limited. In Tract 3 about 15 per cent of the area is high terrace, having clay soils with sand layers at depth and at the surface. The horticultural areas of Renmark, Cobdogla, and Berri are established here.

The higher mallee soils at the top of the cliffs are characterized by some variability as both salt and clay have been redistributed during wetter climatic periods. There was a movement of salt and clay particles out of the higher parts of the ridges and a corresponding accumulation in the lower troughs (Gutteridge, Haskins, and Davey 1970, 14). The general pattern for these higher ridges, then, is for sandy, well-drained ridges alternating with saline, clayey depressions.

The groundwaters are generally highly saline in the area through which the River Murray passes in South Australia. Salinities are often higher than the salinity of seawater. The regional groundwater trend is towards the river through aquifers of medium transmissibility, notably the Loxton Parilla-Diapur sands and the Morgan and Mannum limestones, and the deep incision of the river allows considerable inflow.

The Settlement Process

Aboriginal people lived along the River Murray for over 30,000 years. They lived in harmony with their environment and did not put any undue pressure on the hydrologic system.

Over the last 150 years western man has made increasing demands on the river and has considerably altered both the hydrological and ecological systems.

At first, in the absence of alternative modes of transport, the River Murray was seen as an important avenue of trade, and from 1850 to 1905 the river was plied by paddle steamers transporting supplies to settlers and bringing wool and other products to the ports. With the advent of competing railways, navigation rapidly declined so that by the beginning of the twentieth century, navigation was all but over.

After the very severe droughts of 1880 caused the abandonment of large areas which had unwisely been taken up in the north of the state, South Australians began to look for land which was associated with a guaranteed water supply IWilliams 1974, 147). This was at a time when irrigation was being actively talked about, and this seemed to provide the answer. None of the rivers and streams originating in South Australia were suitable for large-scale irrigation projects, and so irrigation developments have been concentrated along the River Murray.

In 1881 Governor Jervois reclaimed 3,300 acres (1,335 ha) of swampland along the Murray near Wellington. This was followed by a further reclamation of 650 acres 1263 ha) at Woods Point in 1882. Five years later an agreement was entered into between the government of South Australia and the Chaffey brothers from America for the establishment of private irrigation works near Renmark.

During unemployment troubles in 1893, the government authorized the formation of a number of village settlements, run on community lines, and 11 of these were established in the Upper Murray district (Tract 3 in Fig. 5.1). For a variety of reasons most of these settlements failed. Lyrup settlement is the only one remaining and is at present run on a cooperative system of water supply with individual settlers having independent holdings on perpetual lease. After 1896, most of the other settlements were dissolved, or reorganized by the government. From then until very recently almost all irrigation developments were government sponsored. In 1908 a new settlement was established at Berri, and first allotments were made in 1911, followed by Cobdogla in 1918. In 1912, 2 of the village settlements, Waikerie and Ramco, were incorporated as a Government Irrigation Area, and some years later Holder was included.

The government reclaimed and subdivided more swamps along the lower reaches of the Murray in 1904. Work commenced with the Burdett and Mobilong areas and extended into other areas, so that by 1929 most of the suitable swamplands between Mannum and Wellington had been reclaimed and settled (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1970, 2).

After World War I, Soldier Settlement areas were developed in the Cobdogla, Waikerie, and Berri areas and in new areas at Cadell, Chaffey, and Block "E" of Renmark. No further government areas were developed for horticultural purposes until after World War I I, when Loxton Irrigation Area and the Cooltong Division of the Chaffey Area were developed as War Service Land Settlement schemes.

In 1923, about 12 years after irrigation had been commenced in the Berri and Moorook areas, it was found necessary to introduce drainage schemes because of problems with waterlogging and salinity. In the 1920s the whole Cadell Area was drained, and in the 1930s and 1940s comprehensive drainage schemes were installed in most areas. Many government irrigation areas are now supplied with drainage, including Chaffey, Loxton, Berri, Cobdogla, Moorook, and Cadell. Drainage schemes are also being installed in the Renmark Irrigation Trust Area and the Lyrup Village District.

Irrigation Methods

Irrigation is confined to two main types, one involving high lift pumping (Tracts 2 and 3 in Fig. 5.1), and the other gravity flood irrigation in the reclaimed swamp areas in the lower reaches. Due to the high valley sides it is not possible to command large areas for irrigation by means of gravity channels utilizing the natural fall of the river.

At a typical high lift irrigation settlement there is a main pumping station, operated by electricity, on the bank of the river. The water is lifted from the river to heights of 30 metres or more and is run into the main channel, which may be 3 or 6 metres wide. From the main channel, subsidiary of "block down" channels are given off.

The settlers' holdings in the older settlements usually include 10 to 20 acres (4 to 8 ha) of water ratable land, but in the newer settlements at Loxton, Cooltong, and Loveday they vary from 20 to 30 acres (8 to 12 ha) with a few over 30 acres. There is no limit to the area of land or the number of sections which may be held, but that area of ratable land which one person may hold is limited to 50 acres (20.2 ha).

The reticulation of the settlement is so arranged that a main channel or pipeline is adjacent to each settler's holding, and at irrigation periods each settler is given water by the opening of appropriate channel gates, or valves, leading to the block down channels for the stated number of hours allotted to him by the irrigation authority. The usual watering period is four hours per acre (ten hours per ha) based upon a flow of 2 feet (0.06 m3) per second, which provides a 6 inch (15 cm) irrigation (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1970, 2). The water irrigates the fruit trees or vines by flowing along furrows prepared prior to each irrigation. In some of the new settlements, the reticulation in the settler's block is by pipes and the irrigation is by overhead sprays, movable or fixed, with a tendency at present to convert to under-tree sprinklers. Another recent development is a move towards providing water on order rather than at fixed times.

In the reclaimed swamp areas (Tract 1 in Fig. 5.1) the approach is different. Embankments keep the river from the "swamps," and, when irrigation is required, sluice gates in the embankments are opened to allow water to enter the channels and gravitate throughout the area, each lessee flood-irrigating his holding as water becomes available to him in roster order.

