Water and the economic development of the Northern Territory 1824-2002

  • Beverley Margaret Sydney James Phelts

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    This thesis examines the Northern Territory’s economic history from 1824, when the first British settlement was established, until 2002 when the agricultural and pastoral industries had made significant progress. It is argued that permanent settlement and the development of primary industry in the Northern Territory was a long and sometimes bitter process. Between 1824 and 1869 there were five attempts to establish a permanent settlement and it took much longer to create viable primary industries. The thesis examines the influence that water supplies had on the three British settlements and the three primary industries of agriculture, pastoralism and mining.

    The Northern Territory, like other Australian regions, was expected to evolve into an independent colony and generate economic rewards for government and private investors. The Eldorado dream, however, was a constant disappointment. For most of its history, the Northern Territory remained neglected and branded as a ’white elephant’. The commercial enterprises of agriculture and pastoralism failed to show potential until the advent of the Second World War - more than a century after the first British attempt at settlement.

    What emerges is that little consideration was given to the difficult environmental conditions, in particular water supplies. The fallacy that the tropical north could be easily exploited for agriculture and pastoralism persisted well into the twentieth century. Governments and investors presumed that settlement and primary industry would automatically flourish and gave little consideration to establishing an infrastructure on which to base these industries. To the detriment of the agricultural and pastoral industries, farmers and pastoralists remained reliant on natural water resources and made little effort to augment the more reliable groundwater supplies.

    The Second World War was the turning point for water development. Water supplies were not only augmented for defence installations but for the pastoral industry. Pastoralism benefited from additional water supplies on stations and stock routes and the demand for beef during the war stimulated pastoralism to record levels. The defence farms introduced modern technology in the form of piped, channel and sprayer irrigation, and for the first time, groundwater was used for commercial agriculture. The farms not only succeeded in providing all varieties of produce for its soldiers but also showed that commercial agriculture was achievable in the Northern Territory Mining was another primary industry that suffered from water shortages, especially in the arid region of central Australia. Arltunga and Tennant Creek goldfields are selected as case studies to demonstrate the huge impact that water supplies had on mining. In both instances, government was well aware of how water shortages restricted mining and initiated a vigorous water development campaign.

    It is argued that the Northern Territory and its primary industries did not fulfil economic visions under the administration of Britain, South Australia, or the Commonwealth Government. The impetus began when an infrastructure that included permanent water supplies, essential services, roads, buildings and transport was implemented. Underdeveloped water supplies were one underpinning reason why settlement and primary industries took so long to develop.
    Date of AwardFeb 2005
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorDavid Carment (Supervisor) & Linden Mary Salter-Duke (Supervisor)

    Cite this