A private agribusiness is seeking to use more than 40,000 megalitres of water each year in arid central Australia to irrigate what it says will be one of the country’s biggest fruit and vegetable operations.
If granted, it would be the single largest private water licence allocation in the Northern Territory, which does not currently have a water pricing regime and does not charge developers for water.
The application, by Fortune Agribusiness, has alarmed Aboriginal native title holders, while environmental groups are calling on the NT government to refuse what they say is a “speculative” licence.
“This project is occurring in the arid zone of the Northern Territory, which relies on groundwater to sustain human and all other life,” the NT Environment Centre’s chief executive, Kirsty Howey, said. “This particular project we’re concerned about because of its scale.
“There are water quality issues across central Australia. It is beyond the pale to be giving water licences to developers and ensuring they have rights to water when there are no water rights existing with respect to safe drinking water in remote Indigenous communities.”
Fortune Agribusiness holds the lease to Singleton Station, a 294,000 hectare pastoral property in the western Davenport region, about 120km south of Tennant Creek. Fortune plans to invest $150m over eight years to develop 3,500 hectares of “intensive irrigated horticulture” including avocados, mandarins and grapes.
“When fully developed, the Singleton horticulture project … will be a catalyst for a new economic development hub for the Northern Territory,” the company said in its application to the NT controller of water resources.
Fortune chairman Peter Wood said the licence was not speculative.
“There’s no question that it’s big,” Wood said. “We’ve done all of our planning and modelling, and the financial modelling on this particular project, and I’ve been discussing with financiers and investors about a project on this scale. So there’s nothing speculative about it.
“That said, of course, what we finally end up with is somewhat out of our control now and it’s in the hands of the [NT] government. What they give us or don’t give us is not something I can give an answer to.
“In my view, the technical issues around the water resource and impacts on vegetation are well covered off in the detailed work surveys that have been carried out. Clearly, the other side of the coin to all that is the opportunity it creates for the region and for the people, and particularly for the Indigenous people in terms of jobs and training and opportunities.”
Wood said he had an initial meeting with native title holders but there was “a lot more to do”.
“Support was very strong from the native title holders, primarily around training and jobs for the younger generation, which we strongly committed to engaging with them to make sure that happens and happens in a…