Population futures in the Australian desert, 2001-2016

Author/editor: Taylor, J
Year published: 2002
Issue no.: 231


A proposal to establish a Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), focused on Alice Springs, has recently been submitted. Fundamental to any such proposal is an understanding of population dynamics in the desert region, because demographic information provides for assessment of the quantum of need in social and economic policy, and for assessment of the impact of that quantum in environmental policy. Ultimately, what is sought is a predictive capacity for planning and evaluation.

This paper arose out of partnership discussions between the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) and Rio Tinto who commissioned the author to prepare Indigenous population projections for the desert region to 2016 and compare these with projections for the total population of the same region. The focus for this analysis is the Australian arid zone which lies approximately within the 250mm rainfall isohyet. It includes 45 per cent of the Australian land mass and a population, as at 1996, of 179,000, or 0.9 per cent of the Australian total.

Overall, the total population of the desert region is projected to increase by 10,402 between 2001 to 2016, from 179,028 to 189,430. This represents an increase of 5.8 per cent, or an average annual growth rate of 0.4 per cent, which is around half the rate projected for the Australian population as a whole over the same period (12.9%, or 0.8% per annum). Thus, while the desert region is one of relatively low population growth in national terms, it is significant to note that growth is positive. This is contrary to the experience of many parts of non-metropolitan Australia in recent years.

One trend matching that observed more generally across non-metropolitan areas is the markedly different growth implied for the Indigenous and non-Indigenous components of the desert population, with the former rising much more rapidly over time. In effect, and given an assumption of zero net migration, it is likely that virtually all of the increase in the desert population over the next 15 years will arise from natural increase among Indigenous peoples. As a consequence, the Indigenous share of the total desert population is projected to increase from 20.5 per cent in 2001 to 23.7 per cent in 2016.

In 2001, there were an estimated 7,003 Indigenous youth aged 15-24 years in the transition years between school and work. By 2016 this number is estimated to be greater by almost 1,400, or 20 per cent. By far the largest increase in Indigenous numbers, however, emerges in the years of prime working age. In 2001, there were 15,644 individuals aged between 25 and 64 years. By 2016, this group will have increased by more than 5,000, or 34 per cent. Thus, the ascendant issues for social planning in the desert region clearly derive from needs generated by expanding numbers in the prime working-age groups. For the Indigenous population, this is especially true of those in the older working-age group (45-64), due to the ageing of cohorts that were in the 20-39 years age-range in the mid 1990s.

Presently, the data and analytical tools for regional demographic analysis are both crude and blunt. The opportunity to refine and sharpen these is enhanced by the focus on a single ecological zone; this brings an internal consistency to the analysis of social systems, with prototype implications for regional analysis more generally.

ISBN: 0 7315 5606 2

ISSN:1036 1774

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