Water Rights in the Murray-Darling Basin

By Will Mooney

By Will Mooney.

The concept of land rights is well entrenched in contemporary understandings of Indigenous people’s struggle for sovereignty and respect, but  how many of us understand the importance of water rights to Aboriginal communities? In 2013, the International Year of Water Cooperation, it is vital that we address the exclusion of Indigenous needs and values from modern water management systems.

Indigenous Australians have an intricate cultural connection to the rivers and waterways in their Country. Knowledge and traditional stories, shared over generations, guide careful custodianship of the ecosystems and resources that flourish alongside Australia’s rivers. A growing movement of activists, academics, scientists and non-governmental organisations are bringing Indigenous rights to the forefront in water law reform processes and stimulating institutional change.

Throughout the Murray-Darling Basin water provides a vital lifeline, supporting communities and sustaining biodiversity. The cultural traditions of a diverse range of Indigenous communities are entwined with the seasonal patterns of rain, dryness, flooding and drought. Since white occupation of Southern Australia, and the alienation of large swaths of Indigenous territory, ancient traditions of caring for Country have been disrupted. Persecution, land clearing, fencing and forced removal from Country threatened to sever the links between Traditional Owners and the places, life-forms and spiritual beings that exist along their rivers. In more recent times, drought, over-allocation of water for irrigation and climate change have further degraded waterways, creating an environmental tragedy. The sad treatment of these rivers has profound cultural consequences for Indigenous people.

Despite their extensive knowledge of natural processes and a deep connection to the life of the rivers, Indigenous people continue to be excluded from the management and decision-making processes that affect their Country. A forceful and coherent claim for Indigenous water rights has grown as a response to this calamity.

In 2001 the Murray Lower Darling Basin Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) was formed as a representative body to advocate for the water and land rights of Traditional Owners. MLDRIN currently includes delegates from more than 20 Traditional Owner groups. North of the Murray, in Queensland and New South Wales, the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations (NBAN) was formed in 2010 with the vision of “keeping our water spirits and our connections alive”. Both these organisations have developed the concept of “Cultural Flows” to articulate the complex connections between people, rivers, ecosystems and culture.

Cultural Flows are defined as

“water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by the Indigenous Nations and are of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Indigenous Nations. This is our inherent right.” (MLDRIN Echuca Declaration).

The concept of Cultural Flows allows Indigenous communities to translate complex and holistic understandings into the language of modern water planning and management. MLDRIN and NBAN have provided a powerful argument for more meaningful engagement and the restoration of Indigenous water rights. This is a fundamental reform that challenges the way modern Australia uses and abuses its water resources.

The concept of Cultural Flows has operated as a powerful intellectual tool.  There is growing public and institutional support for Indigenous water rights. Water managers and governments can no longer ignore Traditional Owners’ demands for a stake in decision-making processes. The 2004 National Water Initiative (an agreement between the Federal and State Governments) spelled out specific requirements for Indigenous engagement and access to water. Some states have taken a proactive stance, with New South Wales creating special Aboriginal Cultural Access Licenses and establishing an Aboriginal Water Initiative. The Federal Murray Darling Basin Plan now also includes a strong acknowledgement of Traditional Owner rights and more detailed requirements for consultation in the development of Water Resource Plans.

To back up these policy changes, MLDRIN, NBAN and individual Nations have embarked on comprehensive research programs to document the links between waterways and cultural practices and quantify water needs for various values.

Will Mooney is a community campaigner for Friends of the Earth’s Barmah-Millewa Collective

Friends of the Earth (FoE) has worked with Traditional Owner groups throughout the Murray Darling Basin to progress shared goals of environmental protection and Indigenous sovereignty. In 2007, FoE coordinated an agreement between MLDRIN and a range of other environment organisations.  In recent years FoE has collaborated with Traditional Owners in progressing their claim for water rights and cultural flow. Working together, environment and Indigenous organisations can present a powerful challenge to the dominant model of water use that has degraded our rivers.