The Rangeland Journal The Rangeland Journal Society
Rangeland ecology and management

The demography of desert Australia

Dominic Brown A , John Taylor B C and Martin Bell A
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A School of Geography, Planning and Architecture, University of Queensland, St Lucia,Brisbane, Qld 4072, Australia.

B Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, The Australian National University,Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia.

C Corresponding author. Email:

The Rangeland Journal 30(1) 29-43
Submitted: 15 June 2007  Accepted: 29 November 2007   Published: 1 April 2008


In recent years, with the formation of organisations such as the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, social science interest in the Australian desert has re-surfaced with a research emphasis that is focused on creating sustainable futures for the region. One consequence of this is a demand for detailed demographic information to allow an assessment of different quanta of need in social and economic policy, and for assessment of the impact of these in environmental policy. However, demographic analysis on human populations in the desert to date has attracted very little research attention. In this paper we begin to address this lack of analysis by focusing on the populations, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, of the arid and semi-arid zones of Australia. We extend earlier analysis by including for the first time demographic information on the semi-arid as well as the arid zone to establish the spatial pattern of population growth within the whole desert area drawing attention to the resulting settlement structure as an outcome of prevailing social, cultural and economic conditions. By examining population structure and demographic components of population change we also present for the first time population projections for the semi-arid zone and, therefore, in combination with the arid zone, for the entire Australian desert. All of this provides a basis for considering social and economic policy implications and the nature of underlying processes that drive change in this region.

Additional keywords: arid, indigenous, population, projections, semi-arid.


The work reported in this publication was supported by funding from the Australian Government Cooperative Research Centres Program through the Desert Knowledge CRC; the views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Desert Knowledge CRC or its participants.


ABS (2001 a). Australian Standard Geographical Classification, 2001. Catalogue No. 1216.0, released 1 July 2001. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

ABS (2001 b). Housing and Infrastructure in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities, Australia, 2001. Catalogue No. 4710.0, released March 2001. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

ABS (2001 c). Population Projections Northern Territory 1999–2021. Catalogue No. 3222.7, released 25 July 2001. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra. Available at:$File/32227_1999%20to%202021.pdf (accessed 27 August 2007).

ABS (2003). Australian Standard Geographical Classification. Catalogue No. 4713.0, released 26 September 2003. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra. Available at:$File/12160_2003.pdf (accessed 27 August 2007).

ABS (2005). Population Projections Australia 2004 to 2101. Catalogue No. 3222.0, released 29 November 2005. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra. Available at:$File/32220_2004%20to%202101reissue.pdf (accessed 27 August 2007).

ABS (2007). Regional Population Growth, Australia, 1996 to 2006. Catalogue No. 3218.0, released 27 July 2007. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra. Available at:$File/32180_1996%20to%202006.pdf (accessed 27 August 2007).

Altman J. C. , and Hinkson M. (2007). ‘Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit aboriginal Australia.’ (Arena Publications: Melbourne.)

Bell M. (1992). ‘Demographic Projections and Forecasts in Australia: a Directory and Digest.’ (Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra.)

Bell M. (1995). ‘Internal Migration in Australia, 1986–1991: Overview Report.’ (Australian Government Publishing Services: Canberra.)

Bell M. , and Brown D. (2005). The geography of temporary mobility in Australia. QCPR Discussion Paper 2005/02. Queensland Centre for Population Research, Brisbane. Available at: (accessed 27 August 2007)

Bell M., Brown D. (2006) Who are the visitors? Characteristics of temporary movers in Australia. Population, Place and Space 12, 77–92.
CrossRef |

Blake M., Bell M., Rees P. (2000) Creating a temporally consistent spatial framework for the analysis of interregional migration in Australia. International Journal of Population Geography 6, 155–174.
CrossRef |

Brown D. (2005). A comment on the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ experimental method for calculating life tables for use in population estimates and projections of aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. QCPR Discussion Paper 2005/01. Queensland Centre for Population Research, Brisbane. Available at: (accessed 27 August 2007).

