Water resource management in Northern Australia

Water Regional planning Agriculture Australia


Just over half a century ago, agricultural economist Bruce Davidson published a book entitled The Northern Myth (1966). His statement from this book that ‘Politicians, with the support of the press, have taken advantage of the peculiar fascination northern development has for the Australian public…’. The statement could be just as relevant in the current decade as it was at the time of original publication. Election campaigns enthusiastically declare the potential for northern Australia to be developed as ‘a food bowl’ or as a reliable source of drinking water for dryer southern regions. Elected governments, however, have tried to hit the brakes on over-stated claims. In 2015, the federal government delivered a white paper into the development of northern Australia, and part of its policy was the launch of the five billion dollar Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. Given the climate of northern Australia, hopes for development are mostly underpinned by access to water resources. But just how much development could northern Australia’s water resources support? Why is there so much emphasis on irrigated agriculture (as opposed to dryland agriculture, or other industries) as a driver of development? What, if anything, is different now from Bruce Davidson’s conclusion that ‘…unsubsidized intensive farming in tropical Australia would be unprofitable’? In this Strategic Analysis Paper, some context will be added to the discussion to help separate fact from populist political myths about the management and scope for development of northern Australia’s water resources.

Key points

  • The provision of adequate water resources is key to the economic development of northern Australia and while abundant supplies of fresh water exist in the north, the infrastructure to distribute it has yet to be realised.
  • The history of water resource management in Australia is centred on the Murray-Darling basin in the country’s south-east and other regions remain under researched.
  • Successive government policies have focussed on the development potential for northern Australia, with focus given to irrigated agriculture as a driver of economic development.
  • The potential for significant increases in irrigated agriculture in northern Australia is highly dependent on how water resources are managed now developed and into the future.
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