Are we ready for Alice Springs to be the Inland capital?


From top: The Todd in flood. • Mr Cocking and his son Louka at the Claypans in early 2016  • Night market • Car in solar rally • Women celebrating opening of the hospital’s ICU • Heavy Metal band Uncreation 

A monstrous weather pattern that could put much of the town under water is bearing down on Alice Springs. Yet the government committee charged with protecting the town from flood hasn’t met since July when recommendations were made to the then Chief Minister Giles. The preliminary recommendations included topographical mapping on the Todd and Charles catchment and assessment of the trunk drainage system.
The current NT Government is aware of the report, but there’s been no word as to its progress. The town’s leading conservatives are in paralytic shock after the near annihilation of the CLP. Against this background Mr Cocking, director of the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC), in our Rest & Reflection series advocates The Alice becoming the capital of a desert region that in terms of size would be the eighth biggest country in the world.


The mostly dry river bed, covered with buffel and couch grass, peacefully meanders through The Gap but the road, rail and utilities bundle there makes it one of the key bottlenecks when heavy rain turns the Todd River into the mighty Lhere Mpartnwe.
To our north, the Todd and Charles draw their water from a catchment of almost 500 square kilometres. Although this is the source of our community’s greatest potential peril, we know very little about the topographic nature of the catchment. We don’t know if 100mm of rain up there is going to cause stream rises or 100mm in another part could wipe the town off the map.

I know this because under the previous Giles Government, among various other committee posts I was appointed to in 2016, the Flood Mitigation Advisory Committee was one. The first recommendation of the FMAC was to get the topographical data of the catchment which would enable us to better model the flow of the river and its tributaries. We accepted that we cannot stop the river flooding – but in the short term we can get to know it better and help the community respond to it more effectively. This wasn’t necessarily the answer the previous Chief Minister wanted, and since the election, we have not heard what is to become of the recommendations.

Alice Springs is a gateway town. I moved up here in 2008 in response to the Federal Government’s Intervention and the uranium mining and nuclear waste proposals that dogged that era, and also to visit a friend.

I was considering a tree change from the city of Melbourne to Alice Springs as the Arid Lands Environment Centre Coordinator job was being advertised. I didn’t know much about the arid lands environment or the Northern Territory but I did care about the issues. I applied and now I’m approaching my tenth year at ALEC.

Despite considerable efforts, there are still many structural barriers to us achieving our vision of “healthy futures for arid lands and people”. A lot of of these barriers are based on the mindset of self-interested parties and individuals who are resistant to the changes we need to implement.

When I arrived the town was abuzz with Alice Solar City. The Alice Springs Water Advisory Committee had only just been formed and was talking collaborative water conservation and efficiency projects, which lead to Alice Water Smart being created.

p2269-market-9Desert Knowledge Australia, Centre for Appropriate Technology, the Desert Knowledge CRC, which became Ninti One, were firing on all cylinders. The Desert Knowledge vision was alive and strong. Although not connected strongly with the local community, it had national profile and recognition for its purpose.

Desert Knowledge Australia COOLmob, became DesertSMART COOLmob to reflect the purpose of the roadmap and the growing focus on water and energy efficiency, composting, recycling and local climate action.

People were talking about community gardens and building the case for one. The Henderson Government had a comprehensive climate policy, an agreement with the South Australian Government for the TransAustralian EcoLink wildlife corridor and was developing plans for Alice Springs to be a world renowned solar centre.

Indigenous land management was growing on the agenda with ranger groups getting some funding through a variety of means, but increased considerably under Peter Garrett’s Caring for Country policy framework which instituted five to 10 year funding agreements to support landscape scale activities. Everything seemed possible.

At the end of 2016 I reflect on the things that have changed, things that have grown, things that have disappeared that may never appear again.

Alice Solar City grew a culture that supports solar energy and people continue to put panels on their roofs – why wouldn’t you? Best tariffs in Australia and the best solar energy resource in the world.

Alice Water Smart came and went, two years of Federal and Power Water funding saw more than 1000 households audited for water efficiency and 50 businesses, plus a range of utility scale measures and communication outputs that continue to have benefit.

COOLmob is unfortunately dead. It was a victim of the 2014 budget cuts, although ALEC created Arid Edge Environmental Services to get jobs done on a contractual basis that enables us to have some impact. However, without government investment in community engagement activities we can only do so much.

The Alice Springs Town Council is committed to recycling at its Regional Waste Management Facility, which is great and the fact that the NT stands alone with SA, and soon to be WA on 10c deposits, we have to acknowledge that it started here in Alice Springs with 5c putting pressure on the NTG to act.

p2284-solar-3rd-BThe Alice Springs Community Garden is thriving, with 35 family plots and soon to be 50, with solar being connected in early 2017.

Desert Knowledge Australia was put under review, its board and CEO essentially sacked. The amazing resources of the precinct are under-utilised and under-valued by the local community. I am one of a number of new board members and with a new CEO coming on, expect to hear a lot more about Desert Knowledge.

The TransAustralian EcoLink died the day after the CLP got into power in August 2012. But the Ten Deserts and the Indigenous Desert Alliance have emerged and are building more momentum for collaborative, cross border land management work across SA, NT and WA than ever before.