The Salinity Problem

The process of salt accumulation in rivers of arid regions from natural solutions of minerals and from irrigation processes is the age-old nemesis of those peoples whose livelihood depends upon irrigation in the arid zone. Man's ability to control salinization of irrigated lands and to control salt concentration downstream from irrigated areas has been tested from the beginning of recorded history. There have been some successes and many failures, and these are well documented by Eckholm (1975) and Teclaff and Teclaff (1973). Irrigation in an arid region involves a drastic change in hydrology, and, from the Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus to the Rio Grande and Colorado, it has led to increasing soil and river salinity. The situation with the River Murray is no different.

The South Australian Engineering and Water Supply Department recognizes the importance of the salinity problem:

Unquestionably, in terms of economic, environmental and social cost, the major immediate threat to the River Murray is dissolved salts, commonly referred to as salinity. [Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977b, 3]

The recent River Murray Working Party Report (1975) also highlights the salinity problem: "The Committee recognizes that salinity is the major water pollution problem in the River Murray."

The Size of the Problem

Generally the amount of salt passing through the river at any time is constant at around 3,000 tonnes per day. Consequently, during periods of high flow, the concentration of salinity is less, and during periods of low flow the concentration is more. So periods of low flow are the periods of most concern.

The World Health Organization accepts 830 EC units as the maximum desirable for drinking water. It is also the level at which overhead irrigated citrus suffers a 10 per cent loss of yield (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977b,3). At the level of 1,250 EC units furrow and under tree irrigated citrus suffers a 10 per cent loss, and overhead irrigated citrus suffers permanent damage. For almost 20 per cent of the time since 1962 the salinity of the River Murray at Morgan has exceeded 850 EC units, and on several occasions has exceeded 1,250 EC units. The Engineering and Water Supply Department has admitted that if agricultural losses are to be reduced, and if acceptable domestic and industrial water is to be supplied, salinity in the Murray must be reduced (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977b, 4).

FIG. 5.3. Effect of River Structures on Salinity Downstream

The Origin of the Problem

As the sea retreated from the Murray Basin in Tertiary times, seawater was trapped in the underground sands and limestones. From these vast underground reservoirs of salt, salinity finds its way into the River Murray by three means: These are (1 ) natural inflow; (2) river structures; and (3) irrigation drainage.


Considerable salinity finds its way into the river by natural drainage. This has been going on for thousands of years, and the process is illustrated in Fig. 5.2. According to the Engineering and Water Supply Department (1977b, 5). these inflows are of particular concern in the lower reaches of the Murray and particularly in South Australia because they are generally at a greater rate and of higher concentration than upstream. Because the underground salt reservoirs are enormous, this process will continue for thousands of years to come.


Salinity is also increased by the locks and weirs along the Murray. These structures were completed between 1922 and 1935 at the insistence of the South Australian government, which was determined to maintain the navigability of the river despite the fact that the river trade had virtually disappeared by the turn of the century. The locks and weirs increase river levels by several metres. This causes increased pressure on underground saline groundwater, forcing the salinity into the river downstream as shown in Fig. 5.3.


When land is irrigated it is normal for a proportion of the water applied to drain through the soil and then find its way into groundwater storages or nearby rivers. In the Murray Basin, irrigation drainage seeps through the underground saline strata, becomes increasingly saline, and then finds its way back into the river. In the past, this problem has been partly tackled by intercepting irrigation drainage in underground tile drains, and then pumping it to evaporation basins on the river flats. Unfortunately, seepage from these basins causes a return of high salinity flows to the river. In addition, the capacity of the basins is insufficient and occasional releases of saline water are necessary. This again returns saline water to the river. Irrigation drainage which is not intercepted and diverted to evaporation basins eventually reaches the watertable. This builds up what is called a "groundwater mound." This again causes increased seepage of saline water to the river (Fig. 5.4).

FIG. 5.4. Effects of Irrigation on River Salinity

FIG. 5.5. Salinity to Impact Relationship

The South Australian Contribution

Of the 1.1 million tonnes of salt which pass through the Murray Mouth every year, 64 per cent derives from Victoria and New South Wales (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977b, 6). South Australia has no direct control over this. Nevertheless, 400,000 tonnes of salt do enter the river in South Australia. According to the estimates of the Engineering and Water Supply Department (1977b, 6) this total comprises the following:

  1. Natural inflow: 130,000 tonnes per annum
  2. River structures: 100,000 tonnes per annum
  3. Irrigation drainage: 170,000 tonnes per annum


The Engineering and Water Supply Department has made it clear (1977b, 6) that whatever solutions are adopted, there can be only relatively small reductions in River Murray salinity. This is because a substantial proportion of inflow is simply not controllable. For example, considerable natural inflow will continue whatever action is taken. However, the negative impacts of salinity can be significantly reduced by a small improvement in present salinity levels. The salinity-to-impact relationship is as shown in Fig. 5.5.

The Engineering and Water Supply Department is currently investigating a range of options, which are discussed below.


South Australia has no direct control over the actions of the upstream states. The only way in which South Australia can exercise any voice in matters such as upstream pollution is through its representation on the River Murray Commission. However, despite a recommendation of the River Murray Working Party (1975) that the commission be given effective power over the management of the quality of River Murray water, it remains responsible only for quantity, and the states are continuing to argue over the issue. The difficulties faced by South Australia are highlighted by a statement by the New South Wales government representative to the River Murray Working Party: "Water pollution control in South Australia is regarded as a matter for that state alone" (River Murray Working Party 1975, 9/11). The South Australian Engineering and Water Supply Department (1977b, 8) considers that all states should aim at significant reductions in their salinity contributions to the river system.


This proposal involves holding the drainage in basins when river salinity is high, and then discharging the saline water during high river flows. This proposal would have virtually no effect on the mean annual river salinity, and
would be environmentally unacceptable because of the effects of these basins on the flood-plain ecology. Cost is estimated at $1.7 million (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977c, 9).


The suggestion here is to abandon all basins and remove them from the floodplain. All drainage would then be discharged directly into the river. The net effect of this would be an increase in salinity and greater economic cost to the community. There would, however, be environmental benefits at basin sites through vegetation recovery. Cost is estimated at $1 million (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977c, 9).


This proposal involves the use of basins only for high salinity drainage. Low salinity drainage would be discharged directly into the river. This would produce an overall reduction in salinity of 5 per cent. Environmental conditions at evaporation basins would improve, although they would still remain on the floodplain. Cost is estimated at $2.7 million (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977c, 10).


