Firestorm of protest over water allocation



The awarding of the NT’s biggest ever groundwater extraction licence for a cattle station tuned food producer 380 km north of Alice Springs to a company mostly exporting to China has triggered a firestorm of protest.

The permit would empower Fortune Agribusiness Funds Management at Singleton Station to draw, free of charge, 40 gigalitres a year, about four times the amount used by Alice Springs, according to Katherine political observer Bruce Francais and Arid Lands Environment Centre CEO Jimmy Cocking.

The Independent MLA for Araluen Robyn Lambley and the Central Land Council (CLC) are calling for any work to cease pending a review of “this seriously flawed” decision.

The row coincides with a national discussion about the Federal Government’s power to overturn deals made by a state if they are not in the public interest.

But Jo Townsend, NT Controller of Water Resources, claims: “The application was granted after rigorous modelling and data showed the licensed amount is sustainable and can be managed without adversely impacting other users, as well as environmental assets or cultural assets, if conditions are met.”

Mrs Lambley says the licence for the “foreign-backed company primarily for foreign food production” is “on par with the leasing of the Darwin Port to the Chinese for 100 years in 2016.

“But at least with the Darwin Port deal the NT got $506m and an upgraded international transport facility. With this deal it seems Territorians will get nothing but a potentially permanently depleted ancient aquifer.

“In any other part of Australia a company would pay many millions of dollars for this enormous volume of pristine artesian water.

“The chairman of Fortune Agribusiness has stated that more than 70% of their produce from Singleton will be exported to Asian markets, mainly China.

“The company claims there will be approximately 100 permanent positions and approximately 1000 seasonal workers employed, but provided no detail of where these workers will come from,” says Mrs Lambley.

“One can only assume that the viability of this business is based on bringing large numbers of foreign workers into the NT on temporary working visas.

“Foreign workers are the equivalent to domestic FIFO workers, investing and contributing little to the local community and the local economy, compared to permanent residents.

“And why would a 30 year license be granted? A lot can change in 30 years. There appears to be no justification for this very long, very generous water extraction license.

“The Gunner Labor Government have been scathing in their attacks on the former Country Liberal Government for awarding water extraction licences to agribusinesses that were tiny in comparison to this. The hypocrisy and irrationality of this decision is unfathomable.”

The Central Land Council is applying for a review under the Northern Territory’s Water Act as well an independent peer review of the “adaptive management” plan the Northern Territory Government has asked Fortune Agribusiness to complete.

The CLC has asked the government to stop the native vegetation clearance and non-pastoral use, says CLC chief executive Lesley Turner: “Meeting in Tennant Creek, an hour’s drive north of Singleton station, CLC delegates considered independent hydrogeological advice which confirmed that neither the government’s water license decision nor its approach to managing it come close to addressing the concerns of the area’s native title holders and affected community residents.”

A CLC media statement says independent hydrogeologist Dr Ryan Vogwill described the government’s water resource and impact assessment were “simplistic, based on inadequate investigations and very little site-specific data”.

The rushed approval process fell well short of what would be required for far smaller water allocation decisions in his home state of Western Australia, a world leader in groundwater management, Mr Vogwill says.

He found a major flaw of the allocation planning and impact assessment is that it ignores the most culturally and ecologically important places, such as numerous wetlands, springs and soaks.

He questioned whether the NT Government’s “adaptive management” approach will be able to deal with its “insufficient understanding of impact risk”.

Dr Vogwill said the government lacks the five to 10 years of data that would be required to “understand groundwater – environment – cultural linkages in sufficient detail to develop strong management criteria”.

Mr Turner said the only credible response to seek an independent peer review of Fortune Agribusiness adaptive management plan.

“This government has promised to be transparent, so we expect it to publish all the information independent scientists need to do their job,” he said.

Mr Francais says Ms Townsend has issued the license with the full support of Paul Burke of the NT Farmers Association.

“There has been speculation in recent times of bores around Darwin and Katherine being monitored by the government and charges being levied for water used.

“While this foreign organisation is to receive its water free of charge, the same volume of water withdrawn from the Murray-Darling basin would incur charges in excess of $20m per annum,” says Mr Francais.

“The Pepper Report on Hydraulic Fracturing recommended that gas mining companies in the NT  should be charged $1m per gigaliter of water used.

“Based on this figure, Fortune Agribusiness would be compelled to pay $40m per annum for water used on Singleton Station.”

The full 40 gigaliter release will be reached over four two-year stages.

PHOTO (supplied): CLC delegates vote at Tennent Creek.


  1. 40 Gigalitres per annum for 30 years given away at no cost.
    That’s 1200 Gigalitres in total.
    1 Gigalitre = 1000 Megalitres so 1,200,000 Megalitres.
    1 Megalitre = 1million litres so an enormous quantity of pristine, ancient and irreplaceable water given away for no benefit.
    The NT is broke and yet we are giving away an asset worth tens of millions and much more in the future.
    The opportunity costs of using this water in ways that actually benefit Territorians in the future will be gone.
    This makes no sense and an investigation is needed.

