SA Government LogoState Library of South Australia logoDownstream, the River Murray in South Australia
SA Memory. South Australia past and present, for the future




Irrigation and exploitation: Cotton and Rice

Experimental rain grown cotton crops were first trialled in Queensland in the mid 1800s and production slowly increased until the 1930s when world prices fell enough for production to cease. In the 1950s and 1960s irrigated cotton production began and by the 1970s commercial production of irrigated cotton accelerated rapidly.

Today, cotton is mainly grown in the Northern part of the Murray-Darling Basin, along the Darling River and near the tributaries in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. About 80 per cent of cotton crops are grown under irrigation. The Murray-Darling Basin accounts for over 93 per cent of Australia's raw cotton production, with an annual production of approximately 680 000 tonnes, fluctuating under drought conditions and subject to highly variable world prices. By international standards the quality of Australian cotton is very high. To read more about cotton growing in Australia see the Cotton Australia website.

Most of Australia's rice is also grown within the Murray-Darling Basin. In 1924 rice production began around the townships of Leeton and Griffith in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. Rice is now the major irrigated cereal crop and is grown entirely in the Murrumbidgee and Murray valleys of New South Wales. The annual rice production in Australia is between 1 and 1.7 million tonnes, with 1.2 million tonnes produced in 2002. Rice requires more water to grow than cotton. The Ricegrowers' Association of Australia Inc website has more information. 2004 was the International Year of Rice and the virtues of rice as a food, culture and business were being promoted and celebrated.

The cotton and rice industries have generated some controversy with regard to chemical use and the irrigation required to sustain the crops. It is contended that these sorts of crops should not be grown in areas of Australia where rainfall is low and irrigation is required, particularly the dryland flooding of rice paddy fields. In addition, Australia's cotton-growing regions are not as nutrient rich as soils used to grow cotton overseas, for example, in Egypt and Pakistan, and it is suggested that cotton and rice require more natural resources to produce than their returns warrant.

These issues have implications for South Australia as the problems faced in downstream parts of the basin are exacerbated by upstream water use. The problems of salinity, water quality, the effect of reduced flows on biodiversity, the blockage of the Murray Mouth and the effect on the terminal lakes system created by the upstream diversion of water to irrigate such crops are some of the problems faced by South Australians relying on the River.

Cartoon by Atchison
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Cotton growing at Cobdogla, near Barmera, South Austral
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Irrigation Pipes
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Respect the mighty Murray
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The Case for Cotton
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Two men looking at cotton plants at Barmera, South Aust
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Water quality
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Why should I bother about saving water?
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