Creating the Great Australian Food Bowl – Andrew Robb Leads the Way

Having long been a staunch advocate of using the surplus water of northern Australia for the benefit of the whole continent in a far more wise and visionary way than we currently do, I was delighted to read the recent front page coverage in The Week-end Australian of the planning that Shadow Federal Finance Minister, Andrew Robb, is undertaking regarding the storage of water and the expansion of agriculture in his policy development role for the Coalition.

It is refreshing to know that there is at least one parliamentarian who has it in mind to do something significant about water and our capacity to become the food bowl of the world, with the added benefit of becoming less dependent on mining for our national economic survival.

Andrew and I have been friends for a long time and, on one memorable occasion a couple of decades ago, we worked together with Ian McLachlan and Rick Farley to establish and successfully raise funds for the Australian Farmers Fighting Fund. At another time, we worked together on the Republic Referendum, heading-up a group called Conservatives for an Australian Head of State.

Down the years, we have had quite a number of talks about watering the continent, and we plan to have a few more chats as he develops his policy, as I know he is one of only a few politicians who has the political will to make it happen.

It will be worth the effort, as Andrew’s research shows that there are one million billion litres of water that hit the northern catchments of Australia every year, and it will be a relatively easy task to divert sufficient of that to irrigate about five million hectares of farmland all year round, and then store some for the drought years despite evaporation.

His outlook is totally different to that of the North Australia Task Force that reported last year to the Federal Government saying that the economic development of Northern Australia is an over-rated myth. Dominated by pages of pathetic excuses, it was one of the most depressing documents I have ever read.

Without committing Andrew to any of my comments as he develops his policy, I see a northern water and food plan happening in three phases with regard to eastern and central Australia. Western Australia will need a different solution as the Pilbara separates the water of the Kimberley from the farmlands of the south-west, and I will talk about that in a later edition after I have done some more research.

The first phase will be to divert and store water. Andrew says that the Flinders and Gilbert Rivers are the most likely candidates for building large scale dams of the size of Lake Argyle in the Kimberley. In addition, the Gilbert River Formation has a fractured rock aquifer north of Richmond which could store 20,000 gigalitres of water at any time with nil evaporation.

There is also potential for a huge dam at Hell’s Gate in the mountains behind Tully, as well as the capacity to expand the Burdekin Falls Dam and a restored Kidston Dam left dormant from former mining days. An added benefit will be that new hydro technology can be used to generate power from stored water for use in new farmlands.

The second will be to open the great blacksoil plains the north to the greatest food production industry in the history of Australia — establishing major farms that are financed and operated by significant investors. Those water-starved blacksoil lands run from the Gulf country north of Hughenden and Richmond, past Winton down through Longreach into the Channel Country. They have the potential to feed the whole of China or India, provided we grow the food that they want to eat, not that which we prefer. Concrete channels and existing rivers will deliver the water. Transport will be a major problem as the roads and railways of the north are in terrible shape, but they can be fixed and enhanced (another subject that will be covered in later editions).

Thirdly, there must be a means of creating a regular flow of water into the Darling and on to the Murray, as well as making sure that Lake Eyre is permanently filled with water to its maximum depth.

The Channel Country east and north of Lake Eyre is well suited to the growing of cotton, instead of that industry using water that’s needed for people in our closer-settled areas. In addition, the cattle stations in the dead heart of Australia can be drought-proofed forever, and the fruit growing areas of South Australia can be expanded along the Murray.

The water will actually go in two directions, as there is a watershed about 100kms south of the Townsville-to-Mount Isa Railway. To the north of that, the water runs to the Gulf of Carpentaria; a few kilometers away, the rivers run south.

That southern-bound water needs a massive influx from the north, but this can be achieved by running water from an enlarged Burdekin Falls Dam into Lake Galilee and on to the Thomson River.

Whenever I write about water and food for export, the phones start ringing and emails flow in from people who have minds that are dominated by negativity, or who say that the cost is prohibitive, or that the natural environment will be wrecked, or that we will destroy indigenous culture by developing the Inland, or that there are more important things to do like ensuring that their footy club is solvent.

I suggest that none of us should take the slightest notice of them. I will just let them happily boast to their mates over a few drinks that they have had yet another good day during which they perpetuated their sad world of yesteryear by saying ‘no’ to something that might have threatened their dreary world. While they are doing that, we will find a way to win.

I am heartened by the shining example of people like retired Sydney water engineer, Terry Bowring, who has put years of work into finding water for the greening of Australia, and who is cheering loudly that Andrew Robb has thrown his hat into the ring.

You should chat with Terry about his thoughts on the plan that I have outlined above and, more importantly, the far more extensive plans that he has developed over many years. He has had vast experience with the harnessing and usage of water and he has a rare talent. He is a visionary and a wonderful example of what grey-haired old guys can do for Australia if they are given a chance.