The cotton industry wants to establish large-scale operations in the Northern Territory. If this proceeded 10,000s of hectares of bushland would be bulldozed and more water would be taken from rivers. Wildlife and fishing would suffer. Our fishing lifestyle, tourism jobs and cultural heritage are at risk. Iconic rivers like the Daly, Douglas and Roper would be degraded and destroyed as has happened to the Darling River, and other rivers in southern Australia.
It is being proposed to establish large scale cotton in the Northern Territory, including in districts where there is no current deforestation or irrigation. The proposals put forward propose clearing tens of thousands of hectares of bushland, and increasing large scale irrigation. These are proven risks for landscapes, rivers, wildlife and people with drastic changes.
Some experts contend that cotton is the largest user of water among all agricultural commodities. While cotton can be grown on ‘dryland’ fields, without irrigation, most cotton in Australia comes from irrigated fields, with water taken from rivers and aquifers. Around the world and in Australia there have been consistently disastrous outcomes for rivers, lakes and wetlands when large scale cotton becomes established.
The Darling River in New South Wales now has far too much water being taken from it, with the largest irrigated crop being cotton. In 2019 the river stopped running, leading to massive fish kills. While the ‘big cotton’ proposals for the Northern Territory have talked about ‘dryland’ cotton, the real details of the proposals indicate that large areas of irrigated cotton are being sought.
Pesticides threaten the quality of soil and water, as well as the health of wildlife in and downstream from cotton fields. A particular risk is that of pesticides and fertilizers from cotton fields contaminates rivers and wetlands.
The Top End of the Territory is part of the world’s largest remaining tropical savannah. It has not been over-cleared of bushland as have most areas in southern and eastern Australia. If current plans proposed by the cotton industry go ahead, the habitat of millions of native animals would be destroyed. It would lead to large releases of greenhouse gas pollution, when the carbon stored in the bulldozed trees is released into the air after being burnt or rotting. The cleared areas would be highly prone to erosion, sending large volumes of soil and silt into Territory rivers.
The Territory has some of the most pristine rivers remaining in Australia- and in the world. Unlike most rivers elsewhere, our rivers haven’t been dammed, don’t have large volumes of water taken from them, have catchments that are all or largely still native bushland and don’t have sources of pollution. This means they still flow naturally, with the beneficial floods of the Wet season providing abundant breeding habitat for fish and other native animals. The natural surrounds mean that there is less soil and silt entering the rivers. The general lack of cropping and other intensive agriculture means that there are no pesticides and fertilizers entering our rivers. In combination this means they are healthy year round.
Also our tropical rivers are more sensitive than rivers in southern Australia to change because of the climate in Northern Australia. In the Top End, we have a long and extreme Dry season every year – one of the longest in the world. Irrigation systems take water that would be part of natural flows, resulting in rivers drying out prematurely in the Dry, and reducing beneficial floods in the Wet that fish like Barra and prawns depend on for breeding. More irrigation will mean less fish.
Once cotton gets established in a region, the cotton industry and individual irrigators push harder and harder for more land and more water for more cotton fields. Taking advantage of loopholes in regulations to take water, and asking for special political deals. This isn’t theoretical. We’ve already seen free water licences handed out to the political mates of previous Territory governments. In Queensland and New South Wales there is much stronger regulation of water rules in place than in the Northern Territory. But this didn’t stop massive over-allocation of water given to cotton irrigators, as well as outright theft of water, at the expense of the communities, people and wildlife who depend on regular and healthy river flows.
Authorised by Shar Molloy, Environment Centre NT, 3/98 Woods St. Darwin 0800.