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Maarten Stapper was interviewed in a private capacity for a Channel 9 story about salinity to help dismantle the doctrine that rising watertables are the sole cause of dryland salinity.

Below are fragments of the transcript. The video features examples of pasture-cropper Colin Seis’s good farming practices. Click on Part One or Part Two of the video to watch.

Channel 9 – Sunday Program

28 May, 2006

Reporter: Ross Coulthart

Producer: Nick Farrow

It’s an apocalyptic story of environmental disaster we all know so well. The Murray Darling basin is being poisoned by salt. Adelaide’s water supply is threatened, along with some of our most productive farmland — and our beautiful rivers are dying. It’s a frightening scenario. But is it true? This week on Sunday, reporter Ross Coulthart takes a look at the real threat posed by salinity — and finds things are going badly wrong in public science.

Claims that an area of land twice the size of Tasmania is under threat are false. The reality is a fraction of that. Even top scientists now admit the predictions of a disaster have been exaggerated.

Watch the video:     Part One        PartTwo

Part 1

ROSS COULTHART: For at least 30 years, the official explanation for salinity has been that cutting down trees and other land clearing is making groundwater rise, pushing salt up to root zones or the surface, killing plants. This explanation, called the Rising Regional Groundwater Theory, is used in all the models to predict salinity across Australia. But it’s never been proven. It’s still just a theory. Yet billions of dollars have been spent trying to fix salinity problems using solutions based on it.

Dr Maarten Stapper is a principal research scientist with the CSIRO. It’s a measure of the sensitivity of the debate that he insisted we emphasise he is speaking in a private capacity. For he is one of the dissident scientists who believes there’s something very wrong with the whole rising groundwater theory and the alarming predictions it makes. Are you a believer in the rising groundwater theory as an explanation for salinity?

DR MAARTEN STAPPER: No. Not a full verdict that it’s true for every situation.

Part 2

ROSS COULTHART: If science got its predictions so badly wrong on the salinity risks in irrigation areas, then what about dry-land salinity, where salt appears on land even though it’s not being flooded with irrigation water? Computer models based on the Rising Groundwater Theory predict that, by 2050, farmland more than twice the area of Tasmania could be wiped out by salinity. It’s scary and expensive. But while salinity is a problem is such extreme pessimism justified? In part two of our story you’ll hear from the dissidents who believe the real explanation for salinity and a possible cheap fix – has been suppressed.

ROBERT GOURLAY: There’s too much at stake in terms of the credibility of public science to admit to a major error in this area of science

DR MAARTEN STAPPER: People just don’t want to talk about those issues. They don’t want to get stirred into thinking that there is another way.

ROSS COULTHART: And yet, as a scientist, you’ve seen it work?


ROSS COULTHART: You’re convinced it works


ROSS COULTHART: Even inside Australia’s peak science body many are now questioning what causes salinity. CSIRO principal research scientist Maarten Stapper says he too thinks salinity is actually caused by poor soil health. So touchy is the current debate in scientific circles that several scientists we spoke to felt unable to talk publicly. Maarten Stapper did but as a private citizen.

DR MAARTEN STAPPER: But the cause of most of the salinity in the dryland is on land where there’s no rising watertable and it’s caused by the lack of organic carbon and life in the soil.

ROSS COULTHART: If your solution to this problem is right then we’re wasting hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars on trying to fix salinity aren’t we?

DR MAARTEN STAPPER: Yeah. That’s money working on symptoms and not the cause of the problem.

ROSS COULTHART: So when you’ve been saying inside the CSIRO there’s a microbiological explanation for salinity, what do they say?

DR MAARTEN STAPPER: Oh silence. No reaction.

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