The Great Northern Development: the Coalition’s dead horse

The latest news is that the Coalition is still planning for a great northern development – an idea that is time and time again demonstrated to be unfeasible. It will be a waste of money that will be remembered in the future as a grave folly of the Abbott era (should that occur), driven solely on greedy expectations of a few interested parties.

Here’s why it will fail: climate, primary productivity, water, long term business interests.


Up north, it’s hot and dry or hot and very wet. It’s not comfortable, hence why most Aussies live in the lower states. It’s always hot, but the seasons are such that it never rains, but is arid or pouring monsoonal storms. There is no respite for a booming northern population and such weather will cause death due to cyclones and simply due to the aged, young and sick having less resilience in such severe weather.

Max Temp from 1976 - 2005
Max Temp from 1976 – 2005
Annual Rainfall average from 1976-2005
Annual Rainfall average from 1976-2005

Primary Productivity

This northern development is supposed to be our future food bowl, but this is a sentiment based on poor understanding – either agricultural science or simply an understanding of history. Firstly, looking at historical case studies, prosperous farming for the most part has been restricted to southern Australia and along the east coast. Inland, productivity has also occurred along the Murray-Darling and Murrumbidgee due to the water ways providing both water, obviously, and fertility in the floodplains (due to nutrient loading).

Apart from higher soil fertility, the milder climate, as discussed above, has been more forgiving to agriculture in southern and eastern Australia.

Looking at gross primary production (image below) or net primary production, we see this is confirmed: the most productive lands are restricted to the east coast around to the limestone coast of South Australia and the southern tip of Western Australia.

Dry land agriculture is somewhat successful as far as the Eyre Peninsula, due largely to phenomenal work by farmers and scientist. However inland Australia is restricted to low yield production; put basically, massive open lands for cattle to scrounge out a hard existence.

Wishful thinking will not make these northern lands more productive. The only way to farm the north is a massive expense of fertilisers and intruding upon existing national parks and remnant ecosystems which have slightly more productive soils (largely due to migratory birds and wetlands). Of course, the latter would work against another aspect of the northern development – tourism. I doubt tourists a keen to look at low yield farm lands in the uncomfortably hot, damp/dry lands of the north.

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


I’ve already talked about the temporal problems with water management above. The Coalition’s answer to this is to build dams. The Coalition has previously looked into developing 100 new dams, in association with the development of the north.

I’ve analysed this proposal and found that, to begin with, such a development would further Australia’s greenhouse contribution by at least a half a million tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually, but most likely, much more. This is equivalent to the emissions from a population of a city larger than Warrnambool, Victoria (details below).

Dams are not a quick fix either. Firstly, with monsoonal fluctuations in water recharge, these dams will need to be designed in such a way as to handle rapid influxes of water. Secondly, this water would have originally gone elsewhere. Lots of this water usually filters south in to the seasonal rivers of inland Australia, filling up the inland lakes (such as Lake Eyre), that are home to many migratory birds when filled and also the Murray – important for the Ramsar recognised wetlands, such as the Coorong and riverlands.

Diverting this water will come at a financial cost, ecological cost and increase Australian greenhouse gas emissions.

Expected additional GHG emissions / per capita annual GHG emissions = 610,000 / 18
= 33889 people (Warrnambool has a population of 33,204).

Long term business interest

The push for the northern development comes most noisily from Gina Rinehart. Such a development would be of immense value to her. It brings a labour force to rich mining fields, saving her the expense of developing townships to support her workers locally (yet, unfortunately not labour that will work for less than $2 a day, sadly).

Such mining might support this development for a couple decades (or a few more), but then what?

This northern development will not be able to support out of work miners looking for a new a career path. Farming is not viable to any massive scale, without costly fertilisation and there will not be other local activities capable of inspiring further investment to the scale required to support the local population as the mining activity ebbs. Most goods will need to be shipped in, meaning that the dollar spent locally will largely move away from the community without long term local revenue sources.

The northern development will erode with the mines exploited and the population will be forced to move back to the south. Eventually, it will be a shadow of itself, much like the gold field towns from the early days of European-Australian history.


In short, this is not a venture in the best interest for the country, but rather for short term business exploits.

Personally, I would prefer the Coalition to cut the “middleman” and be honest enough to propose giving Ms Rinehart a fat cheque to stick in her pocket and save us all from this disgraceful venture. Of course, with such a proposal on the table, they are unlikely to win the upcoming election, so we find ourselves instead with the Coalition whipping a dead horse, while insisting to us that it will win the upcoming race.

I’m not willing to make that bet, are you?

Part two here.


13 thoughts on “The Great Northern Development: the Coalition’s dead horse

  1. Reblogged this on pindanpost and commented:
    There are already major new irrigation developments happening such as at the Ord River. Many cattle stations in the Kimberley are growing vegetables and fruits for the southern markets, others are producing hay for export markets. This expansion is only happening recently due to the slackening of rules regarding Pastoral leases. The slowing live cattle trade will only speed up this process. Cotton producers have been trying to break into the region too in recent years as the availability of water is excellent in much of the Kimberley region. Scientist and Engineer, David Archibald, has copies of the considerable research that went into studies done here more than 2 decades ago by the then Public Works Department. I will add this link.


    1. Is the region likely to be as productive as the south east? I doubt it. Without breaking into national parks and remnant ecosystems and heavy fertiliser use, the north is not very productive due to the low quality soils and to a lesser extent climate (illustrated by the GPP/NPP). It certainly will not support a large post-mining community – probably just a similar scale and type industry to that currently occurring (as you’ve mentioned), which returns us to the points above.

      Same with the irrigation: inundation of land with organic matter will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Cotton is terrible for this… thus returning to the points in the post above.


      1. The black soil plains in the Ord Irrigation areas are highly suited to horticulture, producing copious produce for Perth markets out of season. The rest of the Kimberley has a number of regions of similar black soils suited. South of Broome, melons by the road train also head south each week. Distance is a problem, and backloading helps. Cotton has been successfully trialled between Broome and Port Hedland, but approvals to pump huge quantities of water from the Canning Basin were stopped by a Labor Government, after Liberals lost an election due to Barnett’s canal from the Fitzroy proposal. As a horticulturalist and former stock agent and machinery the South West, yields up here would be sensational.


      2. Again, how much actual land are we talking about? Good soil in northern WA and NT is not so common and will come at the expense of ecosystems and wetlands of the region. Without loss of ecosystems and heavy fertiliser use, the region is not competitive to the east and south coast for agriculture. I’ve said this a few times now.

        “…pump huge quantities of water…” = energy = expense = waste.


      3. I’m not going to get into a circular conversation with you on this topic. You’ll likely pull one favoured paper from here or there, showing greater production within greenhouses with high CO2, but that is apples to oranges. CO2 is not simply plant food, but a greenhouse gas, which will effect plant growth and water availability also. More here. Increased CO2 also proves to decrease yield quality.

        Anthropogenic climate change is real and is occurring and no-one within the relevant scientific community questions this fact, nor what it will take for us to shift to 2 degree above the pre-industrial climate. I will not be drawn into a pointless and evidence devoid debate on the subject as it is no longer questioned scientifically.


  2. Great work Moth. Thank you for being one of the few to point out the stupidity (and maladaptation) of this policy. I too am interested in resilience and a sustainable future for our children, and I tear my hair out when I read these proposals.


  3. To have agriculture you need 3 things Good soils, rain and the rain must fall at the right time and in amounts for growing. This is north – leached out gravel for soil and flooding torrential rain in most areas. Don’t forget the food miles


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