21/01/2009 - 22:00

Crying out for change in the Kimberley

21/01/2009 - 22:00


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Pressure to develop the state's north is only going to increase.

Crying out for change in the Kimberley

A GREAT taboo has developed over decades with regard to development in the Kimberley, with the belief that such a great wildernesses ought to be left untouched by human hands.

While I don't want to underestimate the value and beauty of great swaths of this amazing region, it really is time to call in the myth busters and challenge those who want to believe a great people-proof fence along the Great Northern Highway is actually going to benefit Western Australia's far north.

Firstly, I have to congratulate Colin Barnett for shrugging off these concerns and biting the bullet on two important projects - the expansion of the Ord River Scheme and the development of an LNG hub.

The first of those, the Ord River dam, is a vital element in making agriculture work in the uncultivated north. It is associated with one of the great myths of the Kimberley - that more dams would be ecological disasters.

Initially perceived to be one of the white elephants of WA development, the Ord River scheme may have been a commercial disaster for much of its life, but the development has not been an environmental blunder.

Unlike the constant syphoning of permanent river systems like the Murray Darling in the south, the Ord River is a dry riverbed for much of the year, running only during the wet as a temporary conduit for monsoonal rains flowing to the sea.

As a consequence, damming the Ord simply captures part of the huge volumes of water that otherwise wash rapidly into the ocean. It doesn't stop all of the flushing that occurs across such a vast watershed - 421,451 square kilometres to be exact, or three times the size of England to be contextual.

If I recall rightly, rainfall in the tropical north has been increasing at the same time the south has experienced a decrease. If that is the case, then there would be more run-off than ever.

Of course dams, in some places, can be environmentally disastrous but modern science, engineering and sustainable planning ought to be applied to identify more locations for dams in the Kimberley that wouldn't destroy the entire ecology, landscapes and places of important Aboriginal heritage.

Such water storage is necessary if big parts of the Kimberley are ever going to be anything more than foraging areas for cattle. With the value of food being reconsidered by the world, farming is again being seen as an important ingredient in our development of the state's north.

There is also a big question mark about what condition the Kimberley is in. The region is not the perfect place that myth would suggest.

The Kimberley has been exploited by humans for millennia, with the landscape and wildlife no doubt altered in the process. An example is the introduction of dingoes.

More recently, Europeans have introduced a wide variety of animals, many of which have turned feral in big numbers. Donkeys, goats, foxes and camels are among the obvious examples.

Let's not forget the vast numbers of cattle that inhabit this region without fences or any form of regulation bar the annual muster.

And of course there's the relentless approach of the cane toad, which is about to inflict massive damage on wildlife in the Kimberley.

There is also a geopolitical myth that needs to be exploded. Leaving the Kimberley in its so-called pristine condition does not guarantee protection.

Future generations may have their hand forced, perhaps with less time to be thoughtful or considerate in their planning.

In the future, land, water and fertile soils may be a luxury that we can't afford to leave undeveloped as the world becomes more crowded.

That is especially the case if global warming really does lift sea levels or devastate climates.

High-profile WA scientist Jorg Imberger is one who has warned that we ought to be preparing for mass population shifts in our region. I could imagine the Kimberley being seen as a safe haven should such a climatic calamity occur.

That is only one of myriad reasons why the Kimberley ought to be thoughtfully developed to take advantage of its vast spaces and turn the region into an economic powerhouse - rather than an underutilised opportunity blighted with pockets of poverty.

Naturally, indigenous people and conservationists ought to have a say in how such development occurs, but it ought to be done based on a policy that accepts economic development is a reality and that only true examples of pristine nature (or as near as possible) or significant heritage ought to be preserved.

In fact, this is a unique opportunity to really select the most important elements. Even if a big percentage of the Kimberley were to be locked away as world heritage areas, it would still allow plenty of area for appropriate development.

Maybe such a development policy could lend some ideas from draft selection used in sporting codes. That way, indigenous people and conservationists could have the first few picks of what they considered most important.

Industry, led by agriculture, natural resources and tourism could make their own picks.

Trading of choices could be a part of the process. I am not kidding about this kind of system. Too often development is caught up with the shifting sands of conservation or indigenous heritage.

Those who want to get on with responsibly developing this great state ought be told up front what is out of bounds and be able to work around that. Instead, every development is met with localised opposition.

In my view we ought to decide today what's worth saving and protect it properly.

Let's also not forget that allowing development may also help save some of these areas by providing the economic grunt to restore them to near pristine condition.

A more independent Kimberley economy will also be better for the indigenous population, which, from my southern point of view, desperately needs something new to happen.


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