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The Northern Australia Water Resources Development and Ecosystem Response Project

Congress: 2008
on behalf of the NAWRDER Team, CSIRO Water for a Healthy Country Flagship, and University and State Partners

Keyword(s): Northern Australia, tropical water resources, irrigation mosaics, ecosystem response
AbstractNorthern Australia has the world’s most significant concentration of river catchments that still retain their ecological integrity. It also has the world’s oldest indigenous culture, one that will comprise roughly half the population of the northern region within the next 30 years, and which continues to actively manage these landscapes using indigenous knowledge systems. The region, however, faces increasing pressure to develop its water resources (surface and groundwater), both within the region and through increasing expectations from the south. This project focuses on building capacity to protect, yet sustainably develop, these resources for improved and sustainable livelihoods. Integral to this will be the provision of suitable irrigation schemes for the northern environment, with a focus on ‘distributed’ or mosaic irrigation systems, rather than the broad acre systems characteristic of southern Australia. Northern Australia receives a lot of water. That water, however, is highly seasonal in its appearance, and is already being used, maintaining highly valued natural ecosystems, supporting economic activity such as tourism, fishing and agriculture, and is fundamental to a wide range of indigenous and non-indigenous social and cultural values. The north looks and functions the way it does because of these current uses and it is the uniqueness and relative naturalness of northern ecosystems that underpins its iconic status. To further develop the water resources we need better understanding of the likely impacts of shifting land and water resources to alternative uses and, acknowledging the uncertainties, maintain sufficient flexibility to adapt for unforseen outcomes. An integrated approach to water resource development is required; within a strategic, ecologically, culturally and economically sustainable framework that avoids the widespread degradation that has been characteristic of southern Australia’s water resource development. We are accumulating knowledge of key ecosystems, community and indigenous assets, and their watering needs, to ensure they are sustained into the future. The interplay between the landscapes, rivers and strongly monsoonal weather patterns has resulted in unique and diverse ecological systems that will need special care to retain their integrity. We are attempting to develop the capacity to view and manage NA through a ‘northern lens’. In other words, we need to understand how the north works (ecologically, socially, culturally and financially) and put in place the policy, governance, management structures, community engagement programs, research and other frameworks needed to help ensure that any development in the north suits the north and is sustainable. Irrigation development is a major motive, but the key question is not what form of irrigation suits northern Australia, but what sort of development suits the north? A secondary question is, if irrigation is to be a significant part of the future of the north, what should it look like, where should it be located, and how should it be managed to achieve ecologically sustainable development?
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