CSIRO report quashes expectations of a northern food bowl

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 22nd September 2009

Water resources are not capable of making the northern regions of Australia the new food bowl of South-East Asia, according to a new study from the CSIRO.

There has been great hope for northern Australia to become the new hub of agricultural activity in the nation as drought continues to hamper a number of leading agricultural regions in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. However, the CSIRO has dampened such plans with a new study showing this area to be “water limited” thanks to high evaporation rates and a lack of rainfall for six months of the year.

Stuart Blanch from the Northern Territory Environment Centre explained that the report shows that the dry season in the north is not conducive to large scale irrigation.

“It says that northern Australia will never be the food bowl of Asia, simply because we simply don’t have the amount of water and land up here to spread irrigation without doing major damage to our rivers, and to the countryside,” he told the ABC.

Mr Blanch added that there is room for irrigation across the north but not on the scale that would make the region an agricultural food bowl.

Water-rich myth

2007 Australian of the Year and respected climate scientist Tim Flannery concurs with the report, labelling as a myth the notion of a water-rich northern Australia.

“It is a persistent myth and I guess we will just have to keep driving a stake through its heart,” he told ABC Radio. “It’s unrealistic to think that the north could replace the south, and that’s why we all live in the south.”

Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, one of the key advocates for moving food production north, maintains, however, that the north is the future and we must find a way to utilise the high amount of rainfall in the region.

”It depends whether you want to have a can-do mood or a no-can-do mood,” he said. ”There is no time for complacency if we want to develop the natural resources we’ve got.”

Assessing potential

The Federal Government is currently assessing the potential of agriculture in the northern regions, with the CSIRO study part of the investigation.

Such findings do not bode well for the viability of the grand plans some still hold for the region, according to Parliamentary Secretary for Water, Dr Mike Kelly.

”Any massive nation-building project like a Snowy Hydro or a Murray-Darling Basin just wouldn’t be viable,” he said, according to The Age. ”Setting up something the scale of the Murray-Darling Basin would more than likely be unsustainable.”

The government will now proceed with plans for a further $1.8 million worth of research into the region.

To read the report please visit: www.environment.gov.au/minister/kelly/2009/mr20090921.html