The Ord River: the unlucky horse shoe in the Coalition’s northern development

Firstly, I have to thank my readers. My previous post, The Great Northern Development: the Coalition’s dead horse, did extremely well. I’ve never had a post that has caught such traction, so thank you to everyone who has shared it via report, twitter, facebook, email, whatever. It’s rewarding to know that my efforts are not in vain.

Yet one criticism has crept up over and over again; I’m ignoring the Ord River Irrigation Area. The commentators think I’m dead wrong, based entirely on this point and so, I figured it was worth writing a detailed reply post.

While I admit that my local knowledge of northern Australia between Cairns and Broome is limited (not a small area, by any means), I know enough about remote sensing, climate and ecology to feel my analysis remains correct.

Productivity

Ecology demonstrates that where there is a resource, species move in to exploit it. Even warm springs full of chemicals that are toxic to most life can be abundant with activity – just look at Yellowstone Park.

The advocates of the northern development talk of the north as being “underdeveloped” and this River Irrigation Area being shockingly impressive for soil quality.

But microbe and plants never organised committees or governments to decide where they will set up home, they do so and to population sizes that the environment allows.

Looking at gross or net primary productivity gives us an idea of how productive an environment is, obviously. Apart from eastern Queensland and the top of the Northern Territory, much of this northern development region has a productivity akin to that of the dry land irrigation regions in southern Australia. Of course, it also lacks the accommodating mild climate of the south as well.

Using the MODIS GPP image, we have the existing Australian food baskets in the south – largely Victoria, Eastern NSW and the southern tip of WA – with a value greater than 0.03; a value this wonderful northern region simply does not reach anywhere.

Gross Primary Productivity - MODIS, LPDAAC MOD17A2 mosaic, Australia coverage

Gross Primary Productivity – MODIS, LPDAAC MOD17A2 mosaic, Australia coverage

If there is wide spread untapped fertile lands just begging for agriculture, how has it managed to hide itself from the most basic microbes, communities of trees (this region is typified by savannah, wetlands and arid landscapes) and most disturbingly, our best monitoring equipment?

I know the tropics can be farmed, but the land in southeast Asia is not as old and depleted as Australian soil. You cannot build complex carbon lifeforms without nutrient rich environments. Australian tropical rainforests are our best teachers to this reality; they are hives of life, yet their soils are depleted, which Australian farmers learned when they cleared them for farming.

In such places, there is a wealth of nutrients, but life lives on the fringe – keeping all the resources in the cycle and leaving none in the ground (ie. rip and burn removes the nutrient base).

So, as was stated in the original article, without vast investments in fertilisers or clearing of the few fertile ecosystems currently there, we do not have an untapped Australian food bowl in the north, as far as productivity is concerned.

Water… again

Again, water is a massive problem. One critic told me about pumping water – but that is a commitment. If one is planning to move hundreds of thousands of people to the north, that is a massive, ongoing, commitment to keep the community hydrated. It is terribly hot, regardless if it is dry or monsoonal, having ample water will be essential.

How is pumping gigatonnes of water to irrigate a low productive environment and to hydrate a heat stressed large community any different to the criticisms regarding desalination plants? In fact, I think it is worse because a political party is willfully wishing to invest in placing such people in such an otherwise avoidable position.

The Ord River Irrigation

This is the root of the dream for the northern Australian food bowl. The Ord River Irrigation area proves the norther is fertile and begging for development.

No, it is one region we have been flooding for more than 50 years, so that the feeding water supply and wetland birds can fertilise. It is also not an ecological risk if extended.

Yet it covers 117km2 of agricultural area – apparently to be extended to 440km2.

Yet a quick GIS polygon of the northern development region norther of Cairns to Broome is a region around 1025700km2. So the Ord River Irrigation area currently amounts for less than 0.0001% of the total region, to be extended to 0.0004%.

Sure, I’m ignoring currently developed regions and places you would not develop for ecological reasons, but are we really willing to bet on “greener pastures” on a sample less than a hundredth of 1% of the entire study region?

Conclusion

My argument was this; it is wishful thinking to bet on the northern development. The Coalition is no stranger to wishful thinking if basic mathematics mean anything, as I demonstrated in my review of the sequestration requirements of the Direct Action Plan or my analysis of their enthusiasm for 100 new dams – a move that would provide as much greenhouse emissions as a city the size of Warrnambool.

The advocates for the northern development, from my opinion, seem to be people who either have no personal interest to endure the harsh tropical climate or are the few locals there that seem to enjoy the prospect of investment potential and a few extra mates at the pub.

The climate is harsh. The soils are old and depleted for the most part. Once the mining investment is done, pumping water, maintaining dams, transporting resources to the middle of nowhere (which will also make them more expensive locally); all these and more will become more and more of a financial burden to be taken up by the locals. It will erode the financial security of the local community and leech the settlements until most move back down south (again the productivity is evident – not just in MODIS data, but in the carrying capacity and economy of a region).

In short, the dead horse is still a stinking rotting mass of bad ideas and wishful thinking. A good punter would be quick to be turned off. However, I do not like instincts. I prefer to test things. I have listened for a heart beat and found none. I have tested for temperature and found it unsuitable for life. I have looked into the eyes of the beast in search for the racers spirit and found nothing but the pale, unfocused glare of an idea that should have been buried a long time ago.

The Ord River Irrigation development is the unlucky horse shoe on the foot of the dead beast. This is not a subject I wish to debunk for the rest of my life, regardless of how many whipping boys are lining up in the vain hope of the norther development.

Part one here.

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