Part One: Irrigation R&D drying up - a looming weakness for Australia

Efficient water use is ever more important, yet budgets for vital irrigation R&D are declining. A. Campbell

Welcome to a two-part special on the troubling plight of irrigation R&D, by Professor Andrew Campbell of Charles Darwin University. Research into the smartest, most efficient and sustainable ways to use water in our drought-prone continent is of critical importance, yet successful national programs have concluded without being replaced.

In Part One, Professor Campbell puts irrigation water-use in Australia in context, and reviews the legacy of the National Program for Sustainable Irrigation. Part Two will examine the worrying consequences of this vacuum.


Australia appears to have rediscovered food security, with both the recent release of a National Food Plan green paper and the spruiking by both the Government and Opposition of Australia’s capacity to feed a growing world population.

However, we can’t consider food sensibly without considering water. In Australia and elsewhere, water is central to the reliable growing and processing of food, and the bulk of agricultural water use is for irrigation - and irrigation research and development (R&D) in Australia is in trouble.

Australia’s annual water ‘budget’

Here is a crude national water budget: in a mythical “average year”, Australia receives around 2.8 million gigalitres (GL) of rainfall (a gigalitre is a billion litres, a million tonnes, or a thousand megalitres of water). Of that, about 8% sustains all rivers and wetlands and runs off as surface water, and 2% recharges groundwater. The other 90% evaporates or is used by plants - including native forests, woodlands, grasslands, and all of our agricultural crops and pastures.

Of the total water extracted from rivers and aquifers, about 70% is used in agriculture (although in the recent drought this dropped to 50%) for growing and processing food and fibre, with up to 90% - used in irrigation.

Irrigation occupies only about 5% of tilled agricultural lands (0.33% of Australia) but produces about 30% of agricultural production by value (around $10 billion per year) and about half of the profit of Australian agriculture. Irrigated farms typically need more labour and infrastructure per hectare, generate more local processing and value-adding, and often supply products for local tourism and restaurants. Each dollar of on-farm irrigated production is estimated to generate about $3.50 in regional economic activity.

Since the 1994 COAG Water Reforms, there has been an unprecedented level of national public investment in water, particularly in upgrading irrigation infrastructure (>$10 Billion) and the water accounting framework ($0.5B), and in buying back water entitlements (~$3B) to correct previous over-allocations. Reform has been accelerated via the National Water Initiative and the formation of the National Water Commission, and given huge funding impetus through the Water for the Future programs. The latest phase of reform mandated by the Water Act 2007 established the Murray Darling Basin Authority and required it to prepare the Basin Plan.

R&D drops as droughts grip and water expenditure rises

Paradoxically, as we have been scrambling in an extended dry period to upgrade infrastructure and manage water more efficiently and flexibly with one of the world’s most sophisticated water markets, we have run down our irrigation research. This has major long-term implications for Australia’s capability to manage water and to maintain food production in the face of a more difficult climate and rising real energy prices, let alone to feed more people in other countries.

Australia’s financial and institutional commitments to long term R&D on water and irrigation are at a 20 year low point. Under the radar, the National Program for Sustainable Irrigation (NPSI) closed down in June. It, and its predecessor the National Program for Irrigation R&D, had been planning, coordinating, and funding national collaborative irrigation R&D since 1993. The program was unique in involving governments, irrigators, water providers, and researchers from across Australia. It covered every aspect of irrigation from dam management and water delivery, through on-farm management, to minimising environmental impacts. NPSI also helped with the funding and formation of the Cooperative Research Centre for Irrigation Futures, which itself closed in 2010.

The figure below, from the CSIRO submission to the COAG Review of the National Water Commission, attempts to quantify Australian Government investment in water research.

National Program for Sustainable Irrigation legacies

The final accomplishments of NPSI illustrate the seminal contributions this relatively modest investment of less than $3 million per year in nationally coordinated, collaborative R&D delivered through partnerships between industry, water utilities, government and researchers. The achievements include:

  • Increased Water Use Efficiency (WUE): defining WUE and understanding the trade-offs involved helped make Australia recognised as one of the world’s most efficient irrigators.

  • Water trading: the separation of water rights from land ownership has provided gains for irrigators and the environment. NPSI-funded research helped to shape policy and administrative frameworks to guide the growth of water markets and the management of water resources.

  • Water and economic efficiency benchmarking of irrigation water providers;

  • Innovative irrigation and monitoring: innovations include the wider application of micro-irrigation, partial root zone drying, open hydroponics (or intensive fertigation), precision irrigation and oxygation. NPSI-funded research developed techniques for designing or retrofitting irrigation infrastructure, and new systems to monitor crop needs and the movement of water, salts and nutrients in the soil;

  • Reduced salinity: more efficient irrigation has reduced salinity, and researchers have developed better ways to manage irrigation-induced salinity;

  • Northern Australia Irrigation Futures: this major project led by CSIRO developed the best available science that should underpin any move to expand irrigation in the north;

  • Reduced evaporative losses: research is beginning to make breakthroughs in the management of open waters to reduce evaporative losses – which can be 40% of dam volume. New polymers developed with the support of NPSI are looking to reduce those losses by 40-60%;

  • Environmental safeguards: researchers have developed and applied new techniques for ecological risk assessment of irrigation and to better understand the interaction of surface and groundwaters;

  • Future irrigation scenarios and analyses of business and social impacts of change in irrigation districts and the constraints to adopting best management practices;

  • Water delivery and modernisation: improved understanding of water losses in delivery systems and marrying on-farm changes with delivery changes has provided a science base for modernising extensive irrigation systems, improving water use efficiency, freeing water for the environment and other users, and maintaining regional economies.

  • Recycling water: the use of recycled water from urban and industrial sources continues to grow, supported by NPSI-funded investigations.

Next: Part Two, in which Professor Campbell examines the current national approach and the consequences of disinvestment in irrigation research.

Acknowledgement: this article was assisted greatly by Peter Day of Peter Day Resource Strategies Pty Ltd, who recently led the knowledge harvest project of the NPSI.

Comments welcome below.