Irrigation occupies a very small portion of land in Australia but provides an enormous amount of food and fibre for the nation.  Irrigators operate in all states of Australia producing a variety of fresh and bulk foods and other commodities.

Many foods that Australians eat every day are produced through irrigation.  Major irrigated foods include fruit and vegetables, dairy products, nuts, rice, fruit juice, wine, sugar, cereal grains and even some meat.  Sustainable irrigation is the key that has made the Australian cotton industry a global leader and a highly sought after product.  All Australians wear, eat and drink high quality, safe products grown right here in Australia under irrigation.

Large-scale irrigation began in Australia in the late 1880s. The area irrigated grew steadily from the 1920s until the mid 1950s, then increased dramatically through the wetter second half of the 20th century until the mid-1990s. Since then it has fluctuated between 2.0 and 2.5 million ha, influenced by seasonal water availability.

Access to Water

Agriculture uses 65-70 per cent of the water consumed in Australia per annum and irrigation uses 90 per cent of that. The vast majority of irrigated water use is controlled by regulations and licences. Irrigators need an authorised allocation to extract specified amounts of water from rivers or bores (groundwater) or from irrigation supply systems.  For some products such as rice, irrigators need special permission from governments to grow the crop.
Bore flowing
Irrigators do not have a guaranteed right to water every year.  In surface water systems they have water entitlements that allow them a percentage share of the available pool of water every year.

Governments make allocation announcements throughout the year based on the needs of the environment and urban communities and the amount of water stored in dams, rainfall and run-off or the amount of water flowing in rivers and streams.

The amount of water available for irrigation varies from year to year, as do the crops that use it. In the recent drought, Australian rice production virtually ceased, cotton production has declined and dairy farmers have substituted purchased grains and other feed for irrigated pastures.

Some irrigators rely on delivery of water through government or privately owned schemes and channels, while others pump directly from rivers into private dams, subject to strict government rules.

Irrigation Statistics

In 2007-08 irrigated land comprised less than 0.5 per cent of all agricultural land in Australia but produced 28 per cent of the total gross value of agricultural production.

In 2007-08, vegetables contributed the highest value to total irrigated production of $2.9 billion, followed by fruit and nuts ($2.3 billion) and dairy production ($2.29 billion). These three commodities accounted for 61 per cent of the total gross value of irrigated agricultural product (GVIAP) in 2007-08.

The Murray Darling Basin is Australia’s largest irrigation region. In 2007-08 the MDB had irrigated production to the value of $5.1 billion, or 41 per cent of Australia’s total value of irrigated production. It should be noted that 2007-08 followed one of the driest years on record in the MDB with most irrigation allocations at zero.  In contrast the value of irrigated production in the MDB during 2000-01 was $5.1 billion, or 53 per cent of the total value of irrigated production for the nation at that time. As conditions in the MDB continue to improve, the value of irrigated production is expected to rise.

The commodities that contributed most to the value of irrigated production during 2007-08 in the MDB were fruits and nuts ($1.18 billion, 23 per cent), grapes ($1.1 billion, 22 per cent) and dairy production ($961 million, 19 per cent).

Supporting Rural and National Economies

The irrigated production of food and natural fibre is a great stimulus to regional economies:

• Irrigated farms tend to have relatively high levels of labour per hectare
• Engineering and technical support is needed for irrigation delivery and drainage systems
• Local processing, packaging and transport generate more jobs and maintain communities
• Local produce (fruit, nuts, wine and cheese) complements tourism and dining experiences.

There are about 40,000 irrigators in Australia, a figure which can change from year to year depending on rainfall.

• They farm less than 1 per cent of Australia’s land mass
• On average irrigators produce 30 per cent of all agricultural value and half the profit within agriculture
• Irrigated production is valued at $9-11.5 billion per year

There are some commodities for which the value of irrigated production contributes significantly to the total value of agricultural production. The entire value of rice production in Australia is produced under irrigation. The irrigated value of production from cotton, grapes, fruit and nuts, vegetables and nurseries, cut flowers and cultivated turf in 2006-07 accounted for 80 per cent or more of total production for each of those products.

The food produced by Australian irrigators supports other industries vital to the Australian economy.  The food, beverage and grocery manufacturing industry sources 90 per cent of its ingredients from Australian agriculture. It employs 315,000 people (152,000 in rural and regional areas) and generates sales and service income in excess of $100 billion annually. It is Australia’s largest manufacturing sector (28 per cent of total manufacturing) and exports $25 billion worth of value added product each year.

Environmental Focus

Sustainable irrigation practices are the key to Australia’s ability to continue to produce food and fibre. In 1995, a ‘cap’ was introduced for diversions in the Murray Darling Basin.  In 2011 a new Murray Darling Basin Plan will be introduced with new limits on the amount of water that can be diverted for consumption and a new focus on the needs of the environment.

The National Irrigators’ Council lists the importance of a healthy environment at number one on our Statement of Principles.

Irrigators have been key players in the water reform process in the past two decades and many have willingly given up water for the environment.

Data on this page is sourced from: National Program for Sustainable Irrigation, Irrigation in Australia Facts and Figures, 2008; ABS - 4610.0.55.008 - Experimental Estimates of the Gross Value of Irrigated Agricultural Production, 2000–01 to 2007–08; and the Australian Food and Grocery Council (www.afgc.org.au)