This proposal involves the establishment of a new basin at Noora (20 km east of Loxton) to serve Renmark, Berri Barmera, and Cobdogla. It is estimated that this would result in an overall reduction of 15 per cent in average river salinities. The cost would be between $16 million and $20 million (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977c, 11).


This proposal involves the collection of all excess drainage from the Upper Murray district and the pumping of the waste to the ocean near the Murray mouth. This would result in an overall reduction in mean river salinity of 16 per cent, but it would cost approximately $90 million (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977c, 11).


This proposal involves building new River Murray Commission storages and renegotiating the River Murray Waters Agreement to increase dilution flows to South Australia. This would be an effective solution, but it would involve the construction of a major dam at a cost of approximately $120million.


A supply channel or pipeline would be taken from Lake Victoria so that the River Murray downstream from Lock 7 would then serve as a drainage carrier. This would enable unrestricted discharge of South Australian irrigation areas to the river, and good-quality water would be received by the majority of downstream users. There would, however, be severe environmental damage associated with high salinities downstream from Lake Victoria. The cost would be at least $200 million (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977c, 14).


In government irrigation areas, the roster system is being replaced by the "water-on-order" method of supplying irrigation water. Current investigations suggest that the reduction in drainage run-off could be as high as 20 per cent (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977c, 14). This could decrease saline seepage to the river in the long term, and minimize the rate of growth of ground water mounds. Costs are regarded as minimal.


This proposal involves the conversion of irrigation from furrow to sprinklers, micro-jet, or drip. It is estimated that conversion of 45 per cent of furrow in the Riverland (Tract 3 in Fig. 5.1) could result in an overall reduction of 4 per cent in average river salinities (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977c, 14). Application rates would be lower and there would be less seepage to the river. There would also be less effluent reaching the evaporation basins. The average yield of some irrigated crops would increase by 20 per cent to 30 per cent. There is a need for the availability of low-interest loans to encourage farmers to convert. Cost is estimated at approximately $10 million.


One way of reducing drainage quantities is to reduce the amount of irrigation in the Riverland. This could be achieved by (a) property consolidation, (b) changing the types of crops grown, (c) changing to dry-land farming, or (d) returning the land to other uses. This could involve moving irrigated areas farther from the river and the cessation altogether of irrigation in some areas. The Industries Assistance Commission in its 1976 Report on the Riverland concluded that about 17 per cent of Riverland farmers are economically non-viable. The commission recommended assistance be given to cease irrigation in these instances, and to find alternative occupations for these farmers. This would result in a reduction of drainage effluent by 17 percent, and a reduction of river salinity on average by 3 per cent. In addition, economic benefits would accrue to the remaining irrigators. The cost of buying out and relocating 17 per cent of Riverland irrigators would be around $20 million and would have to be implemented over a long period of time-say 20 years (Engineering and Water Supply Department 1977c, 16).

The Perception of Salinity

Throughout the world, the successes in controlling the salinization of irrigated lands have come about through scientific and technological advances. The failures have generally resulted from man's inability to apply the knowledge and processes available to him. Most scientific experts agree that salinization need not get out of control in irrigated lands if available management techniques are applied. This, however, implies substantial capital investment, as well as the ability of farmers and other decision-makers to accurately perceive both the problem and the range of alternative solutions available to them.

A great deal of work has been done on people's perception of life- or income-threatening environmental hazards, particularly if of a catastrophic nature. Less attention has been directed at topics relating to damage caused to man's activities by changes in the environment occurring over an extended time span. Studies which have been made of slowly occurring environmental disruptions indicate not only a general lack of awareness of the hazardous nature of these long-term effects, but ignorance of their present existence (Rountree 1974). Environmental pollution falls into this category, and salinity is certainly one form of pollution.

A major finding from environmental cognition studies is the sketchy and distorted information that most people have about the cause and content of environmental pollution (David 1971; Aulicems et a/. 1972; Wall 1973). Another important finding is that there is a significant difference between the perception of the lay public and that of technical managers in the area of water resources management (Mitchell 1971, 139). Mitcheil's research suggests that there are significant differences between the perceptions of technical managers and the public, but not between the perceptions of sub-groups of the public. It follows from this that the opinion of the public should be consulted in resource management situations. Another conclusion arrived at by Mitchell (1971, 152) is that is is possible to generalize about the public on cognitive, affective, and behavioural variables.

There has been very little research into the perception of salinity specifically. Gindler and Holberts (1969, 389) have suggested that, with the early appearance of salinity in the Colorado River, it was not believed likely to increase. It was commonly believed that silt would somehow blanket the salinity and even reduce it. Dregne (1975, 49) has shown that attitudes towards salinity control measures on the Colorado River fluctuate with the amount of irrigation water available. When the flow of the river is above normal, excess water is available for leaching salts, and the salinity problem recedes. In dry years, the opposite is true and pressures are generated to reduce irrigation water salinity. Jackson (1977) administered a questionnaire to farmers and non-farmers in Utah Valley, Utah, in order to determine the level of awareness of environmental damage associated with irrigation. The results of the survey revealed that farmers seemed to be more concerned about the damages from irrigation as determined by their voluntary responses to open-ended questions about irrigation damage. One fourth of the farmers indicated that they perceived some damage from irrigation, but only 10 per cent of the non-farmers so responded. When asked whether they were aware of specific damages, however, three times as many non-farmers as farmers indicated awareness of such damage as erosion, alkalinity, waterlogging, and so forth. Farmer perception of damage increased only slightly when asked about specific types. Both groups displayed a level of awareness lower than anticipated. Livermore (1968) surveyed 60 citrus growers in Renmark, Berri, Loxton, and Waikerie in South Australia's Riverland district. He found that growers who were well-off tended to admit that salinity had affected them, while those who were obviously struggling tended to discount the effects, and to refuse to admit that salinity was a serious problem.

This research suggests one major and two minor hypotheses for investigation in the South Australian situation:

Major Hypothesis 1: Because salinity is such a complex and slowly developing phenomenon, both farmers and the general public will have a very sketchy and distorted idea of the nature of the problem and of the range of solutions available.

