The Final Report of the Land and Water Taskforce identifies Northern Australia’s unique natural and cultural heritage, community values and, above all, physiological limitations to development. Their Final Report should put to rest notions of wide spread, broad-scale agricultural development and turning the north into a major food bowl for Asia or Australia.
Established in 2007 under a Coalition Government, the Land and Water Taskforce was established to examine the development potential of Northern Australia in response to the 2004 National Water Initiative.
The Taskforce originally had a narrow focus of identifying the capacity of land and water resources for future agricultural development. However, when the federal election was called in November 2007 the Taskforce was temporarily suspended. In September of 2008, the newly elected Rudd Government revised the terms of reference and membership of the Taskforce. Changes to the membership of the Taskforce included the replacement of party-political individuals to an independent and broader representation of experts from a variety of relevant disciplines.
With revised terms of reference and a membership spanning science, Indigenous knowledge, research, conservation, pastoralism, mining, agriculture, farming and water policy, the Taskforce spent nearly two years investigating:
· The sustainable capacity of northern river systems and basins for in- creased consumptive uses;
· Opportunities for economic development and diversification of uses (including non-consumptive) of locally and regionally significant water re- sources consistent with sustainable resource use principles;
· The potential impacts arising from identified development opportunities on natural values and broader community values; • Incentive, market regulatory and planning mechanisms to ensure future development is consistent with the National Water Initiative;
· Potential cross-jurisdictional governance arrangements for surface and groundwater resources.
The study area for the Land and Water Taskforce stretched from just north of Cairns across to Broome encompassing river basins on Cape York Peninsula’s west coast, the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Timor Sea.
Guided by a set of principles acknowledging Northern Australia’s distinct demographics, community attitudes, Indigenous rights and interests, heritage values including the intact nature of many freshwater ecosystems, knowledge systems and adaptation to climate change, the Taskforce has delivered a report calling for a coordinated approach to genuine sustainability.
The Taskforce has called for a strategic focus, national leadership and recognition of the North’s ongoing contribution to national prosperity to deliver an integrated and sustainable region in addition to identifying the imperative of ‘Closing the Gap’ for Indigenous Australians.
Fifteen recommendations arose out of the Taskforce’s findings address- ing each of the terms of reference.
On the sustainable capacity of northern rivers and basins, the Taskforce identified the acute lack of data on climate, land, water and environmental attributes and a lack of understanding of Indigenous knowledge. These information gaps are a hindrance to quantifying sustainable water use for varied uses. In addition, little is known about groundwater resources and the risk of salinity associated with its utilisation. The Taskforce also identified that there is a disparity in measuring the values of water be- tween social, cultural and economic uses. In response the Taskforce has recommended that a range of data continue to be collected on biophysical, geological and socio-economic attributes and analysed to inform regional, catchment and local planning decisions.
In identifying economic development and diversification opportunities, the Taskforce considered both consumptive and non-consumptive uses of water resources. Key findings were that the North’s environmental values were of global significance and conservation and land and water management are integral to northern Australia’s economy. In addition, the Taskforce recognises that around 90% of the North’s land area supports a beef cattle industry. There are also opportunities for economic advancement within the Indigenous estate through the provision of commercial and customary services. The potential water resources for a 100 to 200 per cent increase in irrigated land and a mosaic approach to agriculture across the north should be further investigated.
The impacts of the above mentioned opportunities were also considered by the Taskforce. Again, lack of data limited the Taskforce’s ability to adequately identify potential impacts, particularly in relation to the interconnected flow of groundwater and surface water. Subsequently, the precautionary principle should apply. Unmanaged land was recognised by the Taskforce as an environmental and cultural liability and it was identified that it is the responsibility of landholders to provide stewardship.
Importantly, the Taskforce identified the impacts of rapid large-scale development and the impacts these developments have on communities. Their recommendations encouraged a coordinated response to land-scape restoration and sustainable production and action to improve the resilience of natural systems through market based incentives particularly on Indigenous lands. Further, the expansion of the national reserve sys- tem needs continued government support. An urgent priority for governments is ensuring all northern Australian communities can access drinking water and any future developments must not negatively impact on this resource.
Key findings relating to incentive, market regulatory and planning mechanisms to ensure future development is consistent with the National Water Initiative addressed a variety of impediments centered on process, delivery of existing policy and Indigenous rights. According to the Taskforce, there are a range of impediments stemming from tenure, divergent jurisdictional processes, inadequacies in planning and the delivery of services that impedes the North’s potential. The Taskforce asserts that the National Water Initiative is an effective framework for delivering sustainable water resource management but that its implementation is too slow. Further, the importance of Indigenous rights in water allocation needs to be explicitly recognised in statutory processes including recommendations on cultural water allocations and that there is an equitable allocation for consumptive uses and support for the Indigenous purchase of water from consumptive allocations.
With regard to governance, the Taskforce notes that there are greater synergies between cross-jurisdictional east-west relationships than with southern cities such as Brisbane, Canberra or Perth. But these are not reflected within administrative bureaucracies. To properly implement the National Water Initiative, the Taskforce recommend that there should be far greater coordination between northern regions across the jurisdictions. On this they propose a Northern Australia Land and Water Authority to be based in the north to improve northern institutional capacity and advocate for the north.
The Taskforce also calls for a Council of Northern Australia, to be chaired by the Prime Minister, to provide leadership in working with the States and Territory to develop a vision for a sustainable future for northern Australia.
Originally published in March 2010 in Ecotone (Vol 30 No. 1)