A major cotton industry in the Northern Territory could harm Top End river systems, damage biodiversity and fishing and tourism businesses, a stakeholder report warns.
The Northern Territories government should ban large-scale floodwater extraction and ban new water permits in the Roper River and Daly River watersheds, according to A Fork in the River.
“Australia’s cotton industry has big ambitions in the NT, projecting a future of hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops, watered by billions of liters of water extracted from aquifers, rivers and floodplains”, the Report author Carol Booth of the Center for Conservation Geography said Tuesday.
“The NT has an opportunity to learn and avoid repeating the mistakes so evident in the Murray Darling Basin.”
Dr Booth said the cotton industry was ignoring government and scientific studies on the environmental constraints of growing in northern Australia.
NT Environment Center director Kirsty Howey said NT’s water management and planning frameworks were too weak.
“Our water management laws have not incorporated the reforms agreed under the 2004 National Water Initiative,” she said.
Ms Howey said clearing approvals had increased by 300% over the past four years and the cotton industry could demand much more.
NT Farmers predicted in 2019 that 77,000 hectares of land would be used for cotton cultivation by 2029, an increase of 4,000% in less than a decade.
“We need a different approach here in the territory,” Ms Howey said.
“Watershed planning should be driven by the community’s desire to protect rivers, especially those of traditional owners.”
Global public policy advocates Pew Charitable Trusts say the NT has some of the last free-flowing tropical rivers on the planet.
“Our rivers and floodwaters support diverse and rare ecosystems and wildlife, such as the critically endangered bigtooth sawfish and the endangered pig-nosed turtle,” the director said. Mitch Hart.
Large-scale cotton cultivation could impact these and important fisheries, such as barramundi and shrimp.
“Recreational fishing contributes approximately $26 million annually to the Northern Territories economy, 80% of which comes from interstate or foreign visitors,” Hart said.
The report made six recommendations to the Government of the Northern Territories, including that it undertake integrated watershed planning with a priority focus on maintaining the health of the rivers of the Northern Territories.
Its release comes as the Government of the Northern Territories works to complete its draft Strategic Water Plan, which is due to be completed by 2023 and guide the territory’s water management and policy until in 2050.
The A Fork in the River report was commissioned by the Territory Rivers group, which is an alliance of scientists, local communities and non-governmental organisations, including The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Environment Center NT.
Cotton Australia has been contacted for comment.