Minor Hypothesis 2: There will be a significant difference in perception of the salinity problem among the farmers, the general public, and the technical managers.

Minor Hypothesis 3: In accordance with the general findings of a wide range of research into the perception of hazards, farmers will be found to adopt a rationalizing stance in the face of the threat from salinity, will discount the bad side effects of any ameliorative measures tried, and will tend to rely on the government for solutions.

The Investigation

The above hypotheses provide the framework for this investigation. The study is aimed at gaining some insight into the salinity problem as perceived by those most directly affected by it. It is largely a study in environmental perception.


The investigation was conducted by questionnaire surveys of farmers from the Loxton Irrigation Area, Renmark Irrigation Area, and the Murray Bridge/Mypolonga district (see Appendix 5.1). A second questionnaire survey was administered to randomly selected residents of Adelaide (see Appendix 5.2). Finally, open-ended interviews were conducted with official resource managers both in the local districts and also in Adelaide.


In the Murray Bridge/Mypolonga district 27 farmers were selected by the use of block numbers and a table of random numbers. This sample represents more than 50 per cent of farmers in the district (Table 5.1).

TABLE 5.1. Murray Bridge/Mypolonga Sample Characteristics



Size: Less than 1 ha 4
1-5 ha 6
6-10 ha 3
11-15 ha 2
16-20 ha 3
21-25 ha 2
26-30 ha 4
31 -35 ha 1
36-40 ha 2
Land Use: Citrus/stone fruit 10
Market gardening 6
Pasture 5
Pasture/oats 2
Pasture/vegetables 3
Citrus/vegetables 1

In the Loxton district 37 irrigation farmers were selected by the use of block numbers and a table of random numbers. This sample represents more than 10 per cent of blockers in the district (Table 5.2).

TABLE 5.2. Loxton Sample Characteristics

Size: N
1-5 ha  
6-10 ha 16
11-15ha 11
16-20 ha 6
21 -25 ha 1
30-50 ha 3
Land Use: Citrus/vines 15
Citrus/stone fruit 10
Citrus/stone fruit 5
Vines 4
Vines/stone fruit 2
Citrus 1

In the Renmark district 64 irrigation farmers were selected by the use of block numbers and a table of random numbers. This sample represents more than 15 per cent of blockers in the district (Table 5.3).


6. Summary and conclusions: the role of perception in the desertification process

R. L. Heathcote

The aim of this final chapter is to try to draw together the results of these four studies, to summarize the common findings, highlight any apparent conflicts in the evidence, and attempt to provide an assessment of the role of human perceptions of desertification in the process itself. This latter assessment will also try to outline those findings which may be relevant to future official attempts to mitigate the adverse impacts of desertification.

Summary of Conclusions from the Four Studies

In brief the conclusions from the four studies might be summarized as follows:

1) In the four areas studied desertification is currently causing deterioration of both the physical and human environment with associated significant loss of quality in both and hardship in the latter.

2) All the evidence suggests that despite the existence of knowledge of the ways in which desertification may be controlled, that knowledge has not been and is not being applied in an effective manner.

3) In some cases, not only does desertification exist now but its impact may be expected to increase in the future.

4) The continued existence and possible expansion of desertification seem to be the result of a complex interplay of many factors, which might be summarized as the interrelationships between the natural event systems (or physical environment) and the human activity system (or human environment).

5) Significant in those interrelationships are the human resource managers' perceptions of the resources and hazards which the natural environment appears to offer to their particular activity system.

6) The studies suggest that these perceptions have played a significant role in desertification in the past and will play a significant role in the future of certification on a global scale. Unrecognized and ignored these perceptions will lead to continued and locally expanded desertification; recognized and used in planning of resource management they
could significantly reduce the future threat from desertification.

The remainder of this chapter attempts to elaborate upon these conclusions and to suggest ways in which the perceptions of resource managers may be incorporated into planning to combat desertification.

The Nature and Future of Desertification

The four studies have demonstrated that desertification exists in the areas examined but that the extent and detailed significance of its impact are disputed. The overall impression is that the impact is not as severe now as it has been in the past. There has been no recent equivalent of the spectacular disasters of the 1930s Dust Bowl in the United States or the dust storms of the 1940s in southern Australia for example, and certainly nothing in the study sites to rival the Sahel disaster.

Yet desertification continues and its dimensions are sizable if concern for the component of soil erosion alone is any guide. The costs of necessary soil conservation measures in Australia to the year 2000 were noted in chapter 4 as $A 675 million, to which might be added another forecasted $A 203 -2,678 million as the costs of other aspects of desertification In November 1979, the US Department of Agriculture in association with the Soil Conservation Society of America and the National Association of Conservation Districts sponsored a National Conference on Soil Conservation Policies. The preliminary brochure for the conference noted:

Increasing public attention is being paid to the nation's soil erosion problems. Questions are being asked about the effectiveness of existing programs to deal with those problems. Since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, many policies have been written and myriad institutions created to protect soil productivity and enhance environmental quality. But more topsoil is now lost from agricultural land each year than was lost during the worst of the Dust Bowl years. [SCSA 1979, 1]

In Sri Lanka, concern at the official level seems to be less
vocal but several researchers are forecasting increasing costs from excessive land clearance.

The Causes of Desertification

As suggested in chapter 1, the basic cause of desertification appears to be the interrelationships between the natural event system and the various human activity systems. The studies have shown that in each case the natural event system exhibits considerable fluctuations in character through time ( of flora and fauna, crops and livestock) and variations in quality of the system's components (especially soil and water). The fluctuations noted in the four studies are basically within the hydrological cycle and drought is an implicit phenomenon in each case.

Such fluctuations would not of themselves result in desertification, for all natural event systems fluctuate over time; but in the particular ecosystems in the study areas such fluctuations lead to desertification This is because the ecosystems are themselves under stress from human activities. Simply put,the demands placed upon the ecosystems by human management cannot be met by the supply of resources from the ecosystems. The ecosystems are thus physically "marginal" for the resource management imposed by human activity. Any deterioration of supply will therefore created a stress situation which has led and will lead to a reduction in the capacity of the ecosystem to regain the prior level of quantity or quality of resource supply. This holds true equally for attempts to exact an annual harvest from semi-arid crop- and rangelands, for attempts to decrease the return time for shifting agriculture, or for attempts to increase competition for water resources between and within domestic, industrial, and agricultural uses.