RePower Alice Springs is pushing us towards a 100% renewable energy future because we need to.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because I want to give you context before we embark on the next agenda item that is critical for all of us living in Alice Springs to understand, to consider and be engaged with, alongside the Northern Territory Government: the concept of Alice Springs as the inland capital.

We are an oasis in the geographical heart of Australia. We are surrounded by 10 deserts – the Perdirka and the Tirari to the south, the Sturt Stony, Simpson and Strzelecki to the south-east, the Tanami and the Great Sandy Deserts to the north-west, the Gibson and the Little Sandy to the west and the Great Victoria Desert to the south-west.

Alice Springs is the medical service centre for two million square kilometres. The area of country in the Ten Deserts is equivalent to the eighth largest country in the world.

p2237-hospital-inmaOur low population density should not stop us from looking at what our town can offer the world. This means we need to regard all the people in this region as our people.

We need to avoid using the language of itinerants or any other words that separate town folk from bush folk. We are their capital city. We are their Las Vegas and we need to acknowledge that and better plan to provide services and maintain services to support the region and not just the town.

We are a long way from the decision makers in capital cities but we can make our own decisions: How will we play a role in shaping our destiny?

The NT Government regards Alice Springs as Australia’s inland capital but the town needs to be engaged in that process. We need to have public meetings, workshops and people dedicated to making this work best for the town and the region.

Secondly, we need to think about all the things we do better than anyone else, and what we need to do better to show the world what is possible.

This is a non-exhaustive list: Go 100% solar on a remote power grid; harvest and reuse water effectively and for collective benefit; incorporate electric vehicles into our remote setting; have buildings and urban design for the extremes we experience here; embrace Indigenous cultures and desert living (so rich, but undervalued); events, events, events; multiculturalism and diversity; Indigenous ranger programs and managing vast swathes of country; fire management and carbon economies; research into what is already here (for example, spinifex and stronger rubber, grains and bush foods); reducing carbon and caring for country; recycling locally (can we use concentrated solar thermal heat to re-form materials?); growing food locally, distributing fresh food regionally; remote service delivery (health, social services and education); livelihoods trump economic indicators out here (new measures, tell the success stories, not just the tragedies); Geoscience Australia satellites and monitoring landscape and groundwater change over time; economic development (strategic and long-term reduction of boom-bust impacts); a Memorandum of Understanding between WA, SA and NT recognising the need to collaborate across our desert country to work towards all of these items and more;  add your items here!

Most importantly we need to demonstrate that we can support sustainable livelihoods here.

p1841bwuncreation2copyPeople need work. People need entertainment. People need meaning and a sense of community. The planning process for Alice Springs has been ad hoc at best, oscillating between trading off Indigenous culture and the economy, whether it be sacred trees, sites or talking about damming the river, or being hopelessly dependent on boom-bust cycles that are difficult to plan for or sustain.

What we need is a whole of government approach to Alice Springs, recognising its importance in a region that dwarfs the east coast of Australia as far as scale goes, while understanding the threats posed by climate change and a world where autocrats and demagogues are set to rule for an undetermined amount of time.

We need planning to ensure Alice continues to provide, whether this is in the shape of arts and cultural centres, roads and rail, solar and batteries, recycling and clean drinking water, emergency flood shelters that are outside of the flood zone and how their design may borrow from nuclear bunkers. We don’t know until we start setting the direction and understanding which way the wind is blowing.

We need to ask the hard questions and tell the new NT Government what we think should happen. Given we have local council elections coming up this year, it’s time we have some vision to put to our representatives rather than accepting the crumbs that we’re offered by outsiders.

It’s time to reflect on the positives but also understand the risks.

We’re not in the middle of nowhere, we are in the middle of everything here, especially global politics. In an era of uncertainty, warming climate and increased nuclear proliferation, as Australia’s Inland Capital we need to have a plan.

Look up and smell the desert roses, everybody. A new era is upon us and it’s up to us to respond to it.


  1. Well said Jimmy Cocking. Merry Christmas to you and the ALEC team.
    What a fantastic contribution you all make to the quality of this town and the broader region.

  2. Two suggestions:
    1) Concerning Alice Springs and its vulnerability to flooding, especially to a major flood, instead of building emergency flood shelters outside the town’s flood zone, use that money to start a mitigation dam north of the Telegraph Station. Permission to build this was given by the then relevant indigenous authorities 25 years ago, but the chance was squandered by the CLP government of the day.
    2) Viable industries are needed out in those ten deserts, not make-work nor feel-good but viable, sustainable industries. Farm the camels.

  3. Wow, nearly 10 years? Thanks for your unwavering commitment and leadership, Jimmy.
    Here’s hoping you’ve got the stamina for 10 more!

