First Nations push for water rights in extended Murray Darling Basin plan

November 21, 2023
First Nations leaders and others in front of Parliament House. Ngarrindjeri/Kaurna Senior Elder Major Moogy Sumner is on the right. Photo: We Stand by Our River

Reforms to save rivers in the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) are being debated in the Senate. More than 40 Aboriginal Nations, for whom the river basin is home, have suffered for years because of the over-allocation of water to corporations.

Discussion on the Water Amendment (Restoring our Rivers) Bill 2023, which aims to amend the Water Act 2007 and Basin Plan 2012, has drawn water campaigners, irrigators and First Nations representatives to take their message to MPs.

As the bill was being debated in mid-November, more than 50 lawyers and academics said: “There has been a persistent and notable failure to acknowledge and safeguard First Nations’ rights and interests in water laws and policies.”

They called for First Nations’ rights and interests in water laws and policies to be given a special focus because legal and policy frameworks “almost entirely deprive First Nations peoples of any decision-making power over water management processes that affect their Country, communities, agency and well-being”.

Less than 0.2% of water in the MDB is under Aboriginal control, despite First Nations peoples representing 13% of the basin population. 

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek’s bill seeks to extend the completion date of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) from 2024 to 2027. She said years of neglect made this necessary.

new MDBP agreement was struck in August between the federal, New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory governments. The Victorian government withdrew from the plan because it opposed the water buy-backs, which includes restoring 450 gigalitres of water to the struggling river system.

Suggested changes to the Water Act, supported by a Senate Inquiry, would allow the government to buy back more water from irrigators and willing sellers of water licences. It would end the Coalition government ban on water buy-backs.

We Stand by Our River, an alliance of First Nations leaders, fishers, farmers and environment groups, wants Plibersek to strengthen the bill because of the “triple threat” inland communities face: climate change; drought; and long-term mismanagement of our inland rivers.

It wants amendments to the bill, in particular, a guarantee of: water rights for Traditional Owners; 450 gigalitres of water be returned to the rivers; and the recovery of sufficient water to ensure the flows in the northern basin (Darling/Baaka).

Plibersek was given a petition, with 10,000 signatures from people across the Murray-Darling Basin, urging her to protect the rivers.

The bill moves the water savings project timeline from 2024 to 2027. While $13 billion has been spent on water savings projects, less than 20% (of a promised 450 gigalitres) has been returned to sustain rivers.

The bill would also overturn the ban on water buy-backs for the environment — one method of resuming over-allocations from willing sellers of water licences.

However, water campaigners fear that pushing out the timeline to deliver water-saving projects will lead to more fish kills and the death of rivers. They say buy-backs do not go far enough: and there is a need for water to be returned to public control and common benefit.

The major water hoarders — big agribusiness and disastrous floodplain harvesters — are not likely to sell up in a climate emergency. Voluntary buy-backs will likely attract smaller farmers, who are not the main contributors to the ecological disaster in the Baaka river system.

The bill currently also fails to propose a plan to restore First Nations’ rights to water, or for Traditional Owners to have a say in management. Campaigners want those rights enshrined in the Water Act.

According to Major Moogy Sumner, Ngarrindjeri / Kaurna Senior Elder: “We need real water returned to the river to keep our waters clean and pure not just for us, but for everyone.”

Char Nitschke, a spokesperson for the Conservation Council of South Australia said: “It is critical that all Australians, from the bottom of the Coorong, where the Murray Mouth meets the Southern Ocean, right to northern Queensland, demand real water for the river now. There’s also unfinished business. The plan must be amended to account for climate change and First Nations water rights.”

The NSW Irrigators’ Council is opposed to further buy-backs because it will impact the water market. Acting NSWIC CEO Christine Freak said “Basin communities” had already lost too much irrigation water “and the uncertainty of more” is a cause for concern.

Water for Rivers, a community advocacy group that opposes the marketisation of water, said First Nations peoples' water rights must be respected. It supported the reintroduction of water buy-backs to recover environmental flows.

“Too much of the $13 billion spent on saving the Murray Darling Basin has ended up in private hands, rather than river flows,” spokesperson Rachel Evans said.

“The partial privatisation of water means that water is allocated to the wealthiest players on the water market. This system fails our rivers, inland communities, food farmers and First Nations peoples.” 

Ngampaa man from Menindee, Barry-allan Stone, said he wanted “water to be removed from the market” and for the Menindee Lake system to be RAMSAR listed and for action against water theft.

“The Murray Darling Basin Plan has failed to address the two and a half centuries of land and water theft from First Nations people,” Evans said. “Less than 0.2% of water in the Murray Darling Basin is under Aboriginal control, yet they represent 13% of current basin populations.”

Water for Rivers wants the amended laws to deliver rights to First Nations peoples, including “true representation in water management, secure water supplies and healthy rivers”.

Lidia Thorpe, Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman and an Independent Senator in Victoria is urging the government to “strengthen First Peoples rights and ensure the health of the rivers is restored”.

“First Peoples in the Basin have enduring Sovereign rights and cultural obligations to manage and care for our lands of waters. These rights are outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Australia is a signatory, and they must be embedded within this legislation,” Thorpe said.

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