It is the demands upon the natural event systems from the human activity systems, therefore, which create the conditions where desertification is most likely. Demands, which tend to be constant or rising, imply goals of production or returns as income. When those goals are not met because of fluctuations in the natural event system, human activity tends to attempt to achieve them by further increased activity which places further demands upon the physical environment. Crop failure or reduced farm gate prices are met by expansion of the area sown, often at the expense of grassland, scrub, or woodland, which automatically may increase the risk of erosion in such areas. Alternatively, irrigation is extended to unsuitable soils and salinity problems occur.

Added to these factors is the broad question of the quality of resource management. Whether the skill is in leaving a buffer of standing vegetation on the chena plots of Sri Lanka or the timing of seeding or emergency tillage on the Great Plains or the Mallee, different decisions lead to greater or lesser chances of desertification. Some of those management skills may come from experience, some from chance coincidence of human and natural systems, some from the perceptions of what could and should be done in the circumstances.

The Future of Dasertification

Desertification will continue to be a problem in the four study areas. The natural event system will continue to fluctuate over time, human activities will place increasing pressure on the physical environment, and the existing conflicts in resource use and management will continue. There is no reason to believe that fluctuations in local hydrological conditions, for example, will be any less erratic in the future than they have been in the past. The demands from human activity will increase in the four areas in the future, because of pressure of population on the land in Sri Lanka, competition for River Murray water in southern Australia, and declining profits from farm products in the Mallee and the Great Plains. Ironically, the pressure leading to desertification in Sri Lanka is from in part a population increase that is faster than the ability of the land to provide subsistence. In Australia and the United States, in contrast, desertification stems in part from inadequate farm profits per unit area leading to amalgamation of properties (to achieve economies of scale), which results in the risk of less effective soil conservation and a deterioration of the quality of the social environment in the areas as rural population densities decrease.

Conflicts in resource management are inevitable in any democratic society. In planning for the future administration of the public domain the United States Public Land Law Review Commission recognized six different "publics" whose legitimate but different interests would need to be safeguarded. They were:

- the national public: all citizens, as taxpayers, consumers, and ultimate owners of the public lands . . .

- the regional public: those who live and work on or near the vast public lands . . .

- the Federal Government as sovereign: . . . to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare . . .

-the Federal Government as proprietor: . . . a land" owner that seeks to manage its property according to much the same set of principles as any other landowner . . .

- state and local government: . . . have responsibility for the health, safety, and welfare of their constituents . . .

- the users of public lands and resources: . . . users, including those seeking economic gain and those seeking recreation or other non-economic benefits.
[US 1970, 6]

The inevitable nature of such potential conflicts has been reinforced by a recent review of human adjustments to natural hazards:

Communities have one government, one weather service, one utility; yet even in such situations competitors may arise. Communities have overlapping municipal and regional administrations; specialized weather services exist for air travel and for agriculture; competing resources of gas, coal, oil, or electricity are available to heat homes. Hence it is not surprising that, in hazard adjustment, competitive relations develop around overlaps or vacuums of role and responsibility. [Burton, Kates, and White 1978, 143]

Such conflicts of role and responsibility stem in part from human perceptions not only of the physical environment but of the challenges it poses for human activity. The role of such perceptions in the desertification process needs now to be considered.

Environmental Perception and Desertification: Its Role and Significance

Some indications of the role and significance of environmental perception in desertification are provided by the four studies. They have shown that human recognition of the phenomenon varies considerably; that those variations seem to reflect in part the variety of perceivers; that those variations have given rise to a variety of images of the phenomenon; and that those images seem to affect the action taken (or not taken) in response to the phenomenon.

The Perceivers

Desertification has been shown to involve directly or indirectly a wide spectrum of the community. The spectrum includes clusters of individuals or institutions where interests and characteristics appear to be sufficiently common to justify group classification. Three major clusters or groups of interests and personnel have been identified in the studies and two others suggested. Researchers, officials, and farmers have been identified as possessing separate and significant perceptions in each study, while the importance of the perceptions of the regional "promoters" and the general public {regional or national) has been suggested in the Australian and United States studies.


In government, in universities, and in the larger private businesses and institutions there exist groups of personnel, one of whose important rationales for their existence is research. In government, businesses, and institutions, and to an increasing extent in the universities, this is applied research, that is, research in response to a specific request or question (usually about an immediate practical problem), the results of which are weighed in the executive decision-making process. Because of the broad impact of desertification, many of these researchers have been concerned with some aspect of the problem, from perhaps the physics of wind speeds related to soil movement, through the design of machinery for emergency tillage or special cultivation techniques, to the logistics of disaster relief. Given the variety of researchers and the variety of their interests and those of their masters, and again the broad impact of desertification, it is perhaps not surprising that the researchers' perceptions of the phenomena are multiple and varied.

Although taken up as a major problem by the various governments and ultimately the United Nations, the initial concern for desertification as distinct from its effects in terms of famine came from university researchers-in the case of the Sahel at least as early as the 1930s (Stabbing 1935) and on a global scale even earlier. Yet this concern has not resulted in a uniform appraisal of the problem, and there is evidence of considerable differences among the university researchers as to what is the nature of the problem, how it has arisen and is being aggravated, and, not least, where it is supposed to be occurring.

The definitions of desertification offered in prior studies in the scientific literature are many and varied. They seem to reflect in part the expertise of the scientist: the climatologists refer basically to climatic criteria, the geomorphologists to land forms and erosion processes, and so on. The majority seem to accept the interplay of natural and human factors but in detail the definitions show a confusing variation. This becomes particularly apparent when the solutions to the problem are examined. His review of the various proposals led Glantz to conclude:

While there are members of the scientific community who see a hope in the development of weather and climate modification techniques not only for arid zones in Africa but for other parts of the world as well, there are others who are extremely skeptical of their value. [Glantz 1976, 50]

The variety of suggestions (he mentions 18) is matched by the variety of beliefs in their efficacy. The phenomena of desertification are obviously interpreted differently by different scientists.

