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Climate change will dampen Abbott's northern Australia plans

By Wade Freeman - posted Monday, 18 March 2013


There has been enough written about the cyclical history of developing the north and the northern food bowl, motivated by knee jerk responses to the 'yellow peril' threat from Asia, as well as the 'use it or lose it' legacy of the past colonial era.

The Kimberley is Australia's last pristine area and was recently recognised as National Heritage. It is not a dumping zone for politicians' pet development projects or a quarry for the mining oligarchy. Such splendid visions of Australia's new northern agricultural frontier are a regular feature in election years despite the repeated failed attempts to turn these grand visions into an economically viable reality.

The recent release of the "Developing Northern Australia, A 2030 Vision, Discussion Paper" was quickly followed by Tony Abbott's doorstop assurance in February: "You can absolutely take for granted the fact that we will have infrastructure proposals for northern Australia, we will have water storage proposals for northern Australia, and we will have deregulatory proposals for northern Australia".

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This harks back to WA Premier Colin Barnett's 2004 State election promise to build a Kimberley to Perth pipeline if elected. Thanks to some quick-thinking bean counters and design engineers this particular dream was shown to be deeply flawed, and is often cited as the main reason he lost that state election.

Now, as the self-proclaimed fiscally prudent Coalition see the finishing line of a Federal election, the big nation building projects come out again. Governments (through taxpayer funds) are suddenly leading the free market and building the infrastructure for private investors. It has taken over 50 years and $517 million in public funding the get the Ord River scheme to the point were we can lease stage II to an International company on the proviso they further develop it over the next 50 years.

What Abbott's new vision - and most others to date - has not taken into account is the predicted impact of climate change on northern Australia, its ecosystems and agricultural potential. The predicted effects of climate change on the Kimberley are already happening.

According to recent CSIRO and BOM estimates, over the next 50 years predicted climate impacts on the Kimberley include: more unpredictable and intense rainfall events; saltwater getting into some freshwater supplies (groundwater and coastal); stronger and more destructive tropical cyclones; an increase in very hot days; more common and severe droughts and floods, and the increased occurrence of wildfires.

A comprehensive "Northern Australia Land & Water Taskforce" report, released in 2010, confirmed that while northern Australia has some areas with soil suitable for agriculture, there is not enough rain to make up for the mostly very hot dry conditions throughout the year. Shorter more intense wet seasons will mean if you want to water the northern Australia food bowl of Asia you will need larger, more expensive dams than those currently built to catch powerful river floods.

Changing rain patterns will create more demand on water storage facilities. Moreover, dams and infrastructure will need to be larger again as the evaporation rates increase in hotter, longer dry seasons. More intense rainfall events are likely to erode topsoils from farm lands unless greater soil erosion controls are developed and put in place.

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In 2013, the heat waves and fires experienced in the south contributed to the late arrival of the northern monsoon. This provides a useful test case for how the intensifying of the northern rainfall patterns will be likely to play out and the ramifications for the rest of Australia. Another key issue pointed to in a recent report from Nature Journal, but not factored into Abbott's grand vision for the north, is heat stress and its impact on outdoor work productivity. One of the regions singled out in the study was northern Australia.

The Nature study suggests that in the last decade rising temperature and humidity have reduced strenuous labour by 10 per cent in hotter months and could be as high as 20 per cent by 2050. Farm workers, construction labourers and the military will be amongst the sectors most exposed to the hotter, more humid conditions. So if your one of these lucky southerners who, on the promise of a tax break, find yourself on a bit of broad acreage battling monsoonal rain while trying to hold down your top soil - just remember you probably have to do it under lights at night.

Still some pollies plough ahead with the northern frontier dreams, blind to future climate impacts, and defiantly ignoring the compounding environmental issues. Northern Australia can have a strong economic future, but it will not come from inappropriate large scale agricultural development that will be hugely susceptible to climate change.

It must also put the region's traditional owners at the forefront. Northern Australia's rich biodiversity is world renowned and its indigenous people maintain strong cultural and ecological knowledge that is an asset to the area. These should be the basis for sustainable economic development in the region.

A strong economic and conservation future for Northern Australia's future rests in the cultural conservation economies that are well suited to the region, such as tourism, carbon trading and land management. Indigenous land use activities have sustained the northern ecology for thousands of years and need more recognition in the "mainstream" or "real economies" as we develop hybrid traditional and contemporary economic models and ecologically sustainable communities.

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About the Author

Wade Freeman is Kimberley Project Officer for ACF and a long time Broome and Kimberley local. He has many years experience working and living in remote locations such as Mulan Aboriginal Community, Tanami Desert and Oecusse, East Timor. Wade is a post grad in Community Development at Murdoch University.

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