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Home » Australia and Pacific, Economic Geography, Economics News, News Map, Population Geography

The Pilbara to Populate?

Submitted by on February 19, 2012 – 5:42 pm 6 Comments |  
Australia Map, Highlighting the PilbaraThe Pilbara is a vast, sparsely settled region in northwestern Australia noted for its gargantuan reserves of iron-ore and other minerals. Covering 193,823 sq mi (502,000 km2), the Pilbara is substantially larger than California, yet it has fewer than 50,000 permanent inhabitants. The region’s workforce, however, is much larger than its population would indicate, as most of the employees in the booming mining sector are classified as transient. They typically reside in the Perth area, the metropolitan core of Western Australia, and fly up to the mining country for working stints of a week or two.

The government of Western Australia, however, has recently decided that the “fly in; fly out” model of Pilbara employment is inefficient, and that more workers should reside permanently in the region. In mid-February, as noted by Perth Now, “Planning Minister John Day released the Pilbara Planning and Infrastructure Framework…, which will support the State Government’s lofty ambitions to attract 140,000 permanent residents to the region in just over two decades…”

The climate of the Pilbara is rigorous. This semi-arid region is brutally hot for half of the year; the town of Marble Bar holds the world’s records for the most consecutive days—160—in which the high temperature exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius). Much of the precipitation that does fall comes in the form of drenching tropical cyclones, which strike on average in seven out of ten years.

Complaints about settling in the Pilbara, however, seem to focus more on urban amenities than climate. As commentator John Smith noted in regard to the article cited above:

I have been flying in and out for 2 years and I would agree that it is not a particularly nice place to live. Scenery is nothing compared to the East Coast or many other places, and infrastructure is only to support the miners. No movie theatres, no decent restaurant, can’t get a decent coffee even if paying $5 minimum. And housing costs are absolutely ridiculous. Someone needs to fix that if anything is to change, it will take the government to force them to release a million acres of land from the 400 million available. Give it away for free. Otherwise Australia will price itself out of the market for minerals—it is already starting to happen.

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  • Brandon

    This is the sort of announcement that gets made every now and then and, for very good reasons, comes to nothing. That it is made at all has more to do with having state and federal governments of different political persuasions than with any content. “Populate the north” sounds good to everyone … as long as it is someone else who is going to move there.

    I spent my childhood in Perth. Dads working away from home was fairly common. One of our neighbors was a shearer who was typically away all week during spring, only returning (most) weekends. On the other side, Drew’s dad was an engineer on a off shore platform on the North West Shelf. He worked a two-weeks-on two-weeks-off roster. Worldwide, fly-in fly-out has always been the model in the offshore oil and gas industry because oil rigs have limited space. There are good reasons why fly-in fly-out is preferred in the Pilbara.

    The Pilbara is very remote and the costs of building are very high. Stupendously higher than they are in Perth where there is enough demand in a small area to have industries making bulky building products and where all builds are fairly close to a major port. In Port Headland building costs are stupendous and this is reflected in house prices. The CHEAPEST three bedroom house in Port Headland on is going for $1,020,000 — and this looks like a tin shack. Perth is expensive but $719,000 will get you a double brick three bedroom house in the CBD! There would be a tipping point (or possibly several) where the costs in Port Headland would come down but mine site communities are never going to have sufficient populations for local production of even the most basic building materials nor will they ever get any closer to major container ports (the ports near them are bulk goods ports designed to put ore onto ships not take goods off of them).

    The mining industry is cyclical and ore bodies run out. Many mines are in work now because of good levels of demand but when demand falters the ones with lower grade ore will be shut down. Nobody wants to move to a place miles from anywhere else when the only source of employment in the community could be shut down with no notice.

    Mining companies themselves directly employ surprisingly few people. Most employment is through sub-contractors. If the company you work for does not get their (sub-)contract renewed on “your” mine then being fly-in fly-out is much better than living onsite.

    Fly-in fly-out takes a toll on families. Living in remote areas also takes a big toll. The hours for those living onsite often aren’t significantly more family friendly than for fly-in fly-out workers. Mining is an overwhelmingly male dominated industry. Most mums prefer to live in a big city where they have access to relatives and community services as well as part-time jobs.

    The Aboriginal population of the Pilbara is experiencing strong population growth. There are plenty of children there now who could easily be truck drivers in a decade. What is more difficult is delivering education to these kids in-situ that will allow them to become electricians, medical practitioners, accountants, mining engineers, teachers or any of the many other required professions while keeping them in the Pilbara.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks for the insightful comments, which sound convincing.  I spent three weeks exploring the Pilbara in 2001 and had a delightful time.  The region actually does have some spectacular scenery.  But it would not be an easy place to live in.  Perth, on the other hand, seemed like a great place to call home.  

  • Regions of very high population also have fly-in/fly-out, or at any rate drive-in/drive-out, policies.  Manhattan, where I live, had about 1.6 million inhabitants in 2009, compared to about 1.9 million jobs.

    • I wonder if all 1.6 million inhabitants of Manhattan work there, or do some drive off the island for work?

      •  There is some “reverse commuting” out of Manhattan, mostly to New Jersey.  Nearby cities like Jersey City and Hoboken have a significant cluster of jobs, and getting there is fairly quick and easy via the PATH train.

        • What about “reverse commuting” from Manhattan to Brooklyn or other boroughs?

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