In Australia, Aboriginal people hold less than 1% of all water licences in Australia, a form of economic and cultural dispossession that needs urgent redress, according to a major study of water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) by researchers from Griffith University.
They found Aboriginal water entitlements in the New South Wales portion of the basin covered 0.2% of all available surface water, in a region where Aboriginal people comprise about 10% of the population.
These licences, which the researchers said were a “tiny fraction” of the water rights in the region, nevertheless accounted for 75% of all known water licences held by Indigenous organisations across Australia.
“Alarmingly, we also found that the amount of water held by Aboriginal organisations has decreased by 17% over the past 10 years,” the Australian Rivers Institute’s researcher Dr Lana Hartwig said.
The MDB is the world’s biggest water market, worth more than $16bn. Aboriginal holdings across the NSW portion have been valued at 0.1% of that, or $16.5m. Aboriginal water holdings also tend to be insecure, meaning they were not guaranteed allocations every year.
“These results show conclusively that Australia’s system of water governance is inequitable and unjust,” Prof Sue Jackson from Griffith University said. “It has excluded Indigenous people from accessing water and from participating in the water economy.”
The researchers were critical of efforts to allocate water to Aboriginal groups, saying native title and revised water legislation had “so far offered no meaningful means of redistributing water use rights, providing instead mere consultation and tokenistic protection of ‘cultural values’.”
“Given Australian governments committed to improving Indigenous water access under national water policy in 2004, the decline in Aboriginal water holdings of at least 17.2%, plus evidence of ongoing vulnerability, is a significant finding that warrants urgent policy redress,” Hartwig and Jackson said. The lack of access to water was a major limitation on the “political, cultural and socio-economic goals held by Aboriginal peoples”, they said.
More than 40 Aboriginal nations, about 15% of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, live in the Murray-Darling Basin. They manage less than 1% of its land base. The Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) is a confederation of 25 First Nations from the southern part of the basin.
“There’s a fundamental issue of water justice at play here,” the MLDRIN executive officer, Will Mooney, said. “First Nations have inherent rights to water on their country, but as a result of colonisation, the development of water allocation, the water market, and the unbundling of land and water has further dispossessed First Nations from water access. There’s a whole package of reforms needed to give effect to water justice and it’s more than just handing over an entitlement.”
The Gomeroi native title holder and chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority community committee, Phil Duncan, said there were serious questions surrounding how water allocations for Aboriginal people had shrunk 17% in the past decade.
“Having a water allocation affords us to exercise our cultural obligations, to be involved in caring for and repairing our county,” Duncan said. “If we were to be given an economic water allocation, we could use it in this current climate, to look at Indigenous food security and partnerships in the rural sector, so Aboriginal landholders can look at growing specific Indigenous food products, or cropping, organising and creating employment for these rural communities that are struggling.”
Some communities, Duncan said, were “on the precipice of collapse”.