The Northern Territory is at a critical juncture. Its rivers and other aquatic ecosystems – with outstanding natural and cultural values that are central to the wellbeing and economy of many Territorians – are largely still in good condition. But a major new cotton industry could put much of this at risk.
Australia’s cotton industry has major ambitions in the NT, projecting a future of hundreds of thousands of hectares of cropping (mainly on pastoral properties) watered by billions of litres of water extracted from aquifers, rivers and floodplains.
In 2020, Australia’s cotton crop was the smallest in 40 years, down by almost 90% on the 2018 crop due to the impacts of drought. The climatic uncertainties and water constraints and costs in southern cotton growing areas are driving a strong push by growers to transform northern Australia into a major cotton growing province. But the industry is ignoring the numerous government and CSIRO studies on the environmental constraints to cropping in the north and downplaying the potential for major environmental, cultural and economic impacts.
Previous proposals for large-scale cropping (focused mainly in the Daly River region) have also been
constrained by public concerns about the impacts of land clearing and irrigation. These concerns remain. In a February 2021 poll of Territorians, 69% of respondents said the cotton industry shouldn’t
be allowed into the NT until they ‘fix up their mess’ in the Murray-Darling Basin. Rivers are important to Territorians – 63% of respondents said they use Top End rivers for fishing, boating or other recreation – and this poll indicates that the cotton industry lacks a social license in the NT.
The NT has an opportunity to learn from and avoid repeating the mistakes so evident in the Murray-
Darling Basin. But to achieve this, there needs to be a much greater community focus on the potential
consequences of a major cotton industry and a strengthening of the science, laws and policies needed to protect the environmental, cultural and economic values of NT rivers.