SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, facing a tight re-election battle, yesterday pledged a A$1 billion (S$1 billion) fund for the Great Barrier Reef, where scientists say mass coral bleaching has destroyed vast tracts of the World Heritage site.
A report late last month said mass coral bleaching, caused by climate change, had destroyed at least 35 per cent of the northern and central Great Barrier Reef and that the coral mortality rate would likely rise.
Mr Turnbull, campaigning for the July 2 polls in northern Queensland, the usual jumping-off point for tourists going to the reef, said he would instruct Australia's Clean Energy Finance Corp (CEFC) to redirect A$1 billion of its A$10 billion fund.
The money would go to a loan scheme aimed at reducing the agricultural and waste water run-off that is lowering the reef's ability to withstand rising sea temperatures.
It will provide investment finance for projects which can improve water quality and reduce emissions. That includes reducing the run-off of fertilisers and sediment, installing more energy- and water-efficient irrigation systems, upgrading coastal sewage plants and installing solar panels on farms.
"Much of this will come in the form of financing solar energy, which of course will reduce emissions but also enable farmers to manage their land more efficiently," Mr Turnbull said in Townsville.
The reef is "unique, it's gigantic, it's an enormous economic driver here in north Queensland and it's one that we are committed to protect for our children, grandchildren and many generations to come", he added.
Pollution from water-borne fertiliser and nutrient-rich run-off limits the ability of corals to withstand higher sea temperatures associated with cyclical El Nino weather events and global warming. Bleaching occurs when the water is too warm, forcing coral to expel living algae and calcify.
Mr Turnbull has been under pressure since the Department of Environment confirmed it had withdrawn a contribution to a United Nations report on the impact of climate change on world heritage sites, claiming concerns that it might have a negative impact on tourism.
The main opposition Labor party, which proposed a A$500 million, five-year plan for the reef last month, criticised Mr Turnbull for "raiding" the CEFC.
"Malcolm Turnbull is misleading Queenslanders and other Australians in saying he's providing any additional funding to the Great Barrier Reef at a time of great crisis," Labor's environment spokesman Mark Butler told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The Greens party has announced a plan to tax coal miners heavily and use the money to revitalise the reef and to invest in clean energy projects and jobs.
Marine biologist Jon Day, a research scientist at James Cook University's Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, told Nine News that the cash on offer from the coalition, Labor and the Greens does not come close to what is needed to protect the reef from water quality threats.
Dr Day, who was a director of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for 16 years, also doubts farmers will take up offers of cheap loans to improve their run-off water quality and emissions.
"How farmers would make a profit out of these sorts of projects, to be able to repay the loans, that's the big question," he told Nine News.
The reef is the largest living structure on the planet, stretching 2,300km along Australia's north- eastern coastline, and is home to more than 1,600 types of fish and over 30 species of whales and dolphins, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
The reef supports almost 70,000 full-time jobs and is worth more than A$5 billion a year to the Australian economy from tourism .
Mr Turnbull's conservative coalition began the seven-week election campaign with a healthy lead over the centre-left Labor opposition but opinion polls now have them neck and neck.