Brown D. , Muhidin S. , Bell M. , and Wilson T. (2006). The structure of internal migration in Australia. QCPR Discussion Paper 2006/01. Queensland Centre for Population Research, Brisbane. Available at: (accessed 27 August 2007).

Clarke J. I. , and Noin D. (1998). ‘Population and Environment in Arid Regions of the World. Man and the Biosphere Series.’ (UNESCO: Paris.)

Findlay A. M. (1998). Policy implications of population growth in arid environments. In ‘Population and Environment in Arid Regions of the World, Man and the Biosphere Series’. (Eds J. I. Clarke and D. Noin.) pp. 353–362. (UNESCO: Paris.)

Findlay A. M., Maani M. (1999) Development implications of demographic trends and projections for an arid region: the case of the Badia Research and Development Project area of Jordan. Applied Geography 19, 283–298.
CrossRef |

Fletcher R. (1990). Residential densities, group sizes and social stress in Australian aboriginal settlements. In: ‘Hunter-gatherer Demography: Past and Present’. (Eds B. Meehan and N. White.) pp. 81–94. (University of Sydney: Sydney.)

Foster D. E. , Mitchell J. , Ulrik J. , and Williams R. (2005). ‘Population and Mobility in the Town Camps of Alice Springs.’ (Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre: Alice Springs.)

Grove A. T. (1977) The geography of semi-arid lands. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 278, 457–475.
CrossRef |

Heathcote R. L. (1983). ‘The Arid Lands: their Use and Abuse.’ (Longman: London.)

Holmes J. (2002) Diversity and change in Australia’s rangelands: a post-productivist transition with a difference? Transactions 27, 362–386.
CrossRef |

Hooke M. (2007). National Press Club Address. Mitchell, H. Hooke, Chief Executive Officer, Minerals Council of Australia, 4 April 2007. Available at: (accessed 27 August 2007).

Howe A. (1999) Assessing the accuracy of Australia’s small area population estimates. Journal of the Australian Population Association 16, 47–65.

Hugo G. (2006). Space, place, population and census analysis in Australia. In ‘Australian Bureau of Statistics Census Analysis Conference’. pp. 36. (Australian Bureau of Statistics: Canberra.)

Hutchinson M. F., McIntyre S., Hobbs R. J., Stein J. L., Garnett S., Kinloch J. (2005) Integrating a global agro-climatic classification with biological boundaries in Australia. Global Ecology and Biogeography 14, 197–212.
CrossRef |

Keyfitz N. (1981) The limits to population forecasting. Population and Development Review 7, 579–593.
CrossRef |

Kinfu Y., Taylor J. (2005) On the components of indigenous population change. The Australian Geographer 36, 233–255.
CrossRef |

McKenzie F. (1994). ‘Regional Population Decline in Australia.’ (Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra.)

Meigs P. (1952). Arid and semi-arid climatic types of the world. In: ‘Proceedings of the 8th General Assembly and 17th International Congress’. (International Geographical Union: Washington.)

Memmott P. , Long S. , and Thomson L. (2006). ‘Indigenous Mobility in Rural and Remote Australia.’ (Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute: Brisbane.)

Parkes D. N. (1984). ‘Northern Australia: the Arenas of Life and Ecosystems on Half a Continent.’ (Academic Press: Sydney.)

Parkes D. N. , Burnley I. H. , and Walker S. R. (1985). ‘Arid Zone Settlement in Australia: A Focus on Alice Springs.’ (United Nations University Press: Tokyo.)

Peterson N. (2004). Myth of the ‘walkabout’: movement in the aboriginal domain. In: ‘Population Mobility and Indigenous Peoples in Australasia and North America’. (Eds J. Taylor and M. Bell.) pp. 223–238. (Routledge: London.)

