Food and Water Security

  • The ability to supply increased demand for fresh Australian food from North Queensland is at risk due to a lack of long term water implementation strategy
  • To cater for growing demand for water, four significant water supply and infrastructure projects are considered essential enablers for the region: North Johnstone River Diversion Scheme, Lakeland Irrigation Area Project, Gilbert River Irrigation Scheme and Cairns Water Security – Stage 1 project.
  • All four projects require bilateral commitment and shared investment to facilitate environmental approvals and progress to construction stage.
  • A $7million investment is required to progress a North Johnstone River Diversion Scheme business case with completion of the business case by June 2022, to enable and inform a rewrite of the water resource plans for both the Barron and Wet Tropics catchments.

Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) has seen sustained population growth during the past 30 years underpinned by expansion of industries including agriculture, tourism, fisheries, education, health and retail. Throughout 2020, agriculture has been a continuing success story for the region and vitally important in driving post-COVID-19 economic recovery. At the forefront of agricultural growth has been the Atherton Tablelands, driven by the Mareeba Dimbulah Water Supply Scheme (MDWSS) with rapid expansion in high value crops such as avocados, bananas, berries and sugarcane. Water is now 100% allocated and 80% used, with purchase prices rising more than three-fold since 2011, peaking at $4000ML.

To address high prices and supply issues on the Tablelands, short and long term action is urgently needed. Sunwater is undertaking much needed improvements in the MDWSS to provide efficiencies in the short term but the scheme will also need supplementing with extra supply through the proposed North Johnstone River Diversion Scheme. In the long term it is expected Nullinga Dam will also be given further consideration, with land for the proposed site being set aside.

In addition, agriculture in areas such as the Lakeland district near Cooktown and surrounding the Gilbert River in Etheridge Shire have potential to expand rapidly with through value crops such as bananas, grains, cotton and watermelons. Water security has been a concern for a number of years and is now limiting supply in both regions.

Agricultural exports are vital to Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) with the industry sector output currently valued at $2.7 billion, constrained mainly by factors such as irrigation and access to market. A landmark supply chain study entitled Export 2030 – Fresh Food Fast was released in June 2020 which highlighted the potential to double high value food exports through Cairns airport within a decade.

Urban demand also continues to increase with Cairns’ population growth averaging 1.1% per Cairns’ population growth averaging 1.1% per annum. Combined with an estimated three million tourists visiting TNQ annually, to ensure the growing needs of the region can be met, an effective and multi-faceted water supply strategy is required. In Cairns itself, modelling by the Cairns Regional Council shows that demand for water will outstrip supply within the next five years. As a result, the Cairns Water Security – Stage 1 project is an essential piece of infrastructure to secure urban water supply for Cairns well into the future.

In summary, four significant water supply and infrastructure projects are considered essential enablers for water security and growth in the region:

  • North Johnstone River Diversion Scheme
  • Lakeland Irrigation Area Project
  • Gilbert River Irrigation Scheme
  • Cairns Water Security -Stage 1 project



Water and Food security have become priority national policy issues on the back of record drought periods in Australia. In 2020, the
Federal Government committed a further $2 billion to the National Water Infrastructure Fund to build resilience in regions and help grow the agriculture sector. A National Water Grid Authority has also been established to develop investment frameworks. In strengthening the role of northern Australia as a food bowl, substantial feasibility work has progressed in the past three years to explore new agricultural development opportunities. With many of these studies now coming to a close, there are clear priorities for progressing environmental impact and construction activities and a coordinated approach to development is required.

North Johnstone River Diversion Scheme: Sunwater completed a preliminary feasibility study in early 2020 with favourable findings and the Queensland Department of Resources has since been undertaking detailed hydrological modelling. The diversion scheme is considered a viable option to stimulate the economy, delivering up to 50,000ML. A $7 million investment is sought for a full business case, to be completed by June 2022 to enable and inform the rewrite of the Water Resource Plans for both the Barron River and Wet Tropics in subsequent years.

Lakeland Irrigation Area Project: Regional Development Australia Tropical North, through the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund (NWIDF), funded a preliminary business case that investigated new water storage options to expand the Lakeland irrigation area. When constructed, the proposed dam will store 200,000ML and irrigate 8,000ha of arable land. Federal Government funding of $10 million to further develop the business case has seen work advance materially with site identification, test drilling and cultural heritage, environmental and social stakeholder engagement. The project will require bilateral Government support to facilitate and coordinate the development approval processes for the dam.

Gilbert River Irrigation Scheme: Etheridge Shire Council proposes to manage water from the Gilbert Catchment general reserve and facilitate construction of an irrigation scheme along the Gilbert River, distributing water to an estimated 30,000ha of irrigable land. A detailed business case funded by the State Government’s Maturing the Infrastructure Pipeline Program has been completed and Etheridge Shire Council is in the process of developing a forward plan to progress the project. Preliminary modelling suggested the scheme is economically feasible, and that the area is suited to a range of irrigated crops including grains, pulses and cotton.

Cairns Water Security – Stage 1 project: With forecasts indicating supply to the Cairns urban region due to be at capacity in the next five years, the Cairns Water Security – Stage 1 project is a critical piece of infrastructure for the city. The project has been identified by the Cairns Regional Council’s Water Security Advisory Group (WSAG) as a key priority to meet the short to medium term water security needs of the Cairns community. The project is estimated to cost about $215 million and is scheduled in the council’s capital works program to be completed by June 2026.



Development of the four proposed water infrastructure projects would meet a range of state and national policy objectives:

  • Expand northern Australia’s agricultural productive capacity – this is nationally significant given the impact of drought on food and water security in southern Australia;
  • Increase northern Australia’s contribution to GDP through an increase in agricultural production;
  • Diversify northern Australia’s economic capabilities to facilitate investment and reduce reliance on tourism; and
  • Strengthen Australia’s international competitiveness through proximity to Asia.
  • That the Queensland Government apply to the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund (NWIDF) in 2021-2022 for $7 million to progress a full business case for the North Johnstone River diversion scheme
  • That the Queensland Government works with the Federal Government to facilitate and coordinate the development approval processes for the Lakeland Irrigation Area Project
  • That the Federal Government provides $8m for an environmental impact study for the Gilbert River Irrigation Scheme
  • That in 2021-2022 the Federal Government commits funding towards the Cairns Water Security -Stage 1 project as per the Town and City Water Security High Priority Infrastructure Initiative identified by Infrastructure Australia.

PROPONENTS: Advance Cairns, Mareeba Shire Council, Tablelands Regional
Council, Etheridge Shire Council, Cairns Regional Council, RDA FNQ&TS
PRIORITY: Infrastructure
COUNCIL: Cairns, Mareeba, Etheridge, Cook, Tablelands
STATE ELECTORATES: Cairns, Barron River, Hill, Traeger
FEDERAL ELECTORATE: Leichhardt, Kennedy