'IT'S DIFFICULT. It's like being a goalie against all of the World Cup teams at once.' That was how Corey Watts, sustainable agriculture campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), described his organisation's attempts to save the environment to eight Hong Kong students. During a recent visit to Australia, the winners of the BSPU/SCMP Web Challenge competition were introduced to the country's environmental woes, and the measures being taken to reverse the damage. The ACF is a non-governmental organisation with more than 20,000 members and financial support by more than 60,000 from the public. Its concerns include nuclear deposits, contamination of water resources, coastline pollution, climate changes, land clearing, and more. Salinisation, the build-up of salt in the soil, is one of the more serious problems in Australia, Mr Watts says. In a country where forests and native vegetation are routinely uprooted to make way for agricultural development and construction, the result is increased flooding. Since there are no plants on the surface of the soil to absorb water, rain easily seeps underground and raises the ground water levels. This, in turn, brings the deeply buried salt to the surface. This affects the soil, turning it white and making it infertile. Salinisation also turns rivers salty and damages buildings, roads and underground pipes. The problem is spreading quickly. A government study in 2000 found that 2.5 million hectares of dry land have already been affected. By 2050, another 14.5 million hectares will be damaged, wiping out about 1,000 plant and animal species living in those habitats. Change has been slow. Though a re-vegetation programme is in place, the ACF estimates that for every tree planted, another 100 are cleared away. The slow change arises from the fact that about 70 per cent of land in the vast country is privately owned. The Government, for fear of upsetting the land owners and the business sector and losing their votes, shies away from pushing further, Mr Watts says. 'My job is to reconnect the people to the soil, and make them feel they are part of the solution,' he adds. This involves campaigning on the issue and designing low-cost, but environmentally friendly farming techniques. In recent years, the ACF has teamed up with the business sector to push for government action. Its prominent partner in fighting salinity is Southcorp Limited, a top wine producer in Australia. Smaller food producers have also joined, Mr Watts says, because the increasing amount of salt has made soil infertile, which reduces the quality and harvest of produce. But still, Australia has a bad track record that urgently needs to be addressed, says ACF campaign administration assistant Kjirsten Robb. 'We have the largest rate of extinction of mammals and birds because of land clearing,' she says. 'We also have the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions per person. That is why we were deeply ashamed when our Government refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol [a 1997 agreement which limits greenhouse gas emissions globally]. 'We produce more waste, use more water. To sum up, we are a wasteful society,' Ms Robb adds. 'We take all there is from the environment, but don't give it back.'