Phibbs P. (1989). Demographic-economic Impact forecasting in non-metropolitan regions: an Australian example. In: ‘Advances in Regional Demography: Information, Forecasts, Models’. (Eds P. Congdon and P. Batey.) pp. 150–164. (Belhaven Press: London.)

Pollack D. P. (2001). Indigenous land in Australia: a quantitative assessment of indigenous landholdings in 2000. CAEPR Discussion Paper 221/2000. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, The Australian National University, Canberra. Available at: (accessed 27 August 2007).

Powell J. M. (1988). ‘An Historical Geography of Modern Australia: the Restive Fringe.’ (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.)

Rees P., Norman P., Brown D. (2004) A framework for progressively improving small area population estimates. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A 167, 5–36.

Reibel M., Bufalino M. (2005) Street-weighted interpolation techniques for demographic count estimation in incompatible zone systems. Environment & Planning A 37, 127–139.
CrossRef |

Rowley C. D. (1971). ‘The Remote Aborigines.’ (Australian National University Press: Canberra.)

Storey K. (2001) Fly-in/fly-out and fly-over: mining and regional development in Western Australia. The Australian Geographer 32, 133–148.
CrossRef |

Taylor G. T. (1926) The frontiers of settlement in Australia. Geographical Review 16, 1–25.
CrossRef |

Taylor J. (1998) Measuring short-term population mobility among indigenous Australians: options and implications. The Australian Geographer 29, 125–137.
CrossRef |

Taylor J. (2001). Anangu population dynamics and future growth in the Uluru-Katatjuta National Park. CAEPR Discussion Paper No. 211, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. The Australian National University, Canberra.

Taylor J. (2003). Indigenous Australians: the first transformation. In ‘The Transformation of Australia’s Population: 1970–2030’. (Eds S. E. Khoo and P. Macdonald.) pp. 17–39. (UNSW Press: Sydney.)

Taylor J. (2006). Population and diversity: policy implications of emerging indigenous demographic trends. CAEPR Discussion Paper No. 283, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. The Australian National University, Canberra.

Taylor J. , and Bell M. (1996). Mobility among indigenous Australians. In: ‘Population shift: Mobility and Change in Australia’. (Eds P. W. Newton and M. Bell.) pp. 392–411. (Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra.)

Taylor J. , and Bell M. (2004). Continuity and change in indigenous Australian population mobility. In: ‘Population Mobility and Indigenous Peoples in Australasia and North America’. (Eds J. Taylor and M. Bell.) pp. 13–43. (Routledge: New York.)

Taylor J. , and Scambary B. (2005). ‘Indigenous People and the Pilbara Mining Boom: a Baseline for Regional Participation.’ (ANU E Press: Canberra.)

Taylor J. , Brown D. , and Bell M. (2006). Population dynamics and demographic accounting in arid and savanna Australia: methods, issues and outcomes. Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre Research Report No. 16. Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, Alice Springs, NT.

UNEP (1997). ‘World Atlas of Desertification.’ (United Nations Environment Programme: London.)

UNEP (2006). ‘Global Deserts Outlook.’ (United Nations Environment Programme: Nairobi.)

Warchivker I., Tjapangati T., Wakerman J. (2000) The turmoil of aboriginal enumeration: mobility and service population analysis in a central Australian community. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 24, 444–449.

Young E. A. (1990). Aboriginal population mobility and service provisions: a framework for analysis. In ‘Hunter-gatherer Demography: Past and Present’. (Eds B. Meehan and N. White.) pp. 186–196 (University of Sydney: Sydney.)

Young E. A. , and Doohan K. (1989). ‘Mobility for survival: a process analysis for aboriginal population movement in central Australia.’ North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, Darwin, NT.

Zipf G. K. (1949). ‘Human Behaviour and the Principle of Least Effort.’ (Addison-Wesley: Reading.)

Export Citation Cited By (16)

View Altmetrics