In the light of the above, therefore, it is not surprising to find that the definitions of the area affected differ in detail. The global maps are specific within the limitations of their scales (Dregne 1977) but the details are often disputed.

Thus, in commenting upon the definitions of the Sahel, Grove lists seven different precipitation boundaries suggested by seven different scientific authorities. He suggested "the discrepancies are of some importance for it would appear that two of the seven . . . are referring to quite different zones when they use the term 'Sahel' end so confusion and uncertainty can arise" [Grove 1978,407] . This ambiguity in the definition of the phenomena of desertification was also evident in the four studies. The boundaries of the Dry Zone in Sri Lanka and the original Dust Bowl in the United States have been and still are disputed, and the experts disagree over the causes of the River Murray salinity and the extent of the desertification problem in the Mallee of southern Australia.

Apart from the obvious question as to the adequacy of available information for the opinions held, a major cause of the ambiguity is that the significance of the phenomena has to be judged on at least two scales. Reflecting the basic model of natural hazard occurrence, the phenomena have to be judged both on the scale of the natural event system and the scale of human activity. Thus the question as to the significance of soil erosion is in fact two questions:

1 ) the significance of erosion as a factor in the characteristics of the soil and soil-forming processes, and

2) the significance of erosion as it affects the capacity of the soil to support a crop.

The first is a problem of pedology, the second is a problem of socio-economics, and significance levels are not necessarily the same.

Similarly the salinity of the River Murray has significance for the basic hydrological cycle in the river basin and for the various human uses of water within and beyond the basin. In such a situation the many and varied yardsticks of significance create a variety of opinion.

The researchers therefore appear from both prior work and these four studies to have played a significant role in the understanding of desertification, but their views have been neither uniform nor consistent, reflecting the fact that desertification involves both physical processes in the environment which have their own importance and the impacts of those processes on human activity which have a separate relevance of their own.


The twentieth century has been an increasing share of resource management decision-making taken over by governments. This has been in part a result of the commitment of governments to specific political ideologies (e.g., fascism, socialism, and communism) which require the state to regulate national resources, and in part a pragmatic response to the size and scope of the problems faced. In the latter context many problems have been seen to require supra-national resources, and various international aid programmes have complemented emergency international disaster relief activities. In the decisions on resource management taken by governments, therefore, we might expect to recognize the role of the various political ideologies and the importance of the perceptions of the executive and administrative branches of government.

a) Political ideologies

Three of the four studies were set in 'western Bloc" countries (United States and Australia), the fourth in a "Third World" country (Sri Lanka). In effect the climate of each study area could be categorized politically as democratic and economically as a laissez-faire capitalist system. In no case did the government of the area appear to wish to have complete control of resource management, and certainly even if it had, there was no evidence of such complete control by the government. Thus the decisions on resource management in the four areas appear to have been taken mainly by non-official decision-makers. That is not to say that governments had no policies on resource management or that actual decisions were not taken in line with those government policies. The point is that the decision-makers had general freedom of action, and where they did act in accord with official policies it was as a result of an economic rather than a legalistic incentive or physical coercion.

In the decisions on resource management in the study areas, therefore, there was evidence of a spectrum of motives, from narrow individual self-interest to broader community or national interests, but all set within the general context of a relatively free market economy and only partially an officially controlled system.

Yet the officials were a significant group of decision-makers whose perceptions influenced desertification in the study areas. The context of their perceptions thus needs elaboration.

b) Constraints on governmentpolicies

The executives in government face considerable external and internal constraints in their resource management decision-making. Increasingly in the twentieth century the internationalization of commodity flows has meant that the controls upon demand and price are external to the producing country. Yet within the country there are further constraints affecting the scope and nature of official decision-making on resource management. The four studies have provided examples of the relevance of both these constraints to official perceptions and desertification.

The International Economic System. Government policies on farm price supports have been shown to reflect external world-market situations, to have affected national agricultural production, and through the resultant changes to have affected positively or negatively the desertification process in the country. International surpluses and low prices for grains encouraged conservation of cropland in the Soil Bank in the United States in the 1950s and early 1970s; international deficits and high prices brought official encouragement for plough-up campaigns in the mid- to late 1970s. In Sri Lanka high prices for exports enabled local food to be imported in the 1950s; price slumps in the 1960s and early 1970s forced greater dependence upon local production and, with increasing population pressure, brought more chena lands into production. In both cases the result was increased risk of desertification in a context of an expanding cropped area.

Ironically, the expansion of the cropped area and the associated risk of desertification has been associated in the commercially oriented grain-producing areas of Australia and the United States with periods of both high and low grain prices. At times of high prices the area was increased to increase profits, and at times of low prices it was increased to at least maintain income by expanding production. The role of the "International Economic System" (Ball 1975) in creating desertification is thus not confined to the Third World.

National Politics. From the executive viewpoint, the problems facing the government, which may include desertification, have to be seen in the limited time context of their expected period in power. Decisions need to show results within that period, and the short-term pragmatic solution may therefore be favoured on principle over the long-term decision. Yet there are often significant delays in implementing those decisions and, indeed, when the executive changes, whether by election or coup d'etat, not only may policies change but the original policies may not yet have been fully implemented (Schneider 1979)

While there is no specific evidence of such constraints in the four studies, there is evidence of inconsistencies over time in official policies on resource management, with associated significance for desertification. In part these inconsistencies have reflected different political ideologies in successive governments; in part they are due to the presence of certain "lobbies" in the official administration, such as the farm lobby in the United States, the pure urban water lobby in South Australia, or politicians looking for rural votes in Sri Lanka,

General policies of national resource management have had indirect relevance to desertification. In the United States, official policies of resource conservation were initiated outside the Great Plains but there is no doubt that the Dust Bowl stimulated federal action-in particular, the Soil Conservation Service was created in 1935 to cope with water erosion on the southern Piedmont and wind erosion on the Great Plains. As part of their conservation policies the US government became increasingly involved in actual resource management, being forced to advocate tillage systems and crop types and varieties in an effort to reduce the risk of erosion. Subsequently, government concern has been for overproduction in the 1950s and 1960s, a reversal of this policy in the mid-1970s to cope with a supposed world food shortage, and at the same time in the 1970s an increasing concern for the problems of environmental pollution. Rural air pollution from soil erosion on the Great Plains now appears to be as serious a problem as the urban air pollution which was the stimulus for the original legislation.