  2. All the more reason why Central Australia should be separated as its own territorial jurisdiction from the Top End, as happened almost a century ago.
    Unlike other parts of Australia, there is a precedence here and therefore it’s quite possible to do it again.
    Unlike nearly a century ago, Central Australia as its own separate administrative entity would be a far more viable option to pursue now.

  3. Further to opportunity costs. In years to come in the vast area the basin covers, a rich gold resource could be found.
    Royalties to the NT Government and benefits to Aboriginal owners of the land would be tens of millions of dollars each year and providing jobs with real skills and proper wages.
    Gold mines need a lot of water and so the project would fail.
    Or would the current owner of the water on sell at windfall profit?

  4. The politicians who approved this should be investigated. No Alex, the NT should not be given autonomy. Successive governments of both stripes have repeatedly shown they need to be supervised.

  5. @ Michael Smith: Agree with you on two points but I’m not suggesting the NT should be given autonomy – or Central Australia for that matter.
    History now clearly shows the best governance the NT ever enjoyed was post war with the creation of the partially elected, partially appointed NT Legislative Council, a model created by the Chifley Government in 1947 upon successful lobbying by the Alice Springs-based NT Development League chaired by EJ Connellan.
    We also had town management boards rather than local government during the 1960s (preceded in the Alice’s case by the Alice Springs Progress Association of the late 1940 to 1950s).
    These were non-compulsorily elected advisory bodies that locally proved extraordinarily effective in lobbying on behalf of Alice Springs with the NT Administration.
    That period of Commonwealth control, post World War Two to 1974, has never been bettered since the creation of the fully elected Legislative Assembly and subsequent “responsible” self-government of the NT.
    No reason in my view that couldn’t happen again for Central Australia, and we deserve far better than what is happening now.

  6. How long has this decision been considered?
    Who has known about this process before now?
    Why did the public learn about this only after the deal is done?
    Has this actually been kept secret during the entire negotiating process?

  7. It would seem this NT Government is pursuing one of the proposals put forward in 1974 by the UN for the Revision of the International Economic System to achieve a more equitable allocation of World resources.
    The UN stated that “it is not in favour of the existing system offFree market orientation between LDCs (Liberal Democratic Countries) and Socialist Blocks” in regard to resource management.
    So it suggested that there should be a transfer of resources from rich countries to poorer ones.
    This idea has since come into dispute by the capitalist countries of the world, meaning us as well, but it would appear the NT Labor Government is in favour of the adoption of this policy of resource giveaway!

  8. I think this situation should be immediately reported to the head of the Australian people’s government, namely Scott Morrison, who recently acted in their interest by condemning deals done by state governments with a Communist block state, one of which – that we know of – is actively interfering with world trade and in particular, ours.
    Mr Morrison can take assertive action in either removing the NT Labor Government and/or nullifying said deal.

  9. @ Greg: You might be onto to somethings here. Australia has just cancelled two deals with China on national interest grounds.
    Consideration has also been given to cancelling the lease of Darwin Port to a Chinese company.
    Giving away our valuable water resource to Chinese interests is certainly against the national interest.
    The Morrison Government should be asked to nullify this deal.
    It would be good to hear from NT CLP Senator Sam McMahon.

  10. A few years ago the Adam Giles Country Liberal administration in the NT was heavily criticised for having disposed of Port Darwin to China for half a billion dollars.
    At a time when China is blatantly punishing Australia with trade restrictions, Michael Gunner’s Labor administration is granting a Chinese organisation billions of dollars of assets ownend by Territorians. It is not surprising that people in the NT are becoming disillusioned with our two major political parties.

  11. The Feds are about to scrap the Darwin port deal.
    Meanwhile the NT Government gifts irreplaceable water resource to the Chinese.
    The current NT Government has shown itself to be woefully ignorant of our national interests.

  12. The Chinese government has symmetry with the Red Centre. PM’s visit assesses the future of the NT.

  13. The Chinese Government infiltrates other countries by seeking out their weak points one of which in particular is their concentrating on said countries’ treatment of minorities under their control, e.g. Aborigines in Australia, and neighbouring smaller dependent countries eg Pacific islands such as New Guinea.
    Specifically [this includes] attacking you via the back door by playing a game with weak economy management as in this case the NT Government’s handling of resources and the economy.

  14. Re Greg May 4, 2021 comment: This has come to fruition by the recent Chinese infiltration of Pacific Island Nations and their associated agreements with several of them as, I predicted.

  15. Interesting that. The Morrison government did not end up reneging on the Darwin Port deal that scored the Giles Government $506 million for NT coffers.
    Instead, as I understand it, we had both major parties undertake during the election campaign to spend $1.5 billion to set up parallel port facilities in Darwin.
    As for the water deal, seems similar to the kind of deals that resulted in Australia owning only 4% of natural gas production (and the large exporters paying no tax).
    I think Australia needs to re-examine its imperative to protect Sovereign Risk by selling our resources at give away prices lest foreign investors are spooked away.
    Spook them I say. Lets bake our own cake instead of clamouring for the crumbs.


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