Latest release

Water Use on Australian Farms

Statistics on irrigation, including pastures and crops irrigated, and water sources

Reference period
2020-21 financial year

Key statistics

  • 7.8 million megalitres of water was applied to crops and pastures in 2020-21 (up 37% from 2019-20)
  • 1.9 million hectares of agricultural land was irrigated (up 28%)

  • 20,700 farms applied water to their land, unchanged from 2019-20

Irrigation on Australian farms

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the 2020–21 financial year was the coolest and wettest for Australia since 2016–17. After three exceptionally warm and dry years a weak La Niña influenced Australian climate, resulting in the third-wettest December on record and the wettest northern wet season since 2016–17. Improved rainfall conditions resulted in average to above average annual streamflows and water storage across large parts of the country, particularly in northern Australia and coastal catchments in the south-east. Although water storage levels improved compared to 2019–20, in many parts of the country groundwater levels remained below average.

Improved water availability resulted in agricultural businesses increasing their irrigated cropping with notable increases in the area of cotton and rice planted.

Irrigated agricultural land

In 2020-21, 1.9 million hectares of crops and pastures were irrigated:

  • 495,800 hectares of pastures and cereals used for grazing or fed off (up 8%)
  • 320,100 hectares of cereal crops (excluding rice) (up 102%)
  • 210,400 hectares of pastures and cereals used for hay and silage (up 12%)
  • 197,400 hectares of cotton (up 260%)
  • 197,000 hectares of fruit and nuts (up 14%)
  • 157,500 hectares of sugar cane (down 17%)

(a) Includes both lucerne pastures and areas of cereal crops fed off

(b) Includes lucerne pastures cut for hay and silage

Irrigation water applied

In 2020-21, 5.7 million megalitres were applied to crops (73% of all water applied):

  • 1.3 million megalitres for cotton (up 249%)
  • 1.1 million megalitres for fruit and nuts (up 5%)
  • 795,400 megalitres for sugar cane (down 10%)
  • 516,500 megalitres for grapevines (up 10%)

Of the 2.1 million megalitres applied to pastures:

  • 1.4 million megalitres for pastures and cereals fed off (up 13%)
  • 664,700 megalitres for pastures and cereals cut for hay and silage (up 13%)

 

(a) Includes both lucerne pastures and areas of cereal crops fed off

(b) Includes lucerne pastures cut for hay and silage

Water sources

Australian farms sourced a total of 8.1 million megalitres of water in 2020-21 taken from various sources including:

  • 3.4 million megalitres from irrigation channels or pipelines (up 51%)
  • 2.2 million megalitres from rivers, creeks or lakes (up 55%) 
  • 1.7 million megalitres of groundwater (down 17%) 
  • 616,900 megalitres from on-farm dams or tanks (up 14%)
  • 134,700 megalitres from recycled or reused water from off-farm sources (up 9%)
  • 20,300 megalitres from town or reticulated mains supply (down 53%)

Murray Darling Basin

The volume of water stored across much of the Murray Darling Basin increased following above average rainfall during the first quarter of 2021. Improved water availability in 2020-21 resulted in:

  • a 79% increase in the volume of water applied to crops and pastures
  • a 67% increase in the number of hectares irrigated for crops and pastures
  • a 15% increase in the number of businesses irrigating

 

    Irrigated agricultural land

    In 2020-21, the Murray Darling Basin accounted for 60% of all irrigated land in Australia, with 1.2 million hectares:

    • 284,300 hectares of pastures and cereal crops used for grazing (up 40%)
    • 276,000 hectares of cereal crops (excluding rice) (up 125%)
    • 182,700 hectares of cotton (up 315%)

     

    (a) Includes both lucerne pastures and areas of cereal crops fed off

    (b) Includes lucerne pastures cut for hay and silage

    Irrigation water applied

    The Murray Darling Basin accounted for 62% of Australia’s total water use for irrigation with 4.9 million megalitres applied in 2020-21.