  4. Well said Jimmy. Re Desert Knowledge (and CAT) I believe they were misdirected right from the beginning, and based on philosophy rather than practical issues.
    When I got here in 1982 I was astounded to see on their Priest Street site a pit toilet being promoted as appropriate to rural indigenous living, and innovative.
    We built those for rural schools in remote Fiji 10 years earlier and took the design directly from the UNESCO handbook.
    A few years later I visited Kintore where I took photographs of workmen installing a gas bottle chip heater at the rear of a house which already had a solar hot water service on the roof. How condescending to the Kinore people.
    Then about 10 years ago I visited a community on the Sandover with a friend who had a PHD in physics and talked with a tradie who had been sent out there to repair doors on houses that no one had lived in for years as they had all moved to Lake Nash. He was sent by CAT.
    My friend was sent out there to maintain a solar facility in a store that had been closed for years. The credibility was not there.
    There were so many things that we could have done here but for lack of vision of what this town could offer and there is no better example than Kilgariff and the area south of town as a display of what could have been world setting technology in environmental conservation.
    Bermuda, for example, insists in its planning regulations that houses have underground water storage. Yet here we are in a mass of deserts treating water as a waste product in sewerage disposal.
    There are over 8000 composting toilets installed in Australia, some even in metropolitan areas, but try to get permission here.
    My house has not used town water inside for over a year, but I’m told that it’s unhealthy.
    I am self sufficient in water and mostly food, but the government powers that be lack the basic knowledge of plant nutrition.
    If that were not so there would be an economic value put on the nutrients in the sewerage ponds, and the fact promoted as sustainable and the technology marketed.
    There are many more examples of the lack of vision. There are so many things like that that we could advertise and market to the world on sustainability but never recognized.
    Look at water recovery in Israel or energy generation in Germany, India and elsewhere.
    That could have enormous implications here, but never considered.
    As Jimmy points out, the planning has been abysmal and still they (both parties) fail to recognize the limitations placed on the town by The Gap and the urgent need to initiate a new commercial and housing centre further south where land development and employment will grow free of the limitations of the ranges.
    Starting from the welcome to Alice stone into the south should have been a vivid advertisement of what is environmentally possible here, backed and promoted by Desert Knowledge.
    Once again to those people who want more industries look no further than Toowoomba and its airport. Congratulations to the ALEC people. I believe they do a great job.

  5. Hal, a dam will do more ecological harm than human good (I posted a Comment on this in March). There are other structures more suited to mitigate flooding and keep the Todd healthy.

  6. The idea of a new commercial and housing centre south of Heavitree Gap becomes viable if Alice truly turns into the Inland Capital most of us would agree it has the potential to be.
    This could give us an “old town” inside the Gap for apartment dwellers and nightlife.
    Kilgariff is a start, and the Desert Knowledge precinct is there to grow and be exploited by those living in an Inland Capital.
    We would need to grow our population base, but a number of factors could contribute to that. Global climate change and national immigration come to mind.

  7. Hal, you are wrong about the proposed dam. It was debunked by hydraulics engineers, ecological consultants, and was absolutely opposed by the Aboriginal custodians.
    The government may have wanted a dam, but they and their cronies were the only ones.
    The Federal government minister at the time placed a 25 year moratorium on the proposed dam.

  8. To all who say no to a dam for all the various reasons, which I can understand, but may be not agree with them all: Could someone on the no dam side please provide a suitable long term solution that is practical? Really, that’s all that’s needed, or if you don’t have one that will work just say so.
    By the way, I would personally prefer to leave nature and the wonderful way it works alone. If possible.

  9. Strewth. The mind boggles at the thought of making the Alice our Inland Capital.
    We already have an Inland Capital. Its name is Canberra or more appropriately known as La La Land.
    Isolation, power and a disconnection from reality, an all consuming sense of self importance, self serving perks and privileges and rorts have weaved their magic to give La La Land its well deserved title.
    And Canberra is about as Inland as Dreamworld.
    Imagine Alice, a dot in the Central Desert. Gives new meaning to the phrase “splendid isolation”.
    Imagine, all that innovation, all that climate change power, in the hands and minds of a splendid few.
    The mind boggles.
    However, when the inauguration of the New Inland Capital comes to pass, as no doubt it will, I would like to propose that Ted Egan be the special guest NT singer at the celebratory shindig afterwards.
    And I would like to propose that Ted sings his classic ballad “Sayonara Nakamura”.
    As Hoges would say: “Now THAT’S an Aussie ballad!”

  10. @ Dr Who: Recommendations from the Flood Mitigation Advisory Committee following on from the topographic modelling and town drainage is exploring options for detention basins in the catchment area.
    Without the modelling, no real options can be explored. These are longer structures than a proposed dam wall but ultimately slow the flow to within the bounds of the river.
    No costings have been done for this and ultimately once the modelling is in, options can be considered.
    Damming the river is not an option, without severely impacting on our town both culturally and ecologically. Check out the report here

  11. @ Jimmy Cocking: Thank you for the link you provided. Interesting reading.
    I remember the 88 flood as I was at the time stuck at the Yalara resort for a number of days till I could drive back. Will be interesting to see how things hopefully progress.

  12. I’m coming to think the biggest hurdle facing a mitigation dam is the word dam.
    In my vision of this structure, no water would be permanently held back.
    As Jimmy Cocking points out, to “slow the flow to within the bounds of the river” would be the purpose of any construction.
    I look forward to the coming debate on costings and options.


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