Plans for a northern foodbowl seriously threaten the already vulnerable freshwater ecosystems of northern Australia. This is one of the topics on the agenda at the 14th International Riversymposium today.

Supported by Griffith University, the International Riversymposium is the preeminent international river

management conference. Held from September 26-29 in Brisbane, it is exploring the multiple reasons that rivers are valuable, ranging from economics and biodiversity through to cultural and spiritual values.

Examining the national values of tropical rivers and what can be done to improve their sustainable management is the focus of a research study by Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge Research Hub (Track), part of Griffith’s Australian Rivers Institute.

To be showcased at the Riversymposium today, the research has examined the extent to which freshwater biodiversity in northern Australia is currently protected and identifies additional areas that could be actively managed to conserve biodiversity values over the long term.

Senior research fellow Dr Mark Kennard said the research team has discovered many freshwater species were not represented in protected areas such as national parks and ‘Wild Rivers,’ and that targeted action was now required.

“Northern Australia boasts a range of significant freshwater ecosystems (e.g. rivers, lakes and floodplain wetlands) which have important socio-economic, cultural and intrinsic ecological values,” he said.

“These freshwater ecosystems support many unique species of water-dependent plants and animals, and are fundamentally important in the maintenance of local, regional and continental biodiversity.”

However Dr Kennard said that the ecological sustainability of the region was increasingly threatened by hydrological alteration, agricultural and urban land-use and invasive species.

He referred to recent proposals to dam some of Australia’s rivers, such as the Daly in the Territory, the Margaret in the Kimberley and the Gilbert and Flinders in Queensland.

“Damming northern Australia’s amazing free flowing rivers to develop an agricultural foodbowl for Asia is environmentally and culturally disastrous,” he said.

Dr Kennard was a member of the Federal Government’s Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce which reported in 2010 that there was limited potential for sustainable agriculture in the region.

The report relied on extensive research by CSIRO, many universities and experienced professionals. It concluded the soils of the north are largely poor and not suited for farming, rainfall is too variable and large aquifers are uncommon. It also stated that the costs of transporting produce to markets are

high, and input costs such as labour and fuel undermine financial viability.