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What is the Northern Australia Water Resource Assessment (NAWRA)?

The Northern Australian Water Resource Assessment (NAWRA) was completed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in June 2018 for the Australian Government represented by the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities. 

NAWRA was funded through the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund, contributing to the Australian Government's Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper. 

CSIRO was commissioned to investigate the potential of northern Australia's water resources to support increased regional development in three priority regions: Fitzroy Catchment in Western Australia; Darwin Catchments (Finniss, Adelaide, Mary and Wildman) in the Northern Territory; and Mitchell Catchment, Queensland.

What was the objective of NAWRA?

Most of northern Australia's land and water resources have not been mapped in sufficient detail to provide for reliable resource allocation, to understand and mitigate risks (including investment, environmental and social risks), or to build policy settings that can support decisions.

The aim of the Assessment was to provide some catchment-scale information and analysis which hasn't previously been available for priority regions of northern Australia, to inform public discussion and decisions around further development.

The Assessment undertook a comprehensive and integrated evaluation of the feasibility, economic viability and sustainability of water resource development in three priority areas in northern Australia: the Fitzroy catchment, the Darwin catchments and the Mitchell catchment.

Did NAWRA propose particular development outcomes?

No. The Assessment did not seek to advocate for water resource and irrigation development or assess or enable any particular development; rather it identified the resources that could be deployed in support of potential irrigation enterprises, evaluated the feasibility of development (at a catchment level) and considered the overall scale of the opportunities that might exist.

In doing so, the Assessment examined key economic, social, cultural and environmental values associated with existing use of those resources, to enable a wide range of stakeholders to assess for themselves the costs and benefits of given courses of action. The Assessment is fundamentally a resource evaluation. The results can be used to inform planning decisions by a wide range of interested people - corporate and non-government investors, and the different tiers of government – local council, state and territory, and Australian Government. The Assessment does not replace any planning processes, nor does it seek to recommend changes to existing plans or planning processes.

Who was involved in NAWRA?

NAWRA was led and conducted primarily by CSIRO. We worked closely with northern state and territory government agencies, universities, private sector and research providers, local communities and key industry partners

In all, more than 100 CSIRO experts were involved over a 2.5 year period, and many more when taking into account those partners.

What did the Assessment consider?

For each of the three priority catchment areas, the Assessment:

  • Evaluated the soil and water resources (both surface and groundwater)
  • Identified and evaluated water capture and storage options
  • Identified and tested the commercial viability of irrigated agriculture and aquaculture opportunities
  • Assessed the potential environmental, social and economic impacts and risks of water resources and irrigation developments.

Functionally, the Assessment adopted an activities-based approach to the work with the following activity groups: climate; land suitability; surface water hydrology; groundwater hydrology; agriculture and aquaculture viability; water storage; socio-economics; Indigenous water values, rights and development objectives; and aquatic and marine ecology.

What were the key findings of the Assessment?

The Fitzroy, Darwin and Mitchell catchments differ significantly in their physical and social characteristics. As a consequence, the extent of water development that might support future agriculture, and the methods of development also differ.

The full catchment reports for each study area are available on the NAWRA website ( The key findings of the Assessment were:

  • In the Fitzroy catchment, groundwater provides the mostly likely initial development pathway to enable considerable expansion of irrigated agriculture. It is low-risk and cost-effective, and could support up to 30,000 ha of hay production. Water harvesting pumped into farm-scale storages could support 160,000 ha of irrigation in 85 per cent of years.
  • In the Darwin catchments, a combination of major dams, farm-scale offstream storages and groundwater could support 90,000 ha of dryland horticulture and mango trees.
  • In the Mitchell catchment, large instream dams provide the largest capacity for water storage and could support 140,000 ha of year-round irrigation.

Was there much difference between the catchments?

Yes. River catchments vary widely, including neighbouring catchments such as the four closely-located catchments around Darwin.

CSIRO has developed methods of assessment which can be applied across different catchments but it is not possible to make assumptions about resources of catchments based on assessments of other catchments elsewhere.

The summary reports for each study area outline these differences.

Did CSIRO look for dam sites?

CSIRO undertook a pre-feasibility analysis of potential dam sites in the Darwin and Mitchell catchments to enable governments and communities to decide if particular sites warrant more detailed feasibility studies. No new studies of major dams in the Fitzroy catchment were undertaken as part of the Assessment.

Did CSIRO identify where dams could be located to support agricultural expansion?

The Assessment identified a number of areas in the Darwin catchments and in the Mitchell catchment where dams could warrant more detailed feasibility studies.

