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Address on the occasion of the presentation of the 2006 National Salinity Prize for Engineers.

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1 JUNE 2006

·      Mr Peter Cockbain, National President, Engineers Australia ·      Mr Russell Candy, Chair, Prize Judging Panel ·      Mr Peter Taylor, Chief Executive ·      Salinity Prize entrants ·      Distinguished guests all Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for inviting me to present the Engineers Australia 2006 National Salinity Prize.   Salt has made its mark, significantly, throughout human history. It is claimed that the words, 'war' and 'peace' originate from the words for 'salt' and 'bread' in Ancient Hebrew and Arabic. And we know that Roman soldiers were partially paid with salt - still evident today in the English language in the word salary, derived from the Latin salarium, meaning 'payment in salt'.   In Australia, salt is a natural part of the ancient landscape. However, our focus in the 21st century is on the uncontrolled march of salt and its destructive powers as a naturally occurring substance or by its introduction through human activity.   The facts speak for themselves as the Australian Government's National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality warns: • More than $130 million of agricultural production is lost annually from salinity; • More than $6 million is spent every year on building maintenance related to salinity in South Australia; • Salinity causes $9 million damage annually to roads and highways in south-west New South Wales; • The area of salt affected land in Western Australia is still increasing at a rate of one football field per hour;  • If salinity is not effectively managed within 20 years, the salt content in Adelaide's drinking water may exceed World Health Organisation standards for desirable drinking water in two of every five days; and  • Increased salinity could cause the extinction of approximately 450 species of native flora and 250 species of invertebrate water fauna in the Western Australian wheat belt.

And according to the Australian State of the Environment Report 2001 - the next report is due this year - for every 5,000 hectares of land visibly affected by dryland salinity, the economic impact will be approximately $1 million annually. If nothing is done, salinity could cost the community $1 billion a year by 2100.   As the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council notes, salinity, particularly dryland salinity control, depends upon our understanding of its causes, location and behaviour in any landscape.   Thus the importance of well tailored science, new technologies and practical engineering solutions.


Engineers Australia has demonstrated tremendous commitment in dealing with the problem of salinity.   In general terms, many of the organisation's membership of 79,000 professional engineers work in the field, every day, on salinity issues - in consultation with government, business, research institutions and local communities.   Now to the Salinity Prize.  Engineers Australia and its allies - the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality - have shown great initiative and foresight.   Together, they have devised a competition that encourages people to share their ideas and practical solutions - even if entrants don't have a formal engineering background.   Since it inception in 2002, the Prize has quickly achieved high public standing and generated tangible results.   For example, the Australian National Committee on Irrigation and Drainage has developed channel seepage controls through R and D, field trials and monitoring. The Committee's work has encouraged many other authorities and organisations across Australia to reduce salinity and better manage channel seepage (estimated at 4 per cent across Australia).   The SunSalt Company has developed commercial opportunities by harvesting salt from sites in Victoria and New South Wales. It has already reclaimed 200,000 tonnes of salt and estimates an annual harvest of 50,000 tonnes.   And so to this year's National Salinity Prize. The standard of entries and the scope and quality of your substantial work is admirable.   Some of the innovations considered for the Prize included: • Innovative design and placement of groundwater pumping stations to prevent thousands of tonnes of salt entering waterways, and developing sustainable methods of salt disposal; and • The use of technology known as Gamma-ray Salt-source modelling for large scale mapping of landscape salt zones which, for example, can show wind-blown saline deposits for the whole of the Murray Darling Basin.

Thousands of farming enterprises are also involved in eradicating salinity. Some of their initiatives include: • Alternating woodlots with agriculture (phase farming) to control recharge by drying out the soil profile; • Planting of perennial rather than annual grasses; • groundwater pumping; • the practise of alley and contour-farming; and • tree planting.

Ladies and gentlemen. Irrespective of where this year's entries finish in the competition, I hope their results are all disseminated widely to salinity-affected regions, so that the ideas postulated might be assessed and implemented where practicable - and perhaps in time, fully commercialised.   The last time I presented this prize - in 2004 - I spoke about salinity as the "white plague", the "salt bomb" and the "scourge of Australia". Indeed, an ABC TV video on salinity is aptly titled "Australia's Silent Menace".   We must ensure that the momentum to deal adequately with the critical national salinity issue is maintained on all fronts.  

The number of entries to this year's National Salinity Prize is a reflection, I think, of the interest and

indeed the often unheralded, daily work going on - in cities, towns and on the land - to deal practically with salinity.   But a cautionary note. In my Australia Day address this year I suggested that even with agreed national strategies, and the continuing application of remarkably innovative technology, it will take extraordinarily sustained effort for many decades to come, just to halt the extensive salt damage to our landscapes and rural and urban infrastructure.   Yet, Australians are capable to coming up with solutions to apparently intractable problems - solutions that make for a sustainable environment. And so to all those successfully alleviating "The Silent Menace" and to all those searching for effective methods, congratulations on your hard work, determination and nous.   Thank you.