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Liberal Senator says farmers should be encouraged to move north to where the water is.

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Mon day 16 October 2006

Liberal Senator says farmers should be encouraged to move north to where the water is


PETER CAVE: Water experts have challenged a proposal to move farming to northern Australia as a solution to the drought.  


Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan has called for financial incentives to encourage farmers to move north, where most of the country's rain falls. 


Australia's wettest capital city, Darwin is at the moment hosting an irrigation conference this week and delegates have questioned the assumption that Australia's northern rivers have water to spare for irrigation. 


ANNE BARKER reports. 


(Sounds of a storm) 


ANNE BARKER: In a typical wet season the top end's major rivers swell to massive heights. 


Just six months ago the Katherine River alone reached 19 metres, bursting its banks and flooding the town.  


(Sounds of thunder) 


ANNE BARKER: With so much water in the north and so little in the south, Liberal Senator and farmer Bill Heffernan believes it makes economic and environmental sense for farmers to follow the rain, rather than find new sources of water in the south. 


BILL HEFFERNAN: There's no question - climate change is a reality. We've got to take our farm to where the water is.  


ANNE BARKER: Australia's northern rivers have two thirds of the country's run off, or water that eventually flows out to sea, compared to just four per cent in Australia's southern waterways.  


Bill Heffernan says there'd be huge benefits in boosting farming where water is plentiful, similar to the Ord Irrigation Scheme in the Kimberley. 


And some delegates at an irrigation conference in Darwin see merit in the idea  


STEPHEN MILLS: 70 per cent of Australia's stream flow run off occurs in the north and we use about 1 per cent of it, so it would make some sense to have some small development opportunities in the north of Australia.  


ANNE BARKER: Stephen Mills chairs the Australian National Committee On Irrigation And Drainage. 


He says within reason, there is evidence to support Bill Heffernan's proposal.  


STEPHEN MILLS: Irrigation is all about matching up the right crop on the soil type with the right climate, so you'd have to really look at what is possible and what are the opportunities for markets as well with the north.  


Because there's a real window of opportunity to produce in the northern part of Australia, to supply markets that are close by in Asia, where they're not able to be supplied elsewhere.  


ANNE BARKER: But environmentalists are calling for a reality check, saying that although only one per cent of water from Australia's northern rivers is used in agriculture it doesn't mean the water is spare.  


Stuart Blanch from the organisation WWF says on the contrary, the water is crucial to other industries.  


STUART BLANCH: The reality is, this water's already being used. It's not wasted, it's growing things like barramundi, the Northern Prawn Fishery, amazing tourism opportunities, its supporting Indigenous communities right across the north.  


It's not wasted, there probably is some more water to use in the north for agriculture and mining etc, but we have to do a much better job at making sure we don't make the mistakes we've made in the Murray or in fact other tropical rivers, such as the Ord and the Burdekin where we have major problems that we're going to be fixing up for decades.  


ANNE BARKER: Does the idea have any merit? 


STUART BLANCH: I think in areas where we've already got existing dams and existing irrigation areas, which can make money and do it sustainably. 


That's where we should focus, not on green field sites where there are dams, where there are high conservation value rivers, which really should be provided legal protection as assets of Australian and global conservation value.  


PETER CAVE: Stuart Blanch from the environment group WWF, talking to Anne Barker.