These 'prospective' dam sites were based on a range of factors including geology (what the earth is made of), soils, topography (shape of the land surface), rainfall and water yield (the amount of water that dams could deliver reliably), and location in relation to arable land.

The prospective dam sites identified by CSIRO are not the only ones possible. We have developed tools to assess the potential of alternative dam locations and configurations.

Who should be responsible for paying for these dams?

We have provided an analysis of where dams might be sited, an estimate of the potential costs of dam construction and the potential value of crops that could be grown, under ideal conditions. We do not suggest that any dam should be constructed or how any eventual dam construction could, or should, be funded.

Were Indigenous community considerations included in this study?

Indigenous people represent a substantial and growing proportion of the population across northern Australia and control significant natural and cultural resource assets, including land, water, and coastlines. They will be crucial owners, partners, investors, and stakeholders in future development.

A key component of the Assessment involved research on Indigenous water values, rights, interests and development objectives. The primary participants in Indigenous consultations were the representatives on the boards of Traditional Owner corporations, particularly native title Prescribed Body Corporates from the respective catchments. Key findings were that Indigenous responses to water and irrigation development are interpreted through perceptions of past development, and ongoing environmental and climate change. Indigenous concerns with water development and extraction included consideration of impacts on water quality, on streamflow, and on water-dependent ecosystems and human cultural practices. Large instream dams were not a favoured form of development, and in general, large-scale water and agricultural development were seen as incompatible with contemporary Indigenous values and lifeways.

Indigenous development objectives were underpinned by goals for ownership and management of traditional lands and by the sustainable retention and/or resettlement of Indigenous people on their country. The majority of business opportunities identified by Indigenous people were small- to medium-scale and land- and natural resource-dependent: pastoralism, conservation services, wild and cultivated bush foods and bush products, ecotourism, agriculture, horticulture, and aquaculture. Significant returns on investment may be achievable through well-targeted resourcing to local Indigenous entities, particularly PBCs, to build understanding of business priorities and development objectives, as well as regional coordination processes such as water planning and catchment management.

The Assessment does not provide formal Indigenous group positions about any of the issues raised and does not substitute for formal processes required by cultural heritage, environmental impact assessment or water planning legislation. Nevertheless, the research undertaken for this component of the Assessment identifies key principles, important issues and potential pathways to provide effective guidance for future planning and for formal negotiations with Indigenous groups about their development interests.

Were environmental considerations included in this study?

Although irrigated agriculture in Australia typically occupies a small percentage of a catchment area, it can potentially use a large proportion of the water. Consequently, it was important for the Assessment to consider ecological changes to near-shore marine, estuarine, freshwater and riparian ecosystems that may result from changes in streamflow following water resource development for irrigation or other uses. 

The range of environmental changes that could potentially occur as a result of water and irrigation development is as varied as the number of developments that could be proposed. It was not possible to quantify impacts of development on specific environmental assets because these cannot be determined in the absence of specific development proposals. This would normally occur as part of an environmental impact assessment.

However, the team of researchers assessing each priority area included ecologists who considered a wide range of potential environmental impacts in detail.

Key issues addressed in the Assessment reports include the potential impacts of irrigation development on key ecological assets which had some level of water dependency on ground water or surface water flows resulting from periodic or sustained inundation. A range of functional groups and species was identified, as were habitats and ecosystem processes.

Have wider stakeholder and community values been considered in this assessment?

Stakeholders and resident communities have clear interests in the priority catchments and were essential to the completion of the Assessment, both in shaping its enquiries and in providing critical data and insights. Scoping analysis completed as part of the Assessment indicates that there is a diverse set of stakeholders with different and sometimes conflicting interests and values relating to the use of water resources and irrigated agricultural development. The diversity of stakeholder perspectives has implications for the ability of developers to gain and maintain social licence to operate throughout the development process. Development planning and implementation is likely to require a systematic and robust social impact analysis.

How is NAWRA different to previous studies of water availability or irrigation development potential in northern Australia?

Previous studies, such as CSIRO's Northern Australia Sustainable Yields Study (NASY) and Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review, both completed in 2009, were broad-scale desktop studies across all of northern Australia (1.2 m km²). As a result, they were necessarily less detailed.

The Flinders and Gilbert Agricultural Resource Assessment (FGARA), completed in 2015, focused on two catchments in Queensland (about 155,000 km²).

NAWRA built on the methods developed as part of FGARA and focused on one study area in each of the three northern jurisdictions (collectively an area of 194,000km²).

Why were the catchments chosen?

The Australian Government and three northern jurisdictions selected the priority study regions.

Has this research been independently reviewed and by whom?

Yes. The research has been peer reviewed by scientists not associated with the research within CSIRO and by external technical experts within the university, public and private sectors.

