The two-and-a-half year CSIRO study examined the potential of four large dams in Far North Queensland’s Mitchell River catchment and two dams on the Northern Territory’s Adelaide River.
The science agency estimated expanded agricultural development could create up to 15,000 jobs and generate $5.3 billion annually – including a $2.6 billion economic boost to Darwin.
It involved more than 100 scientists and was handed to Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week.
Matt Canavan, the minister for Northern Australia, seized on the findings and declared it supported the government’s efforts to transform the region into the nation’s “next great food bowl”.
The CSIRO found that the Darwin catchment could support up to 90,000 ha of dry-season horticulture and mango trees – with the construction of the Adelaide River Off-Stream Water Storage facility and the Upper Adelaide River Dam.
The report, which was commissioned by former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, also said Indigenous groups would need to be extensively consulted before any projects proceed.
Joe Morrison, chief executive of the Northern Land Council, said previous discussions with Traditional Owners and native title holders have been fraught with problems.
“The fact is that the dams evoke all sorts of emotions from not just Aboriginal people,” he told NITV News.
As an example he pointed to recently stalled plans to open up more farmland in northwestern Australia through the Ord River irrigation scheme.
Mr Morrison said Aboriginal people should be included in the planning process, rather than treated as a “downhill obstacle”.
“That would go a long way to embedding Aboriginal interest into the design of developing this vast region rather than a stakeholder to be consulted last,” he said.
“I think there should be some other options other than just dams there which are pretty well permanent structures that capture water and do enormous damage to things like sacred sites and allow Aboriginal people to practice their lore and customs.”
'This is the data'
Chris Chilcot, the CSIRO’s project leader, said the information would be useful to government, farmers, investors, local communities and Traditional Owners.
“This is the data northern Australia’s never had, it’s what investors and decision makers need to understand the real potential of northern Australia,” he said.
“How development occurs will be up to investors, governments and communities.”