Development of the north – who benefits?

A frequently re-hashed concept in Australian politics is the unrealised potential of our “northern food bowl”.  A recent study* shows, however, that old models of development will benefit some people in northern Australia more than others.

Taking water out of rivers to produce crops for sale would seem a no-brainer in the monsoonal north of Australia. But how would it actually pan out? What are the costs? Who would benefit? A study that integrated and analysed economic, hydrological (flow) and ecological data from the Daly River catchment in the Northern Territory addressed some of these questions*.

As is typical of northern Australia, the Daly catchment has a significant (27.6%) and growing Indigenous population. Given Indigenous Australians are socially and economically disadvantaged compared to non-Indigenous people it is of interest to explore how different development scenarios might impact these two groups.

The Daly River in the Northern territory. Photo courtesy TRaCK CERF.

One of the costs of taking water out of rivers is degradation of aquatic environments. In the Daly River, a high-water use agricultural development scenario had the most environmental impact, and relatively modest financial returns. This is because river flows in northern Australia are highly seasonal. In the dry season, when river flows are at their lowest, demand for irrigation water peaks. Reduction in dry season flows would reduce the amount of habitat available for fish including species important to Indigenous and recreational fishers such as Black Bream and Barramundi.

Taking water out of the Daly river would also mean fewer Long and Short-necked Turtle and Magpie Goose. These species form an important part of what Indigenous households eat. A 5% per annum growth in the agricultural sector with high water use puts most of this consumption ‘at risk’. To replace this wild catch with shop-bought food equates to a cost of $327 per person per year.

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Freshwater turtles are an important food item for Indigenous households in the Daly. Photo courtesy TRaCK CERF

In all six development scenarios assessed, Indigenous incomes increased by less than non-Indigenous incomes. This partly due to the fact that Indigenous people have relatively weak connections to the production side of the market economy i.e. lower rates of employment, lower average wages, and lower rates of business ownership.

Is some benefit better than none? If a type of development means the financial gains for Indigenous people are consistently less than for non-Indigenous people then it serves to increase the absolute economic ‘gap’. From an economic perspective, increases in income inequalities can create further costs related to rising social unrest and crime rates, high suicide rates, and reduced health outcomes.

So, we need to ask is there an economic benefit to development proposals once all costs are taken into account? Or do we need to move on from old ideas like the “food bowl” and broaden our idea of development to one that values equitable outcomes?

*The full article on which this piece is based is: An integrated assessment of financial, hydrological, ecological and social impacts of ‘development’ on Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in northern Australia. By N. Stoeckl, S. Jackson, F. Pantus, M. Finn, M.J. Kennard and B. Pusey. Biological Conservation 159 (2013) 214–221

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