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Published: 28 June 2013

Our fascination with northern Australia

Dr Andrew Johnson

On February 11, 1861, Robert O'Hara Burke reached the Gulf of Carpentaria. He described in his diary the environment as ‘a considerable portion is rangy but it is well watered and richly grassed’. More than 150 years after the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, many Australians still consider north Australia to be a place of limitless potential.

Burke and Wills' ill-fated expedition left many intrigued about the potential of northern Australia.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the 20th century, governments promoted development in the north. With a few notable exceptions, these have ended in failure.

More recently, state and federal governments of both political persuasions have had the foresight and courage to mandate scientific investigations to quantify the capacity of the north's land and water assets, and to understand constraints to sustainable development presented by market opportunities, transport infrastructure and land tenure.

The passionate commentary demonstrates the diversity of views and the breadth of misunderstanding about the challenges of the tropics. Indeed, there are perhaps more urban myths about northern Australia than any other part of the nation. So let's get some facts on the table.

CSIRO scientists have identified the capacity to sustainably double or triple the north's irrigation area using renewable groundwater resources. The potential is even greater if surface water is used.

History has shown the challenges. Unlocking investment requires confidence about the scale of opportunities, and knowing the risks. A scarcity of detailed information about soil and water availability made it difficult to establish water storage options or agricultural productivity estimates or establish locations for irrigation. The cost of acquiring reliable soil, water and agricultural productivity estimates has often been an insurmountable barrier to private and public investors.

Underdeveloped transport infrastructure and long distances increase the cost of accessing inputs and selling outputs, as well as reducing the mass, quality and value of commodities.

Inconsistency in land and water regulations across jurisdictions and lack of clarity within them poses significant barriers to investment. Northern Australian tenure systems are complex. There are multiple, often overlapping tenure types for the same piece of land. Administrative arrangements vary across state boundaries. There are new and emergent tenures for water and carbon that are uncertain and are evolving.

Renewable groundwater resources can help increase the north's irrigation area.
Credit: CIMMYT

Despite this, there are positive developments. In the Gulf country, the federal and Queensland governments, with CSIRO researchers, have demonstrated methods for rapidly and economically quantifying water flow and function, identifying water storage options, constructing soil maps of high precision and combining them to establish estimates of regional agricultural production potential\

In the east Kimberley, the tireless efforts of government and the community are now driving profound positive change in the Ord. These examples provide a blue print for irrigated agriculture across the north.

The establishment of mosaic irrigation for the beef industry will enable increased productivity by overcoming seasonal feed shortages and intensifying production. This will allow producers to improve long-term viability. A year-round feed supply will also enable more efficient use of existing beef industry infrastructure.

Smarter transport logistics that deliver least-cost pathways for existing infrastructure – critical where rerouting is often required in response to flooding – is essential. A focus on logistics will prioritise investment in strategic infrastructure such as holding yards, rest stops, road configuration, the location of abattoirs and more efficient use of ports.

Many northern roads become floodways in the wet season, requiring smarter transport logistics year round.
Credit: Phillip Capper via Wikimedia Commons

We also need to address property rights. Changes to land tenure regimes have the potential to transform indigenous communities from welfare dependency to economic participation as well as creating a more positive environment for investment. Changes to tenure arrangements are under way that aim to enable more diverse uses and clarify access and use rights. Future efforts must continue to focus on pastoral lands and in clarifying Indigenous interests in land and water.

Perhaps at no time since Federation has the nation's interest in the north been so strong. A positive agenda will benefit all Australians, especially Indigenous peoples. Whatever the actions taken, many will take time to implement; there are no easy fixes. They require patience, persistence, flexibility and a long-term commitment from all stakeholders.

Dr Andrew Johnson is CSIRO’s Group Executive (Environment), with responsibilities for leading the organisation’s water, land, climate, marine, biodiversity, urban sustainability, regional development and natural resource management research. He is a member of the Prime Minister’s Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce, and Chair of the Northern Australia Ministerial Forum Expert Advisory Council.

