A Fork in the River

Our report warns that the establishment of a major cotton industry in the Northern Territory could jeopardise Top End river systems, threatening their unique biodiversity and putting at risk the NT’s lucrative fishing and tourism industries.

The report, A Fork in the River – the consequences of a major new cotton industry in the Northern Territory, recommends a ban on large-scale floodwater extraction across the NT and a moratorium on new water allocations in the Roper River and Daly River catchments. 

Australia’s cotton industry has major ambitions in the Northern Territory, projecting a future of hundreds of thousands of hectares of cropping, watered by billions of litres of water extracted from aquifers, rivers and floodplains.

The report has also revealed that land clearing approvals have rapidly accelerated in the NT – averaging 20,000 hectares of land a year – with proposals for cotton cropping expected to require much more.

The NT has some of the planet’s last tropical free-flowing rivers, which are already facing unprecedented pressure due to increasing water demands and a changing climate. Our rivers and floodwaters sustain diverse and rare ecosystems and wildlife, such as the critically endangered Largetooth Sawfish and the endangered Pig-nosed Turtle.

If we are to avoid the mistakes caused by over-allocation and intensive irrigation in the Murray Darling Basin, we need a different approach in the Territory – one that looks at basin-wide management. Catchment planning should be driven by community desires to protect rivers, especially those of Traditional Owners. Our water policies need to support local economies, not enable big business to take more water from already stressed systems.

Update 3 January 2024: An independent peer review was commissioned by the Northern Territory Government on the report, which found the report to be sound and fundamentally supported by the references used. Access the Independent Peer Review here.

Read the recommendations from the Fork in the River report:

  • Place a moratorium on new water licences and allocations and cap extractions at current levels in the Daly and Roper river catchments.
  • Protect vital ecological processes by prohibiting large-scale extraction of flood waters in the Northern Territory.
  • Undertake integrated catchment planning with a priority focus on maintaining the health of NT’s rivers and protecting their environmental and cultural values. Accord strict protection to largely intact rivers.
  • Enact reforms to prioritise the public interest and increase public trust in government decision-making.
  • Ensure that environmental impact assessment processes related to freshwater resources fully address cumulative and indirect impacts of proposed developments.
  • In recognition of the limited science to inform decisions about large-scale cotton farming, apply the precautionary principle in a meaningful way to prevent irreversible harm.