Water activists demand an end to corporate water theft

March 10, 2020
Dr Beryl Carmichael. Photo: Earthling Studio

Water activists will blockade the Barrier Highway at Wilcannia Bridge in NSW on March 13, to protest water theft, cultural oppression and ecocide. Protesters will also organise actions on bridges throughout the Darling Basin.

On the same day, a delegation of water activists, including local residents, students, farmers, Barkindji and other Traditional Owners, will deliver a letter to NSW Water CEO David Harris in Parramatta. It is a copy of a letter that Aboriginal elders and Menindee residents Beryl Carmichael, Barry Stone and environmental scientist Ian Sutton wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The delegation will also hand over a 150-page report from the Australian Peoples' Tribunal Inquiry into the Health of the Darling River and Menindee Lakes.

Water for Rivers Sydney spokesperson Tracy Carpenter said the delegation would be “bringing the cry of the country to city water bureaucrats and politicians who continue to enable over-extraction from our rivers, the contamination of water, the stealing of overland flows and the free-for-all by corporates to exploit groundwater”.

Below is the letter, abridged, that was written to Morrison.

* * *

Dear Prime Minister, 

The people of Western NSW have been disgusted in the way we have been betrayed, with the desecration, drainage and destruction of our groundwater, river systems, wetlands and lakes.

This has resulted in the devastation of our plants and animals, the expansion of desertification throughout the Murray Darling Basin, increased climate extremes and a rural economic collapse. 

We have been protesting, rallying and lobbying governments for more than 30 years and have been ignored.

You no longer represent the people of western NSW, colluding with corporate interests. 

It has reached the point where we need to take stronger action if we are to avoid the death of the Riverland and wineries in South Australia, the loss of sustainable agriculture in Victoria and a complete rural economic collapse in NSW. 

If the Menindee Lakes remain dry, then western NSW will die and there will be no future for rural communities, farmers or the Barkandji and Ngiyeempaa Traditional Owners. 

In 1994, a National Competition Policy led to the corporatisation of all water supply arrangements: in practice, each state had to transfer ownership of its water supply and delivery infrastructure to a company.

This unlawful process occurred without any consultation or approval from the Traditional Custodians, who have the lawful rights and responsibilities for this water.  

During this corporatisation of government services, water licences were detached from land title.

As reforms progressed, it was decided to define water licences as shares to be issued in perpetuity. 

This led to regulations over the use of water at any location being considered without taking in account any social, environmental or economic impacts.

Separate work approvals and delivery entitlements were implemented. The unbundling of water licences led to the system which led to trouble.

In the Murray Darling Basin, an over-allocation problem emerged, creating mismanagement and inequity within the water-trading and water-sharing processes. 

In addition to a reduction in return flows due to over-extraction, surface water trading has increased groundwater use and reduced the amount of groundwater being returned to the river.

This problem has worsened as the value of water has increased.

Seeking to capture this value, landholders began to divert overland flows that previously reached the river, as well as diverting river flows into their private storage dams. 

As of December 8, 2008, the federal government took over the water trading jurisdiction from the states.

Because of this we are holding your office responsible for the resulting devastation.

The Water Amendment Act 2008 happened following the transfer of functions from the former Murray-Darling Basin Commission where states had jurisdiction, to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority where the Commonwealth was given partial jurisdiction.

When the entire western NSW community was demanding action on the Murray Darling Basin plan, the government did nothing.

It was a kick in the guts on February 7 when the Water Management (General) Amendment (Exemptions for Floodplain Harvesting) was enacted, exacerbating an already dire situation: it is now easier for corporations to access our water because they have been made exempt from the requirements to hold a water access licence, or a water supply work approval, when doing floodplain harvesting.

Due to corruption and mismanagement over water licensing decisions and water sharing plans, current and previous state and federal governments have acted unlawfully.

This has led to unacceptable social, environmental and economic impacts.

Critical water accounting arrangements and allocation arrangements are not consistent with hydrological realities, and the negative impacts of this are nationwide.

As a response to the degradation of the Murray Darling Basin, the community will be peacefully blockading the Wilcannia Bridge on March 13.

We are demanding change in the way our water systems are managed.

Your corruption and mismanagement have led to a catastrophic environmental, social and ecological disaster for which you accept no responsibility. 

You have also demonstrated that you are not willing or capable of providing any solutions for the Murray Darling Basin.

Our primary demand is that water must be taken off the market and water trading ended in Australia. Water is not a commodity.

We also demand an immediate embargo on river diversion, flood-plain harvesting and the pumping of rivers by irrigators upstream.

We must allow the current flood waters to fill the Menindee Lakes and to provide a proper flush for the Darling Baaka, with full connectivity all the way to the junction with the Murray.

First Nations peoples have always been custodians of this water and are responsible for it under First Law. 

First Law dictates that water cannot be owned by anyone: it is here for all to share. 

Since your office has demonstrated that it will not work for us, or with us, we have been driven to take action.

Yours sincerely,

Beryl Carmichael, Indigenous Elder, community leader, Menindee NSW

Barry-Allan Stone, Indigenous spokesperson, community leader, Menindee NSW

Ian Sutton, broadcaster, environmental scientist, social activist, Menindee NSW 

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