Interest in developing the seemingly vast water resources of northern Australia has not diminished with the breaking of the millennium drought in the south.
The recent announcement by the Office for Northern Australia of a multi-million dollar study on the suitability of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria for more intensive agricultural development signals that some in government and industry believe this is indeed achievable.
There is clearly a compelling need to support the aspirations for enterprise development in this region, particularly among Indigenous communities, and this may provide a significant opportunity. However, the key question is whether such development can deliver economic and social benefits without degrading the ecosystem processes that sustain the region’s considerable natural and cultural assets.
For this reason, it is pleasing to learn that the Gillard and Bligh Government has commissioned a significant research program to investigate the suitability of these systems for agricultural development. However, it is disappointing that the focus is on development with apparently little attention given to potential environmental, social and cultural implications.
The proposed study catchments (Gilbert and Flinders) are recognised for their high aquatic conservation values. We know that over a third of the fish species in these catchments are migratory and vulnerable to the effects of dams and other in-stream barriers. Flow diversion is likely to alter the persistence of permanent waterholes during the dry season, especially in the Flinders, which provide important refugia for fish and other aquatic species.
Much of the growth and reproduction of some species, including barramundi, occurs during the short wet season when floodplains are inundated, highlighting the importance of these flow-driven connections. The production of our important coastal prawn fishery is also dependent on these wet season flows.
We also know that one of the significant current threats to these systems, from alluvial gully erosion, is a likely to have been triggered by historic (unsustainable) stocking levels of cattle in riparian and floodplain zones.
These are some of the key findings of the Tropical Rives and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK) research program and recently summarised in the book “Aquatic Biodiversity in Northern Australia: patterns, threats and future” published by CDU Press (see www.track.gov.au). They highlight the considerable challenge for development of intensive industries in the region, especially those that are likely to alter flow regimes, impact on water quality and disrupt the important connections between rivers, floodplains and coastal ecosystems.
To ignore these issues risks creating a similar suite of environmental problems to those experienced in Murray-Darling Basin, despite assurances that ‘we won’t repeat the mistakes of the south’.
No single organisation has the breadth of expertise and capacity to provide the science and knowledge that governments, communities and industries need for the sustainable use and management of Australia's tropical rivers and estuaries. TRaCK was established for this reason and brings together more than 70 of Australia's leading social, cultural, environmental and economic researchers from 16 organisations. Importantly, the program has also made a significant commitment to Indigenous involvement in the planning and implementation of research.
The proposed CSIRO study in the Gulf addresses one aspect of this need.
A more integrative and inclusive approach will be required to ensure that governments and the broader community are adequately informed of the of the full costs and benefits of intensified agricultural development in the region.