With water the new “oil” and land the new “gold”, water barons are pushing north to tap the wild, unregulated rivers of the Kimberley. Triskele looks at Gina Rinehart’s proposal to build the biggest irrigation farm in the southern hemisphere using off-take flood water from the Fitzroy River. The plan sits at odds with the state government’s 2013 election commitment to create a landmark Kimberley National Park and has angered environmentalists and traditional owners who say flood water is essential for barramundi, cherubin and the critically endangered sawfish.

This is a story about sawfish and beef cattle.

In the weird world of cuddly toys, even the bizarre sawfish can be made to look cute. This odd creature is an fearsome-looking combination of shark, stingray, and swordfish. Cuddle a live one at your peril.

Nevertheless, they are a key part of the Kimberley ecology. Four of the five sawfish species, including the critically endangered freshwater sawfish are found in the Kimberley. This species has suffered global decline. The Fitzroy River is now their last known intact nursery habitat.

Around Christmas 2018, a bit before the massive fish kill in the Menindee Lakes, more than forty sawfish were effectively broiled to death in 48 degree heat in a rapidly drying billabong on the Fitzroy River. A team of specialists from Murdoch University was dispatched to move the protected fish, but despite best efforts, only two survived.

The story might have been little more than a passing anecdote, were it not for the fact that the billabong in question is on Liveringa Station, one of the many cattle stations owned by Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting.

What happened next is revealing. According to heavily redacted emails obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information, someone made a decision to keep the incident quiet. The redactions made it hard to identify individuals and organisations, but at one point, the acting regional manager of the WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development writes that he would like to “take a proactive and collaborative approach with Liveringa Station”, and that he was “trying to prevent this issue getting out to the media”.

One of the rescued sawfish from the fish kill at Liveringa Station (photo courtesy abc.news.au and David Morgan)

The fear seemed to be that if the media became aware, the resulting bad publicity would prevent station staff from reporting future incidents. There was discussion about the possibility of putting together a media release, but the implications of that turning bad if the sawfish died put paid to the idea and the media release never eventuated.

Even sawfish scientists were kept in the dark until May 2019, when the emails finally became public. A report had been sent to the Western Australian parliament in January 2019, but this was not tabled until six months later, and even then, only after a request from a Greens MP.

Gina Rinehart declined to comment to the ABC. The Murdoch University team also refused to be drawn.

While most of the nation contemplates with horror the evolving human and ecological catastrophe in the Murray-Darling Basin, in the background, a struggle is taking place over the control of water resources up north.

The water resources of the Kimberley are substantially more than the rest of the state, carried by the two largest rivers — the Fitzroy River in the West Kimberley, and the Ord River in the East Kimberley. The Fitzroy River is a virtually unregulated river. Its floodplain is very wide with a highly variable discharge depending on the climate cycle and time of year. Its ecological value is enormous, and it is of vital significance to the traditional and native title owners. 

Water for food, water for beef

The development of Northern Australia became a key policy objective of the Australian government from 2015, under Tony Abbott, and millions have been spent in feasibility studies and research projects by the federal government.

For the Kimberley, the CSIRO found that by investing in water infrastructure, 160,000 ha of agricultural land along the Fitzroy River could be released for cropping, and groundwater could support up to 30,000 ha of hay production every year. This implies diverting harvesting of  up to 1700 GL of surface water, and up to 170 GL of groundwater from the Canning Basin.

Big Cotton eyes off the wild rivers of Northern Australia

Plans for irrigated agriculture have been developed by the the WA government in its Water for Food initiative, a four-year $40 million program which involves investing in 11 projects from the Kimberley all the way down south. It  has set a target of 50% growth in contribution from fresh food and animal protein production to the WA regional economies by 2025, and a two-fold increase by 2050. Becoming Asia’s “food bowl” is a large part of the calculus.

The plan depends on tapping into previously untapped water resources. The WA Department of Water and Environmental Regulation is investigating options to harvest up to 600 GL  of surface water as part of its water allocation plan for the development of an agriculture hub. To give some context, according to the Water For Growth:Urban report, urban water users across all of WA consume 550GL a year. In WA, as in the rest of Australia, human consumptive water use is overwhelmingly for agriculture.

The WA government proposal is markedly less than what the CSIRO has suggested might be viable. The proposal also includes the establishment of a Fitzroy River National Park.

The agricultural arm of Hancock Prospecting reportedly has put in a proposal to harvest 325 GL of floodwaters for its cattle operations. The massive catchment area of the Kimberley spans forty cattle stations, including Rinehart’s Liveringa, Fossil Downs, and Nerrima stations. Hancock Prospecting runs 70,000 odd head of cattle across its three WA properties.

Gogo Station, owned by Malcolm Harris and family, also has an application before the WA Environmental Protection Authority to harvest 50GL of surface water to grow fodder for cattle.

The Fitzroy catchment has no water allocation plan, and relies instead on a licensing system for individual uses. The WA government expects to release a draft water plan early next year.

The WA government is engaged with difficult negotiations between traditional owners and other stakeholders around water allocation plans, and its National Park proposal. In a proposal to the Director General of the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development this year, Hancock Prospecting offered leased land from its Fossil Downs station to be incorporated in the new proposed Fitzroy River national park, in exchange for access to water.

The concern is that the government’s National Park suggestion does not go far enough. The CSIRO itself noted, for example, that “National Parks provide some protection, but they do not perform the same management functions as water planning, catchment management and/development planning processes.”

Right now, only the WA government is standing in the way of the “harvest water at all costs” ideology favoured by big agribusiness and the federal government.

Yet this is not a simple “us versus them” story of whitefella against blackfella or development versus anti-development. The cattle industry dominates 95% of the Fitzroy catchment, and is an important employer of indigenous people. There are large indigenous owned pastoral companies in the Kimberley, trying to run successful, modern cattle businesses in a way compatible with cultural and ecological constraints.

In other cases, indigenous communities have arranged Indigenous Land Use agreements with pastoral companies, and are important stakeholders with a strong interest in the success of the cattle industry.

Traditional owners are on the record saying they do not object to development, as long as there is respect for aboriginal culture and peer-based, scientific rigour in the knowledge base that underlies development — including an awareness of the effects of climate change.

Nevertheless, there are undeniable, unavoidable power imbalances. After months of tense discussion, in August, a joint communiqué was finally issued by aboriginal traditional owners and representatives from the cattle industry, but it consisted principally in agreeing to keep talking.

A meeting in August between traditional owners and the cattle industry to try and find common ground resulted in a complaint being made to the WA government about intimidation and the silencing of traditional owners. The meeting, held under Chatham House rules, took no minutes, and WA department staff themselves were asked at one point to leave the meeting.

The Minister for Regional Development, Alannah MacTiernan, rejected the complaints and defended her consultation process.

This battle over access to water will be the test of how much we have learned from the Murray-Darling debacle about the pernicious effects of influence-peddling, regulatory capture, political malfeasance and incompetence, and policy-making in the dark, and on the run.

Rinehart’s climate change denialism is well known, and she is reportedly and unsurprisingly amongst those voices that argue that 99% of the Fitzroy River’s water is wasted because it flows into the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, at the time of writing, Australia was experiencing catastrophic fire conditions across the Eastern seaboard. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the 11 November 2019 was the first day on record that no rain fell anywhere across the entire expanse of this vast continent. The north of Australia, like the rest of the country, is in the grip of drought.

The death of forty sawfish in a rapidly evaporating billabong and the attempt to bury the story is an ominous early warning of what relationships with an emerging class of water barons could look like.


Watergate: An ecosystem cultivated for sharks won’t support goldfish


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