Rivers of north Australia under siege

The Ord River

Governments and the agricultural sector have long held ambitions of conquering the vast rivers and natural landscapes of northern Australia. Since the 1940s the Commonwealth and state/territory governments have poured billions of dollars into R&D and water infrastructure projects in an attempt to expand irrigated agriculture across the north.



The early narrative was built on paranoia that Australia needed to lay claim and develop the expanses of the north as a protection against military invasion.

More recent pro-development propaganda has focussed on creating a mythical food bowl that rivals other regions of Australia. Just lay out the map on this promised land, and everywhere you look there is abundant water and fertile plains awaiting the investor. But something much deeper is at work, an anxiety of unfinished business to transform northern Australia into a type of agricultural wonderland – or wasteland.

A history of failures

Outside a few areas on the eastern seaboard, attempts to establish irrigated crops in the north have largely met with economic failure.1 Despite billions of dollars in public subsidies and hundreds of reports, studies and field trials, the region produces relatively little.

The Ord River Scheme in the West Kimberley is a prime example of poor infrastructure planning and wasted public finance. The scheme has drained an estimated $1.5 billion in taxpayer subsidies, and huge efforts by the Commonwealth and West Australian governments to expand irrigation. The main Ord River Dam – completed in 1972 and one of the largest in the country – remains underutilised with a relatively small area of around 12-13,000 hectares currently irrigated.2 Broad acre crops such as cotton and sugar were trialled and then abandoned due to problems with pests and yields, with sandalwood plantations (for aromatic oil) now the primary crop.

By many accounts the Ord is a white elephant, but the Commonwealth and Western Australia governments continue to finance its expansion.3 Since 2009, an additional $364 million of capital expenditure has been committed to the Ord irrigation Area, adding a paltry 1,600 hectares of farming land. In terms of employment, the public investment has generated around 60 jobs, at $6 million per job.4

A repeating paradigm

Once again the rivers and landscapes of the north are under siege. Commonwealth and state government ministers and their agricultural departments are building expectations of massive new infrastructure development, forming high-level committees and funding multiple dam and irrigation assessments. This is largely being driven by the Australian government's 2015 White Paper on Developing Northern Australia, which heavily promotes irrigated agriculture.5

The Commonwealth also set up the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund, which has $500 million at its disposal, and a commitment to spending big on new dams and water supply infrastructure. The Fund has spawned feasibility studies into an array of water supply and irrigation projects, most of which will require public finance to make them viable.6 Governments and irrigators are pushing to have their favoured projects funded, many of them ill-conceived ghosts of decades past.

Abetted by the agricultural science industry

Peddling the agenda for more dams and large-scale irrigation is the agri-industrial complex – comprising industry bodies, research organisations, politicians, agricultural agencies, and journalists. These interests control the policy process and the distribution of funding, and operate in relatively closed networks that seek to exclude external input and the public interest.

The agri-industrial complex is firmly rooted in government, with their representatives in the National Party and elsewhere, and exert significant influence over government departments responsible for primary industries and natural resources. A key player is the agri-science industry, made up of a vast collection of infrastructure engineers, water and soil scientists, agronomists and rural economists.

Leading current research is the CSIRO, flushed with multi-million-dollar budgets to undertake detailed assessment of water supply and storage options, suitability of soils and the economic viability of different crops. Studies have been completed or are underway on the Flinders, Gilbert and Mitchell Rivers in Queensland, rivers around Darwin in the Northern Territory and the Fitzroy in Western Australia.7

This research provides a blueprint supporting the irrigation sector. One CSIRO report estimated that an unprecedented 1.4 million hectares could support intensive farming, which would necessitate massive land clearing and extracting hundreds of gigalitres from rivers and aquifers.8 The report also identified billions of potential dam sites (yes that's correct) but settled on 90 large dams and weirs to support the vast expansion.9

The Commonwealth government is also financing the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Developing North Australia, with a priority on plant and animal science to support tropical agriculture. Soon Australia could be leading the world in weird and wonderful modified crops and bots, ready to invade the tropics.

Privatising water – a public asset

To support irrigation development requires access to large amounts of publicly owned water, a responsibility of state and territory governments. In the late 1990s, Australia faced a water crisis in the Murray Darling (has anything changed), and so governments agreed to commence water resource planning as a way to manage the over-allocation of water for different uses. Since then, river basins have been subject to multi-stakeholder planning. The result for many catchments has been business-as-usual enshrined in legislation, with users such as irrigators and industry granted private rights to extract and trade water.

The utter perversity of water planning is that the environment is viewed as just another user, such that rivers are allocated a minimal share as 'environmental flow'. When rivers are over-allocated and ecosystems are collapsing, the only option is for governments to divert public money to buy private water rights back. What a ridiculous outcome.