CSIRO's role is to provide independent scientific advice to inform decision-making. CSIRO places great importance on the trust placed in the organisation by governments and the Australian community. It is not CSIRO's role to advocate particular policy positions. CSIRO research is quality-controlled and peer-reviewed to ensure that its results can be repeated and verified.

Who will use the results of the Assessment?

The results of the Assessment provide a framework that may be used by governments, industry, communities and individual land holders and developers to inform resource planning, management and investment decisions. More specifically, the results can inform local development needs and aspirations, government and the due diligence requirements of private investors.

The Assessment highlights that understanding how diverse stakeholder, investor and developer perspectives interact will be crucial in building and maintaining an ongoing social license to operate for future water and agricultural developments.

Have the West Australian, Northern Territory, Queensland or Commonwealth governments been involved in this research?

CSIRO accessed expertise from the Northern Territory Government, the Western Australian Government, the Queensland Government, universities, private sector providers and other research providers (such as NRM groups) to complete parts of the Assessment. In many cases, contracts with WA, NT and Qld government departments (and others) enabled them to contribute their expertise to the Assessment in a substantial way.

The Assessment was funded through the Australian Government’s National Water Infrastructure Development Fund, an initiative of the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper

What is CSIRO's position on the expansion of agricultural development in northern Australia?

It is not CSIRO's role to advocate specific policy positions or development decisions. We provide science to underpin decision-making and help evaluate the likely outcomes from different policy or management decisions.

Will the results of this research be used to develop irrigated agriculture in northern Australia?

This research has been undertaken to improve the knowledge base for decision-making by governments, industry and the community. CSIRO does not make these decisions, nor does it participate in the decision-making process.

CSIRO's role is to provide independent scientific advice to inform decision-making. CSIRO places great importance on the trust placed in the organisation by governments and the Australian community. It is not CSIRO's role to advocate particular policy positions or management decisions.

Did government (Australian or state/territory) direct CSIRO's research in any way?

Funding for the Assessment was provided by the Australian Government (via the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities) through the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund, contributing to the Australian Government's Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper.

The scientific approaches used and data collection and analyses were carried out independent of Australian, state/territory or local governments and in full compliance with CSIRO's Ethics standards.

Were the results of this Assessment made available to private interests ahead of formal release?

No. In line with common practice, the Assessment reports were embargoed by government until their public release on 30 August 2018.

Now that the Assessment has concluded, does this open the way for development of irrigated agriculture in the north?

The Assessment has shown the potential for agricultural development under a range of conditions, in three priority study areas. It has identified the potential for a range of water use options that would be required for irrigation development. The Assessment has also identified challenges that will need to be addressed to maximise the success of development, should it occur.

The Assessment provides comprehensive information to inform decisions about irrigation development proposals by existing and potential future landholders, local, state/territory and Australian government, and public and private investors.

In the same way as earlier studies such as the Flinders and Gilbert Agricultural Resource Assessment, NAWRA is designed to inform but not influence or replace decision-making by regulators and public and private investors.

How will the Assessment influence water management in northern Australia?

NAWRA is a resource assessment, the results of which can be used to inform planning decisions by citizens, councils, and state/territory and federal governments. The project does not replace any planning processes, and it does not recommend changes to existing plans or planning processes.

NAWRA does not advocate irrigation development. The project assesses the resources that could be deployed in support of irrigation enterprises, and the scale of the opportunity that might present.

NAWRA does not provide explicit recommendations for water management in the catchments; rather it provides a comprehensive, integrated knowledge base about the opportunities for water and agricultural development in the catchments that can be used by planners and decision-makers.

Is northern Australia really a potential 'food bowl'?

Northern Australia is already a food bowl. Australia is the world’s second largest beef exporter, and about half of our beef (12.5 million head) is grown in northern Australia (north of the Tropic of Capricorn).

Cultivated agriculture is less established, and offers opportunities for further expansion. Previous studies have shown that groundwater could be used to sustainably increase the area of irrigated agriculture in northern Australia by around 100,000 to 150,000 ha.

NAWRA has shown that even if irrigation opportunities were fully developed, they would occupy less than three per cent of the Assessment area.

What products have come out of the Assessment?

NAWRA has produced 32 Technical Reports which provide the scientific underpinning to the key findings. The material from the Technical Reports has been integrated and summarised into plain-English Catchment Reports and then further summarised in the form of 24-page Summary Reports, which provide the headline findings.

Key datasets collected and created are available through CSIRO's Data Access Portal and web-based interfaces. See the web-based applications page for more information including the data exploration tool NAWRA-explorer.

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