In Sri Lanka official "grow more food" policies since the 1960s, aimed at providing food for a growing population, have indirectly increased the desertification hazard. Increasing illegal occupation and cultivation of government reserved lands has been officially condoned by the imposition of only nominal annual fines (which become in fact a land rent over time), and the conservation of forest land (advocated by the State Forest Department) has been virtually abandoned and the encroachments of the chana farmers tolerated.

In Australia, the history of land settlement since the European occupation began in the closing decades of the eighteenth century has been a history of resource exploitation, whether of minerals, vegetations, or soils, aided particularly from the mid-nineteenth century onwards by official policies encouraging the transformation of the variety of the original ecosystems into commercially productive and relatively simpler ecosystems. The results have been an increased ecological and economic vulnerability. Only within the last 30 years have official policies begun to discourage further land clearance, and even now, as the Mallee study indicates, the expansion of cropland into marginal areas has not necessarily been permanently halted.

Basically the situation is that policies to mitigate desertification may not be politically acceptable. The withdrawal of marginal land from production may be seen as a "defeat" for human ingenuity in the face of a natural challenge; restrictions on chena land use have been made impossible to enforce because of the immediate food needs of the expanding rural population; the creation of officially reserved areas may be opposed as a further constraint upon private land development.

c) The bureaucrats

Policies decided by the executive arm of government have to be administered by the servants of government-the bureaucrats-and their perceptions of both their role and the job in hand may be significant influences on the fate of official policies and the desertification process. The rise of bureaucracies is a global phenomenon associated with the increasing complexity of modern societies, but a direct relationship between bureaucracy and agriculture has been hypothesized (Schlebecker 1977), and there is no doubt of the importance of the bureaucrats in administering basic official policies on rural land use and production as well as the emergency activities associated with desertification per se. Yet the perceptions of the bureaucrats show contrasting opinions as to the problems to be tackled as well as to the most appropriate solutions; this has led to varying implementations of policies and to the failure of some policies even when implemented.

The departmentalization of the administrative arm of government brings with it the potential for conflicting interests and activities between the various departments. In the immediate aftermath of the Dust Bowl in the United States, a rapid multiplication of disaster relief and conservation agencies led to inefficiencies in their overlapping and often duplicated activities. While reorganization reduced the problem, it still remains; for example, policies on livestock grazing controls differ between the Bureau of Land Management (part of the Department of the Interior) and the Forestry Service (part of the Department of Agriculture), and the controversies between the US Corps of Engineers and the Department of Agriculture over the size of flood-control dams are well known (Burton, Kates, and White 1978,143-145). In Sri Lanka different government departments view desertification differently, and policies on soil conservation and the significance of the salinity of the River Murray waters differ across state borders in Australia.

The differences in the perception of the desertification problem between different government departments and agencies have been noted in prior work. These differences have led to a lack of coordinated effort and a reduced efficiency in mitigation measures. In the Sahel the claim was made that over the entire episode [1968-74] in spite of the dedication of many officials at all levels, there was the shadow of bureaucratic factors in the United States or United Nations scarcely related to human suffering in Africa-programs continued or initiatives neglected out of institutional inertia, rivalries between offices and agencies, an unwillingness to acknowledge failures to the public or even within official circles. [Sheets and Morris 1976, 27

The result was a sectoral approach to the problems associated with desertification; this created an "administrative trap" wherein the "capacity to recognize and deal with interdisciplinary problems" was determined by the structure of the administration, irrespective of the abilities or dedication of the staff (Baker 1976, 248).

Given the interdisciplinary nature of the processes and impacts of desertification it is not surprising that the fragmented and sectoral structure of governmental administrations hinders effective responses. Because desertification impinges upon the jurisdiction, actual or perceived, of so many different official bodies, the reactions of the various bureaucrats in those bodies vary considerably and the official response is as a result fragmented and often inconsistent.

In the four case studies, however, the main decisions on resource management which had immediate relevance for desertification, actual or potential, were made by neither the researchers nor the officials but by the farmers themselves.


The four studies included farmers from a wide socioeconomic spectrum: at one extreme were individuals managing several thousand hectares of land for commercial grains and livestock for global markets with the manipulation of costly machinery, with fossil fuel for power, and with various chemicals as fertilizers, insecticides, or herbicides; at the other extreme were individuals managing fractions of a hectare for domestic food supplies or local markets with hand tools and minimal use of chemicals or external energy sources. Yet the overall impression was of a vast number of individuals making decisions about the way in which the resources available to them would provide them and their families with a livelihood. Although each case study provided evidence of some necessarily cooperative activities, e.g., watering times for the irrigators or marketing procedures for the grain farmers, most of the decisions appear to have been made by the individual farmers and for the benefit of their immediate families.

Those decisions appear to have been made in a relatively free atmosphere where official constraints upon individual decision-making, apart from those protecting individual property, were basically advisory, or by means of economic incentives rather than physical coercion. In this situation, therefore, it should not be surprising to find attitudes and actions by the farmers in direct and open contravention of official policies and scientific opinions.

As resource managers the farmers had a wide variety of experience. The majority were by tradition farmers in the study area, and their family experience of resource management in the area covered several generations. As a result they exhibited a wide array of management strategies and knowledge of the vagaries of resource production. They further expressed considerable psychological attachment to their land as a place and possessed even in the technologically oriented societies a folklore of environmental phenomena which suggested an awareness of their patterns in time and space.

A significant minority in each case, however, were relative newcomers to the area and, in the Australian and United States studies, even to farming itself. For this minority, their experience was obviously constrained, and their attitudes to present and future problems (including desertification) often influenced, by the conditions of the area in the immediate past and their expectations of material gain from their activities. Given the relative freedom of movement of the population in all the study areas, such mobility, affected in part by fluctuations in seasonal conditions, provided further variety in farmers' perceptions of their environment and its resources or hazards.

