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Salinity in Colonial Irrigation: British India and south-eastern Australia

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Salinity is an environmental phenomenon that affects the world's arid and semi-arid regions, where it causes soil degradation and problems for agriculture. Salinity began to attract serious attention in the irrigated districts of the Murray Valley in south-eastern Australia in the 1960s. However, observations that the south-eastern Australian landscape was affected by naturally occurring salts predates this period of awareness by more than half a century. Drawing on documentary history, the present paper reveals what soil chemists in New South Wales in the 1890s already understood of the potential dangers of salinity. These scientists were aware of the experience of their colonial colleagues in British India, where the seriousness of the problem had been recognised by the 1870s. Using evidence from India and south-eastern Australia in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the paper outlines the opposing worldviews of scientists and engineers in New South Wales about the potential dangers of intensive irrigation. It offers an explanation as to why that understanding was insufficient to prevent the growth of the problem.

Keywords: India; Irrigation history; soil salinity; south-eastern Australia; water resource management

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00049180802056815

Affiliations: The Australian National University, Australia

Publication date: June 1, 2008

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