Rivers in the north are subject to the same perverse water planning processes that have done little to protect and restore catchments in southern or eastern catchments. Governments are now privatising large volumes of publicly owned water, often sold at discount prices and in some cases gifted away for free. In Queensland, the former LNP administration and the current Labor government under Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk have already released over 350,000 mega-litres (ML) of water in the Gilbert and Mitchell rivers, on the back of the CSIRO agricultural reports.10

In total, the Queensland government could sell off over 700,000 ML of public water from the Gilbert and Flinders, enough for several large dams or off-stream water impoundments. All this required was an amendment to the existing Gulf Water Plan, passed by the Queensland Parliament. The cheap water bonanza is already supporting proposals for monstrous new cotton and sugar plantations similar to the infamous Cubbie Station in southwest Queensland.11

What's at stake?

The north of Australia remains one of last regions of the globe with relatively intact river systems, and limited water infrastructure. The north's rivers support millions of hectares of wetlands, and abundant birdlife and aquatic fauna, making them some of the richest ecosystems left on earth. The rivers also feed the marine waters of Australia's northern coastline, creating vast integrated ecosystems that are critical for aquatic diversity. In a rapidly changing climate, the world needs vast landscapes that can support adaptation and survival of habitats and life on earth.

Despite the claims, diverting even small amounts of water, clearing land for agriculture and irrigating crops will be disastrous. Recent history shows that irrigation destroys ecosystems and pollutes our rivers and oceans with chemicals, and then the public has to pay the price of remediation or accept ecological collapse. The Great Barrier Reef is being devastated by agricultural run-off and now the public has to fund incentive schemes that encourage better management – but do little to remediate the problem.

Moreover, expanding agri-industry for questionable export markets is simply not economically viable without billions in government subsidies. In purely economic terms, the public costs of turning the river plains of northern Australia to irrigated fields will most likely exceed any gains made from any future land values.12

What needs to happen?

Simply put, irrigated agriculture in the north should be abandoned indefinitely. The public funding of the agri-science sector and private consultants needs to stop, as do cheap water sell-offs and potential new infrastructure spending.

Linkages between big agri-business and government and water utilities need to be made transparent and dissolved, such that decisions over water and land are made with broad public involvement.

There's a strong case that the north should remain substantially undeveloped – a large repository and haven for species survival as the world's ecosystems start to rapidly collapse in the coming decades. Government expenditure in the north should focus on enhancing ecosystem resilience and the wellbeing of communities.

Dr Henry Boer is a member of Friends of the Earth Far North Queensland.

This article originally appeared in Chain Reaction - Friends of the Earth's national magazine.


  1. Grundoff, M and Campbell, R (2017). Dam the expense. The Ord River irrigation scheme and the development of northern Australia. The Australia Institute, Canberra, ACT
  2. Ibid
  3. Economists at Large (2013) Rivers, rivers, everywhere: The Ord River Irrigation Area and the economics of developing riparian water resources, prepared for The Wilderness Society.
  4. Grundoff, M and Campbell, R (2017). Dam the expense.
  5. Australian Government (2015). Our North, Our Future: Developing North Australia White Paper. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.
  6. For examples see Queensland Government, (2017), Queensland Bulk Water Opportunities Statement. Queensland Government, Brisbane.
  7. Petheram C, Watson I and Stone P (eds) (2013) Agricultural resource assessment for the Gilbert catchment. A report to the Australian Government from the CSIRO Flinders and Gilbert Agricultural Resource Assessment, part of the North Queensland Irrigated Agriculture Strategy. CSIRO Water for a Healthy Country and Sustainable Agriculture Flagships, Australia.
  8. Petheram C, Gallant J, Wilson P, Stone P, Eades G, Roger L, Read A, Tickell S, Commander P, Moon A, McFarlane D, Marvanek S (2014) Northern rivers and dams: a preliminary assessment of surface water storage potential for northern Australia. CSIRO Land and Water Flagship Technical Report. CSIRO, Australia.
  9. Ibid
  10. See www.business.qld.gov.au/industries/mining-energy-water/water/catchments-planning/unallocated-water; or http://statements.qld.gov.au/Statement/2017/7/19/water-release-drives-growth-jobs-in-northwest
  11. See www.statedevelopment.qld.gov.au/assessments-and-approvals/three-rivers-irrigation-project.html or www.wilderness.org.au/gulf-water-releases-cements-governments-dodgy-ifed-deal
  12. Dent, J and Ward, MB (2015) Food Bowl or Folly? The economics of irrigating Northern Australia. Discussion Paper 02/15. Department of Economics, Monash Business School.


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