Farmer attitudes to resource management reflected in part an expected contrast (derived from the prior natural hazards studies) between traditional and technologically oriented attitudes to man-nature relationships. Such a contrast was evident between the "traditional" attitudes of the Sri Lankan farmer and the "technological" attitudes of the Australian or American grain farmer; from the fatalistic acceptance of crop losses to the belief in effective technical environmental management systems to prevent those losses. Yet such a contrast omits the many instances of attitudes which appeared to be out-of-context, out-of character. Thus the highly skilled irrigation technology in Sri Lanka and acceptance of new crop species by the farmers, the still extant environmental folklore and attitudes to chance or luck of the Australian farmers, and the variety of attitudes to weather and weather forecasting of the American farmers {noted in Kollmorgen and Kollmorgen 1973) belie the simplistic picture of the natural hazard studies.

In the face of stress, specifically desertification, the farmers provided attitudes which did conform more closely to the findings from the natural hazards work. Attitudes to desertification exhibited the same range-from denial of the existence of stress or any significant effects, through recognition but implicit or explicit inability or unwillingness to combat the effects, to recognition and action to mitigate the effects.

The explanations for the range of attitudes seemed to support the rationales put forward in the natural hazards studies (Burton, Kates, and White 1978), but the specific explanations for the majority of the farmers' failure to recognize the stress of desertification, or their unwillingness to react even if they did recognize it, should be highlighted.

There seems no doubt that to most farmers in the study area the phenomena of desertification were generally invisible, partly because the effects were pervasive rather than intensive in space and time. Yet the hot winds and dust storms which were "intensive" and specific in time and space were seen as a fact of life-a normal component of their environment-and not as a symptom of environmental decay. The very familiarity of such phenomena may have reduced the recognition of their significance.

Awareness of desertification, however, did not automatically bring effective, or indeed any, action to mitigate the impact. For many farmers who did recognize it, desertification was not an immediate or pressing problem; there were many other problems more pressing -falling incomes, declining profit margins, increasing family responsibilities without adequately increasing family resources. And for many farmers, even in the United States and Australia, a fatalistic attitude to the future, together with experience of fluctuating and often conflicting government policies on farming in general, dissuaded them from individual mitigation measures.

For the men-on-the-land the environment had a wide variety of images and their perceived roles in its management a wide variety of possibilities.


In any situation where people move to settle a new area a system of information diffusion is created by which the resources of the new area are relayed to the prospective migrants by persons or institutions who often have a direct material interest in the area itself. These interested parties either own some of the area's resources which they hope to sell at a profit now or in the future, or they possess information about those resources from which they similarly wish to profit. Not only therefore are the resources themselves a commodity with a commercial value; so also are the information and opinions about those resources. Any facts or opinions, therefore, which reduce the quantity or quality of those resources automatically reduce the potential profit of those interested parties, be they individuals or institutions or governments.

By definition desertification implies a reduction in the quantity or quality of the resources of the area affected. Any suggestion, therefore, that desertification is affecting an area must expect an adverse reaction from these interested parties. This will be true irrespective of whether
the party is a local or regional real estate speculator, a bona fide landholder or farmer, a local newspaper editor, or a government attempting to maintain existing land settlements in the area or introduce new ones. Such a reaction has been evident in the studies in this volume and explains in part some of the conflicting opinions on desertification.


There was some evidence of the existence of opinions on desertification held by some sectors of the various national communities, although they were not specifically canvassed in these studies. A simple division between the regional and metropolitan or national perceptions of the phenomena seemed to be evident.

At the regional level there appeared to be some evidence of attitudes similar to those of the local farmers, of identification with the farmers'view of desertification as influenced by their more pressing problems (which undoubtedly also affected the local community). The community itself often contained a significant component of retired farmers who could be expected to reinforce this viewpoint.

At the metropolitan or national level contrasting perceptions of desertification seemed to reflect in part the extent of media coverage. This coverage appeared to be inconsistent and to have a bias towards the more newsworthy (i.e., sensational) aspects of the desertification phenomena. As a result a high level of ignorance by the general public seemed to be demonstrated, whether of the quality of their urban water supply or the condition of the national farmlands. Since the public elects the governments whose task includes mitigation of such problems, such ignorance must be some cause for concern.

TABLE 6.1. Images of Desertification as a Problem

Perception of Desertification


Soil Erosion Salinity
  Sri Lanka Great Plains Mallee River Murray
1. Evaluation as problem
- very serious     R   O2         O  
- serious   O     O1     O R R  
- tolerable F       F1     F1      
- not recognized         F2 R2   F2   F  
2. Evaluation of duration of problemb without mitigation
- short term F       F     F (F = No problem)
- medium term   O     O     O      
- long term     R     R     R O R
3. Ability to combat the problem
- impossible F                    
- possible with supernatural                      
aid or chance                      
- possible by human effort   O2 R2                  
- possible by human use of advanced technology   O1 R1 F O R F O R F O R    

The Images of Desertification

From the four studies it is possible, albeit with diffidence, to suggest that three images of desertification seem to exist in the minds of the various resource managers. To explain the construction of these three images, the various perceptions of the problem of desertification by the various perceivers have been generalized for each study area in Table 6.1. While it must be admitted at the outset that this generalization is a personal assessment, contact with the four studies in their preliminary as well as final stages provided a certain familiarity with the data and might justify at least the attempt if not necessarily the results.

The three images reflect differing levels of concern among the three main perceivers, farmers, officials, and researchers. For most researchers desertification is seen as a serious or very serious regional or national environmental problem which will have long-term consequences and significance unless it is tackled by scientific use of available technologies. This view is generally shared by officials, except that the duration of the problem is generally considered to be medium rather than long term.

A second image is of desertification as a tolerable, usually local, problem of short duration which can be controlled by skillful resource management and use of available technology. This seems to be the image of the majority of the farmers in three of the sites. The exception is the Sri Lanka study where the majority of the farmers recognize the problem but feel unable to do anything about it.

The third image does not identify desertification as a problem at all. Minority groups of farmers and some researchers either do not recognize the process of desertification or recognize it only as part of a normal iong-standing natural process in which human activity has played at most only a minor role.

Explaining the Images

That the perception of desertification varies between perceivers is a result in part of the variety of perceivers noted above. That variety can, however, be further understood by an examination of the scale at which the environment is perceived, a classification of the motives which might influence the perceptions, and an examination of some hypotheses for human adjustments to the hazard of desertification.


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