Published: 22 July 2013

Generational change and the power of one

Mara Bun

‘You see,’ said California Institute of Technology Professor Nate Lewis in 2006, ‘the Earth has a 35-year thermal inertia and so what we're doing now is only the beginning because we're waiting 35 years even to see the effects of what we did 35 years ago. So it would be another 30 years until we started to really see, even at the only 380 parts per million level that we're doing now [ie 2006], what those effects are. And we'll be at 550 [ppm] by then...’

A new generation is finding new solutions to mobilising action on the world’s ‘wicked problems’.
A new generation is finding new solutions to mobilising action on the world’s ‘wicked problems’.
Credit: bo192/istockphoto

In the face of Professor Lewis’ gloomy prognosis , how can young people find hope for the future?

Last week, 30,000 primary school students started Green Cross Australia’s environmental education program Green Lane Diary. Over ten weeks, they will dive into an active learning journey that is aligned with the Australian curriculum. Our mantra is: ‘Think + Act + Share = Change.’

Green Lane Diary raises awareness of environmental risks to ecosystems and communities and celebrates students’ positive responses to these risks – through projects at home, school and in local communities. These activities are shared through interactive maps.

This model of active learning is supported by recent UCLA research addressing the communication of ‘actionable risk’. Though the study focuses on motivating people to prepare for natural disasters, the findings are relevant for motivating environmental behaviour change.

The UCLA researchers found that it is more important ‘... to emphasize the communication of preparedness actions (what to do about risk) rather than the risk itself.’ They also found Americans are ‘most likely to take steps to prepare themselves if they observe the preparations taken by others...’

The Green Lane Diary is a schools-based program designed to inspire 8-13 year olds to engage with ideas about living sustainably.
The Green Lane Diary is a schools-based program designed to inspire 8-13 year olds to engage with ideas about living sustainably.
Credit: Green Cross

This insight offers hope in a world where networks prevail.

Today’s social networks are embryonic compared to how people will connect with each other in 30 years’ time. And, given the exponential curve of early-21st-century scientific discovery, new opportunities for environmental action will emerge as today’s young people grow up. Theirs will be a highly connected world where the pace of change constantly increases.

A recent article by the Monitor Institute discusses the ‘network mindset’ as a catalyst for positive change.

‘Working with a network mindset,’ stress the authors, ‘means operating with an awareness of the webs of relationships you are embedded in. It also means cultivating these relationships to achieve the impact you care about.’

This mindset is almost hard-wired into today’s kids. And for those of us who – unlike our parents – are enjoying middle age connected to childhood friends through Facebook, networks also connect us to that sweet hopeful spot in what must now become a global change equation.

My own Facebook network reveals a powerful conduit for sharing ideas and actions for positive change.

One post on a Facebook page can instantly spread around the world.
One post on a Facebook page can instantly spread around the world.
Credit: M. Bun

My LinkedIn network adds another layer of influence. My 1,405 connections link to 11,499,380 professionals around the world. Astoundingly, over the past week, LinkedIn informs me that another 33,001 people connected to my network of networks.

LinkedIn creates opportunities for connecting in to a massive global 'network of networks'.
LinkedIn creates opportunities for connecting in to a massive global 'network of networks'.
Credit: M. Bun

At the recent Bonn Climate Change negotiations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a call to action for the world’s youth to tackle climate threats, stressing that young people are ‘agents of change’ that bring fresh and innovative ideas to address this most pressing issue.

‘You are in the middle of a great transition era. To address climate change, we need fresh and innovative ideas,’ the Secretary General said.

‘Too often’, he said, ‘adults work to preserve business as usual and the status quo. Young people approach problems with new ideas and a new perspective.’

Embracing a network mindset that can turbocharge the rate of change, today’s youth have a real chance of addressing the wicked climate challenge that my generation is only now waking up to.

Mara Bun was a financial analyst with Morgan Stanley in the US before joined a World Bank earthquake reconstruction project in Nepal in 1989. She then moved to Australia embracing leadership roles with Greenpeace Australia and CHOICE. After a brief return to the business sector, Mara joined CSIRO as Director of Business Development, after which she took up the role of founding CEO of Green Cross Australia. Green Cross has been exploring the use of digital communications and social media to reach diverse audiences – for example,,; and

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