Providing infrastructure in health, education and basic services is essential if the Pilbara’s potential is to be achieved.
RICH in minerals, hydrocarbons, fisheries, agricultural and tourism assets, the Pilbara has been called ‘the engine room’ of the Australian economy and is of significant economic and geostrategic importance to state and national interests.
In an effort to expand the resident population and diversify the economic base, the WA government has developed the Pilbara Cities vision. The Royalties for Regions-inspired scheme aims to capitalise on the region’s economic credibility, proposed infrastructure provisions, unique character and environment.
Expansion in the resources, agricultural, tourism and fisheries sectors, along with complementary developments in the provision of services, is expected to transform the region from a residential quarry to a desirable and resilient population centre.
Despite possible market volatilities and new competing sources of commodities, the minerals and energy sector will continue to expand.
Iron ore will remain a high-growth industry as market opportunities for emerging junior players expand. Current operations will be augmented by the Solomon, Roy Hill and West Pilbara Iron Ore projects, which will serve to meet projected demand from continued urbanisation and industrialisation in Asia.
The oil and gas industry will also continue to expand. The North West Shelf project will be complemented by the Pluto, Gorgon and Wheatstone projects during the next decade.
The search for new reserves will continue to be of the highest priority.
Other commodities will remain stable, with uranium a potential growth industry.
The agricultural and pastoral industries have the potential to become high growth and employment sectors in the next decade, depending on international demand.
Capitalising on its proximity to Asian markets, non-traditional cropping and agricultural supply chain management provide the best prospects for the region.
Despite the region’s rich natural landscape and cultural heritage, tourism remains a secondary and underdeveloped contributor to the Pilbara economy. A flow on-effect of increased tourist numbers is expected from the Pilbara Cities initiative, although this is likely to go beyond the 2020 scope.
The Pilbara possesses the potential to become a niche destination specialising in eco and cultural tourism.
Aviation is projected to continue to grow and to play a more significant role in the development and connectivity of the Pilbara. The region’s four air transport hubs will experience higher frequency inter- and intra-state services, based on an increasing fly-in, fly-out worker, resident and tourist populations.
Despite being dwarfed by the minerals and energy sector, the fisheries and aquaculture industries will continue to generate revenue, employment and provide economic diversification for the Pilbara in the next decade.
Aquaculture has the potential to become a high-growth industry. Private enterprise initiatives in pearl and coral production have the potential to mature, to provide differential employment and economic opportunities in the region. The state government is expected to provide grants to support the fledgling industry.
The promotion of effective water management practices will foster economic and residential growth in the Pilbara. The Department of Water cites demand, availability and quality as potential inhibitors to the development of the region. Demand for water currently exceeds, or is close to exceeding, long-term reliable water supply in regional centres.
Pressure on surface and groundwater is being further strained by a long-term drying effect, a phenomenon the CSIRO predicts will continue. Predictions of climate change remain vague and understudied.
Over the next five to 10 years, the WA Water Commission will upgrade water infrastructure. Surface water and groundwater resources will be augmented by non-traditional water sources. Increasing cost effectiveness and reduced reliance on rainfall make seawater desalination an attractive option. This has been recognised by the state government, with planning for a plant to support the west Pilbara in the final stages.
Third party supply from mine run-off and water extraction from slurry pipelines remains a viable, albeit logistically difficult, option.
The Pilbara’s population and profile are predicted to dramatically change in the next decade.
The expansion and diversification of the regional economy will compound the Pilbara’s annual growth rate to about 5 per cent, supporting a population of 62,000 by 2020.
Economic influences will broaden and deepen the demographic character of the population, with the age-gender profile reflecting national characteristics rather than current peculiarities. The challenge of providing adequate and affordable housing remains the government’s top priority.
Population growth and changes to demographics will promote the development of better civil facilities and services within the Pilbara. The development of community infrastructure will serve a dual purpose of population retention and resident attraction.
The health sector will parallel economic and demographic changes. Current recruitment and infrastructure issues will be addressed by initiatives from the Royalties for Regions program, the Department of Health, not-for-profit and government sponsored private sector expansion.
Existing social welfare issues will be mitigated in the future through expansion of drug, alcohol and mental health programs and through adopting strategies consistent with the federal government’s ‘Close the Gap’ campaign.
Current educational shortcomings will be tackled through dynamic primary and secondary education schemes, support for educational professionals and continued development of facilities across all sectors, including tertiary.
The Pilbara’s population cannot expand without a variety of drivers attracting a substantial and sustainable population. Current social, economic and political deficiencies are disincentives to population growth. Paradoxically these issues will not be easily rectified without population and demographic changes.
Social and economic policy must be complemented by federal and state political support for the Pilbara Cities vision. The Pilbara’s continued prosperity relies upon population growth.
While critical infrastructure in health, education and basic provision of services, fails to meet community expectations, large-scale population growth will not occur. The current inelastic supply of housing and land encourages social polarisation within the Pilbara and makes the region undesirable for potential residents.
The complexity of the land rights debate has the potential to constrain future infrastructure and development projects in the Pilbara. As demonstrated by the Yindjibarndi/FMG debate, native title remains a contentious issue for all stakeholders. Documents associated with Royalties for Regions have drawn a parallel between regional economic growth and indigenous opportunity, a notion that has so far proven false.
Shortcomings in amenities and livability in the Pilbara cannot be addressed by current governance and program structures. The current silo approach fails to promote integration of policies, projects and programs.
The establishment of a Pilbara Cities Office within the Department of Regional Development and Lands simply adds another layer of bureaucracy.
The rudimentary elements to achieve the Pilbara Cities vision already exist. Development over the next decade will strengthen the economic, social and political character of the region. It is imperative, however, that solutions to the challenges the region faces are negotiated, to avoid it becoming a quasi-gated community.
• Liam McHugh is a strategic analyst for Northern Australia and energy security research programs at Future Directions International.