    Cotton, fruit and nut trees and pastures for grazing used 57% of all the water applied in this region:

    • 1.2 million megalitres for cotton (up 328%)
    • 798,800 megalitres for fruit and nuts (up 6%)
    • 740,600 megalitres for pastures and cereal crops used for grazing (up 40%)

    (a) Includes both lucerne pastures and areas of cereal crops fed off

    (b) Includes lucerne pastures cut for hay and silage

    Thank you to Australia’s agricultural businesses

    The ABS thanks all agricultural businesses who completed the Agricultural Census in 2021 either online or using a paper form. Close to 100,000 businesses gave their time to share valuable insights about their farming operations and we have used that information to build a rich picture of the size and value of the agricultural sector in Australia.

    Changes in this and forthcoming issues

    Coronavirus (COVID-19)

    The ABS is continuing to monitor potential impacts from natural disasters and COVID-19 across its agricultural collections. While some agricultural businesses noted impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the easing of drought conditions, particularly in the eastern states, was associated with improvements in water availability to support irrigated agricultural activity in 2020-21.

    For statistics and research products to help understand the impacts of COVID-19 on Australians and the economy see the ABS' Measuring the impacts of COVID-19 page on our website. 

    Changes to collection outputs

    Final estimates for the financial year from the ABS’ agricultural collections are available each year in this publication (Water Use on Australian Farms) as well as in a number of other ABS publications. Changes to the content of the ABS' suite of agricultural surveys are made each year to best reflect the highest priority information needs for Australian agriculture and to improve the ease of reporting for agricultural businesses. To assist with comparing water use estimates published since the 2015-16 reference period, a data item listing is available for download from the "Data downloads" section of this publication.

    Future changes to ABS' Agricultural Statistics Program

    The ABS’ Agricultural Statistics Program is modernising the way in which it produces official agricultural statistics to allow the ABS to:

    • Produce more timely statistics with greater regional detail to facilitate a holistic view of Australian agriculture
    • Reduce the reporting burden for farmers and agricultural businesses by maximising the use of alternative data sources
    • Publish a consistent set of critical agriculture statistics that form a foundation for understanding Australian agriculture

    In this modernised program, a picture of Australian agriculture will be informed by data collected for other purposes (e.g. levies data, earth observations data) and supplemented by data collected from smaller scale surveys.

    The ABS has already released a series of experimental outputs using this approach, see the publications Sugarcane, experimental regional estimates using new data sources and methods and Canola, experimental regional estimates using new data sources and methods.

    With the increased prevalence of high-quality agricultural data held by government and industry becoming available for broader use, it is time to close the chapter on large scale surveys of Australian farmers and the Agricultural Census will be discontinued.

    The 2020-21 Agricultural Census was the last Agricultural Census to be conducted by the ABS. While the ABS will continue to produce official agricultural statistics, the way in which it does so is changing. Further information on how the ABS’ Agricultural Statistics Program is evolving and how data users can be a part of shaping the future program, will be released on the ABS website over the coming weeks.

    Data downloads

    Water use on Australian farms, Australia, state/territory and ASGS regions - 2020-21

    Agricultural water use (including pastures and crops irrigated) and irrigation water sources estimates by Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS) Edition 3 regions

    Water use on Australian farms by Natural Resource Management regions - 2020-21

     Agricultural water use (including pastures and crops irrigated) and irrigation water sources estimates by Natural Resource Management (NRM) regions (2016 edition)

    Water use on Australian farms by Local Government Areas - 2020-21

    Agricultural water use (including pastures and crops irrigated) and irrigation water sources estimates by Local Government Areas (2021 edition)

    Water use on Australian farms by Murray Darling Basin region - 2020-21

    Agricultural water use (including pastures and crops irrigated) and irrigation water sources estimates by Murray Darling Basin region

    Water Use on Australian Farms – Data item list, 2015-16 to 2020-21

    Agricultural water use and irrigation water sources data items collected and published since the 2015-16 reference period.

    Previous catalogue number

    This release previously used catalogue number 4618.0.